Life after death: What the church teaches

Heaven. Hell. Purgatory. The end of the world.

Those are four of the weightiest topics any Catholic can contemplate because they go straight to the heart of what we believe about death, dying and the afterlife.

Even our Savior Jesus Christ ascended into heaven after descending into hell.

Michael Root, a theology professor, addressed “The Last Things” at three discussion sessions held during Lent at St. Peter Church in Columbia. Root, a convert to Catholicism, teaches systematic theology at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia.

He became interested in the subject of the last things when he worked on the ecumenical U.S. Catholic-Lutheran dialogue, “The Hope of Eternal Life.”

Here is an overview of the topics the series addressed, along with basic church teachings and tradition as cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.


Tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes and other recent natural disasters lead many people of faith to wonder whether we currently live in the end times, when the second coming of Christ is near.

The church teaches that we will never know exactly when the end is coming.

In paragraph 1048, the Catechism states: “We know neither the moment of the consummation of the earth and of man, nor the way.”

In Matthew 24:36, Jesus says, “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”

“The one thing that is consistently said in the New Testament about the end of history is that it will come when we least expect it, like a thief in the night (Mt 24:43),” Root explained. “Our focus should be on always being ready for the end, whether for our own death or for the end of all things, whenever either may come.”


When do people find out where their soul is headed? The church teaches that judgment occurs immediately after death. Paragraph 1022 states: “Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death.”

St. Paul says, “Just as it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment …” (Heb 9:27).

“We tremble a bit before judgment, and rightly so,” Root said. “It is scary to think that we will know as we are known, that we will see ourselves as we really are. We should always remember that the judge we will face is Jesus, who loved us enough to die for us. In the end, the memory of our sins will be all the more cause for us to glory in God’s forgiveness.”

One source of controversy among lay people and theologians is the question of whether a nonbeliever or sinner can convert to belief in Christ just before death and still be received into heaven.

No one knows exactly what happens in that situation, and many might feel that “somehow this isn’t fair,” Root said.

“We should remember that one of the few persons Jesus said would be with him in paradise is the thief who converts on the cross,” he said. “We are called to rejoice in every lost sheep who returns, however late.”


True salvation, and the chance to live eternally with God after death, comes only through belief in Christ and a rejection of sin.

Not everyone is guaranteed salvation, however, although God’s will is that all be saved. Paragraph 1058 of the Catechism says “The Church prays that no one should be lost.”

“The Catholic Church teaches that everyone, in some way, receives the offer of salvation,” Root said.


People who die in a state of mortal sin, or who willingly deny the offer of salvation through Christ, are destined to a life of everlasting torment in what Catholics, and most Christians, are taught is hell.

The idea of what hell is differs among denominations, however, and our images of the place vary, from the multi-layered chasm of Dante’s “Inferno” to more modern pop culture images of flames and pitchfork-wielding devils.

In paragraph 1033, the Catechism defines Hell as the state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.

Souls in hell are condemned to live an eternity separated from God.

“God does not force blessedness upon us,” Root said. “The possibility cannot be excluded that some will reject the offer of salvation in a final and conclusive way.”

Rejecting that offer will automatically send that soul to hell.


Purgatory is one of the most misunderstood Catholic beliefs, and fascinates and confuses many people.

The word purgatory comes from the Latin purgare, which means to make clean or to purify.

The basic idea of purgatory is addressed in the Catechism in paragraph 1054: “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship imperfectly purified, although they are assured of their eternal salvation, undergo a purification after death, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of God.”

The Catholic doctrine of purgatory dates from the councils of Florence in 1438, and Trent in 1545.

In recent years, Pope Benedict XVI in his 2007 encyclical “Spe Salvi” described the fire of purgatory as the fire of Christ’s love.

Several Scripture passages are used as the basis for purgatory, including 2 Maccabees 12:39-45, Matthew 12:32 and 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.

Traditional church teachings portray purgatory as a process more than a specific place, Root said, and many modern Catholic theologians have emphasized that it is “about becoming fit for the presence of God.”

During their time in purgatory, souls work through a process of atoning for sins.

“A final shaping into the image of Christ will have its painful moments, but purgation is an act of God’s merciful judgment,” Root said. “Purgatory is not ‘hell with a time-limit’ but the forecourt of heaven.”


According to the Catechism, the central reality of heaven will be participation in the life of God, with Him as the central reality.

The blessed who reach heaven will achieve what is known as “the beatific vision,” as portrayed in Scripture (1 Cor 13:12) and described in the Catechism, paragraph 1023: “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live forever with Christ.”

“Heaven will be all about God,” Root said.