Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

This week I had the opportunity to attend a 3 hour Lenten retreat. The topic was on the 7 deadly sins. The video that we watched used the poet Dante's concept of Purgatory as being a 7 layer mountain. It was quite a fascinating discussion. We were only able to cover Pride, Anger, and Sloth in the 3 hours.

During the discussion portion of the retreat it quickly became clear to me that many people were hungry for information on what the Church teaches on Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Several questions were asked. One person wondered if a person could fail Purgatory and go to Hell. The facilitator did not really answer that question and instead offered his opinion that he did not think that God was going to let people go to hell. He felt that God loves us too much to allow that. This prompted another question, "Then what is Hell for?" His response was that it was a Theological construct. While I would love to know right now today that God will not send anyone to Hell I have to disagree. Here is what I have learned about Hell and Purgatory.

First of all, this is what paragraph 1030 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about Purgatory:

1030 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.

So, while Purgatory may not be the most pleasant experience for us we can take heart in the fact that if we are in Purgatory we have died in God's friendship and we will eventually enter into Heaven and be with God. There is no flunking out of Purgatory and going to Hell.

I think you can look at Purgatory like this: If you were about to go meet the Pope face to face would you go filthy dirty, wearing ratty blue jeans and a stained and torn shirt? No, you would probably put on your best clothes and try to look your best. This is what Purgatory is, it is a opportunity for you to be purified so that you can meet God at your best.

The Catechism also speaks about Hell. Here is what it says:

1033 We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: "He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him."612 Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren.613 To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell."

1034 Jesus often speaks of "Gehenna" of "the unquenchable fire" reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost.614 Jesus solemnly proclaims that he "will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,"615 and that he will pronounce the condemnation: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!"616
1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire."617 The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

In a nutshell, Hell is the total permanent separation from God. I don't know about you, but my opinion is that this is a most dreadful thought. If you read what is written in the Catechism you cannot deny Hell. Jesus himself spoke of it. Not only that but he said that he is going to condemn all evildoers to Hell himself. Hell is not just a theological construct. It is for real and it is forever.

I suppose in an sense our retreat facilitator is correct, it isn't really God who puts a soul into Hell. A person will go to Hell because of their own decisions and choices. We will condemn ourselves to Hell by living a sinful and unrepentant life. It's our choice. To help us in our fight to stay out of this dreadful place, Jesus though his Church provides us with an important tool. The Sacrament of Reconciliation. Sadly, this Sacrament has fallen into disuse in the last 40 years or so. If anyone reads my words please go to confession. It's good for your soul.

Finally, there is Heaven. The Catechism says this:

Those who die in God's grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live for ever with Christ. They are like God for ever, for they "see him as he is," face to face

and this:

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." Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.

I don't know about you, but I want to experience "supreme, definitive happiness." Can you imagine seeing God face to face? I think I could spend my eternity just looking at Him. So there you have it. My mission is to spend eternity looking face to face with God. Anyone want to join me? We can start toward this goal right now. We can use this season of Lent and its three important disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms giving to focus us on living our lives according to our faith. Let's get to it.

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