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What is the meaning of death? What do we believe about what happens after we die?

txt-30death-usccaThe final article of the Creed proclaims our belief in everlasting life. At the Catholic Rite of Commendation of the Dying we sometimes hear this prayer: “Go forth, Christian soul, from this world. . . . May you live in peace this day, may your home be with God in Zion, may you see your redeemer face to face” (Prayer of Commendation of the Dying, no. 220). Death is the natural and inevitable end of life on earth. “[There is] a time to be born, and a time to die” (Eccl 3:2). We change, we grow old, and even death seems appropriate after a full life. “And the dust returns to earth as it once was, / and the life breath returns to God who gave it” (Eccl 12:7).

But the reality of death and its finality give an urgency to our lives. “Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ” (CCC, no. 1021). This teaching recognizes that the death of a person marks an end to our earthly journey with its sorrows and joys, its sinful failures, and the triumphs of Christ’s saving grace and help.

The Church teaches that “each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment” (CCC, no. 1022). St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) wrote, “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love” (Dichos, no. 64). Perfect love will make possible entrance into heaven, imperfect love will require purification, and a total lack of love will mean eternal separation from God.

“Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC, no. 1024). This will be brought about by a perfect communion with the Holy Trinity, the Blessed Mother, the angels and saints. Jesus Christ opened heaven to us by his death and Resurrection.

What is heaven like? Scripture uses a variety of pictures to help us understand heaven, such as a wedding party, a banquet, the Father’s house, a state of unending happiness. But the real heaven is beyond any picture we can paint of it. “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, / and what has not entered the human heart, / what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). Seeing God face to face in all his glory is the essential aspect of heaven. This is called the beatific vision. To make this possible God must reveal himself and give us the capacity to behold him.

How great will your glory and happiness be, to be allowed to see God, to be honored with sharing the joy of salvation and eternal light with Christ your Lord and God, . . . to delight in the joy of immortality in the Kingdom of Heaven with the righteous and God’s friends. (St. Cyprian, Letter 58, 10, 1)

“The Church gives the name Purgatory to [the] final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC, no. 1031). Those who die in the state of friendship with God but who are not fully purified and perfected are assured of their eternal salvation. However, they must undergo a purification to obtain the perfection of love and holiness needed to enter heaven, where they have a heart that is totally open to him. This process is called Purgatory.

It is impossible for us to imagine what Purgatory is. Traditionally, it has been described as a purifying fire. Since the human soul cannot be touched by earthly flames, the image serves to recall that perfect love is achieved by a gradual and painful spiritual detachment from selfishness and self-centeredness. The Church assists those in Purgatory through prayer and especially the Eucharist in their final process of purification. Offering Masses for the deceased is a most powerful way of aiding them. November 2 of each year, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day), is a day for special remembrance and prayer for the dead.

“The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God” (CCC, no. 1035). It is impossible for us to be united with God if we refuse to love him. When we sin seriously against God, neighbor, or self, we have failed to love God. Persistence in a state of serious sin reflects a choice to reject God’s love and an intention to separate ourselves from him. Freely chosen eternal separation from communion with God is called hell. While images of fire have been used traditionally to picture hell, for example in the Scriptures, the reality exceeds our ability to describe the pain of isolation that comes from rejecting God’s love.

Scripture and the teaching of the Church regarding heaven and hell emphasize a call to personal responsibility by which we use our freedom, aided by divine grace, to respond completely to God’s love. There is always an urgent call to conversion and repentance. “God predestines no one to go to hell” (CCC, no. 1037).

You can read more from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, order your own copy, or read questions about it at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.

Copyright © 2006, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright holder.