During the Season of Advent, soon upon us, our thoughts and prayers focus on the Second Coming of Christ when, at the end of time, He will return in glory. Advent, then, is an opportunity to recall what the Church teaches us about the end times – Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, Limbo, the Second Coming of Christ and the Final Judgment.
Heaven is the easiest to talk about since it’s the destination we desire and presume to attain. Of course that presumption can be deadly to our spiritual welfare, especially if we take our salvation for granted or get lazy in the practice of our faith.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship are perfectly purified and live forever with Christ. (#1023) “This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity – this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed – is called ‘Heaven’.” (#1024)
There are, of course, a few things we don’t know about Heaven: Will we get bored in Heaven? Will we see our loved ones? Are there pets in Heaven? These questions about Heaven, and about the other final destinations, will undoubtedly remain a mystery until the end.
Purgatory is one of the most particular of Catholic beliefs. “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of Heaven.” (#1030) “The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.” (#1031)
When you think about it, it is only this belief in Purgatory that explains our practice of praying for the dead. After all, the souls in Heaven don’t need our prayers; the souls in Hell can’t benefit from our prayers. The poor souls in Purgatory on the other hand, as members of the Communion of Saints, can benefit from our prayers and sacrifices. (Cf. II Macc 12:46)
Hell is a topic and most assuredly a destination we’d rather avoid. Some deny that Hell even exists, arguing that a merciful God could never condemn His creatures to an eternity of unspeakable suffering. But Jesus often spoke about Hell, and the Church’s teaching is very clear.
“To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from Him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘Hell’.” (#1033) More to the point, “Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of moral sin descend into hell where they suffer the punishments of Hell, ‘eternal fire’.” (#1035)
Limbo has returned to the news recently but traditionally has been regarded as the outskirts (in Latin, limbus) of Heaven where, according to one theological opinion, the souls of children who die without baptism are gathered. The idea of Limbo has never been defined as part of the Catholic Faith and as the Catechism states and recent theological statements have affirmed, “As regards children who have died without baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God.” (#1261)
Now, that’s a summary of the stops along our final journey. But what do Catholics believe about the judgment we receive as we pass from this life to eternity? Well, in short, we believe in both a Particular Judgment and a Final Judgment.
The Particular Judgment occurs at the moment of death. “The New Testament speaks of judgment primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in his second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith.” (#1021) “Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life of Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven – through a purification or immediately – or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (#1022)
The Last Judgment will take place when Christ returns in glory. “In the presence of Christ, who is Truth itself, the truth of each man’s relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgment will reveal even to its further consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life.” (#1039) At the Last Judgment “we shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and the entire economy of salvation and understand the marvelous ways by which his Providence led everything towards it final end.” (#1040)
Catholic belief about the Second Coming of Christ can be summarized as follows: That Christ will return to the earth as the glorious Son of Man to judge all mankind; that the second coming of Christ will be unmistakable because it will be accompanied by unprecedented signs in the heavens and on earth; that no one – “not even the angels in Heaven, nor the Son,” (Mk 13:32) – knows when the second coming of Christ will occur; and, finally, that Christians should always be prepared for Christ’s coming and live their lives in such a way that they can look forward to His return with joyful hope, rather than fear.
Patience and prayer, hope and joy – these are virtues that should mark the life of every Christian as we await the Second Coming of Christ as well as our observance of Advent.
(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)