Catholic teaching identifies the Four Last Things as death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. In the first two parts of this series on the Four Last Things, we examined what every Catholic needs to know about death and judgment. In this installment, we will look to where our death and judgment leads… Heaven or Hell.
Heaven and Hell
Popular, secular opinion seems to conclude either: 1) there is no after-life or 2) everyone and their pets go to heaven. There isn’t much talk about Hell, except to dismiss the possibility of anyone going there.
But one historical figure spoke very forcefully about the reality of Hell and the very real possibility of human beings spending eternity there. That person is none other than Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity who became man. God did not dismiss Hell as either non-existent or not a threat. We should follow His example and learn what He taught.
“Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Matthew 24:42-44).
Jesus exhorted us to be ready for judgment. Why? Why does it matter? If Hell does not exist or if there is no after-life, what possible difference does being ready make? Jesus provides us the answer:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
“And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
“Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’
“He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’
“And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:31-46).
If we believe Jesus Christ to be the Son of God and if we believe the testimony of St. Matthew, we have to take seriously this clear teaching of the reality of the life to come. Heaven exists and so does Hell. And how we live this earthly life by the grace of God will determine whether we will be counted among the sheep or the goats.
“This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4).
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (John 14:1-3).
Jesus desires for everyone of us to spend eternity with Him in Heaven. That is why He became man, suffered, died on the Cross and rose again. He came to redeem us, to untie the knots of sin in which we entangled ourselves, and to lead us home through salvation. He told us, as He prepared for the end of His earthly life, to where He was going and what He would do. He called us to faith, trust and peace. But, He also warned us repeatedly of the consequences of not believing and obeying Him.
Who will go to Heaven?
So after the Judgment, one will go to Heaven or Hell. Who goes to Heaven? How can I get there? The simple answer is that the souls of the just who are free of guilt and punishment will go to Heaven. But, we need to break that down a bit.
First, let’s be clear on one point: no one can earn their way into Heaven by their good works… no one. Salvation is a free gift from God. In Catholic terminology, the person who enters Heaven is said to have died in a state of sanctifying grace. Protestants sometimes refer to this as the grace of justification. And they are correct. The souls of the just are those who have been justified by grace through faith.
So the question is, who has been justified? This is where Catholic and non-Catholic teaching parts ways. We receive the grace of justification, that is, Sanctifying Grace, at our baptism when we are born anew from above.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
“…who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 3:20-21).
“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16)
Thus, the importance of what is known as the Great Commission given by Jesus to His apostles:
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 3:19-20).
So, baptism is the sacrament by which we come to have Sanctifying Grace, that free gift of salvation by which we enter Heaven. It is a grace merited for us by Jesus Christ, not by our works. But, here is another point of departure for Catholics and many, but not all, non-Catholics: that grace can be lost through sin. We have been called to a life of holiness where our pride is overcome by our humility and where our works are pleasing to God.
“For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
St. Paul opens and closes his teaching on faith in the Letter to the Romans with the phrase, “the obedience of faith”. It is not enough to simply believe. St. James tells us in his epistle that faith without works is dead and that even the demons believes.
“So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble” (James 2:17-19).
Through faith, by grace, we come to new life in baptism… a free gift from God. But even after receiving this gift, we can reject it. Our good works can help us not to lose this gift, but they cannot on their own gain us Heaven. Perhaps no other passage from Scripture speaks as clearly about the real possibility of losing our salvation as where St. Paul warns a group of Gentile, Christian believers in Rome:
“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place and have come to share in the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. If you do boast, consider that you do not support the root; the root supports you. Indeed you will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is so. They were broken off because of unbelief, but you are there because of faith. So do not become haughty, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either” (Romans 11:17-21).
Should we lose Sanctifying Grace during our earthly lives, we can receive it again through the Sacrament of Confession. For more information, see the related article, “A Catholic Responds – Five Common Protestant Objections to the Sacrament of Confession”.
But, let’s go back to the simple answer to the question, “Who goes to Heaven?” The souls of the Just who are free of guilt and punishment will go to Heaven. We have identified who the souls of the Just are, but what about the “free from guilt and punishment” part?
Two Types of Punishment Due to Sin
There are two types of punishment due to sin:
Eternal punishment, what we might call guilt, is forgiven and removed in the Sacrament of Confession. You carry it in when you enter the Confessional, but you leave without it when you receive Absolution. If you had lost Sanctifying Grace, you have received it again and all eternal guilt and punishment is gone.
But, temporal punishment remains to be paid in this life or in the life to come. Also, any attachments to sin may remain after Confession. It might help to understand temporal punishment by way of an analogy. If one steals something from a friend and goes to that friend seeking forgiveness, that friend might indeed forgive him. Those two people are once again friends. That is what God does with us in Confession. He restores Communion between us. But, just as your human friend might expect you to return to him what was stolen, there may likewise be some act that you must do in cooperation with God’s grace after Confession. Jesus is clear, nothing imperfect will enter into Heaven, so, if after the Judgment, any imperfections, punishments and disordered attachments remain in you that you have not overcome in this life, you will be purified of them in the life to come. This purification is what Catholics call Purgatory. For more information, see the related article, “Purgatory Made Simple”. Purgatory is not one of the Four Last Things because after the Universal Judgment Purgatory will no longer exist.
So, that is it. Heaven is what awaits the souls of the Just after death where they will enjoy perfect joy and beatitude in the Beatific Vision… seeing God face-to-face. Hell is the place of everlasting punishment that awaits the souls of the Damned after death. In both places, the soul will be reunited with the resurrected body after the Universal Judgment.
In future articles, we will look more closely at each of these two, final destinations of man.
Into the deep…
Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.
He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplains to the St. Peter Chanel Business Association and co-founder of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.