Michelangelo, Last Judgment (detail), 1536-41

Have Catholics forgotten about the next life and judgment? Seldom do we hear about the next life; and we reflect little about it. Many have come to believe that all will be sunshine and roses, for all will enter immediately into the glory of life everlasting. But is this the Catholic faith or some other belief system?

What do we mean at Sunday Mass when we profess our belief in Christ’s future coming in glory to judge the living and the dead, and in life everlasting? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “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.” This is the abundant blessing of life everlasting.

God’s grace and purification are necessary to attain life everlasting. What of those who are not perfectly purified at the time of death? The Catechism explains: “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.”

Purgatory is this final purification. Scripture refers to it as a “cleansing fire” (1 Cor 3:15; 1 Pet 1:7), which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned (hell). Christians have always honoured the memory of the dead, offering Masses and prayers of intercession for their relief and hasty entry into full communion with God in heaven. The Church also encourages us to offer penances on their behalf so that they might be loosed from their sins. The purification of purgatory transforms their souls into a likeness of Christ-crucified so that they are cleansed of anything that prevents them giving themselves completely to Christ.

Do Catholics still believe in hell? The Catechism explains: “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 neighbour or against ourselves.” Hell, or “Gehenna”, is the state of saying a definitive “no” to God, and is the definitive exclusion from communion with God and the saints. Scripture is clear that hell is a real possibility because of human freedom and divine justice.

God offers grace and mercy to all people for he desires all to come to union with him and to be free from sin. But he cannot force us to be with him. So when we share our Catholic faith it is imperative that we proclaim God’s love and mercy to people. Now is the time of grace and conversion from sin. In the end we believe Christ will judge both the living and the dead, and we believe God’s saints will enjoy life everlasting.

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