This week, we will take a look at a particular branch of theology called Eschatology (pronounced: “ess-ka-Tall-oh-jee”). The root of eschatology is the Greek word eschaton which means “last.” Eschatology is the study of the last things: death, judgement, heaven, purgatory, and hell. The Catholic Church is eschatological in nature because her entire earthly mission is to effectively prepare souls for these last things, so that as many people as possible may get to heaven. Every single individual Church teaching finds its origin in what is needed for each person’s eschatological end. Since dying is inevitable for each of us, it is in our best interest to pay attention to how following Church teaching leads us to heaven, while ignoring certain things can potentially lead us on a path to eternal destruction.
Now we’ll examine more closely each of these final things. Death entered the world because of sin. We were meant to live eternally in harmony with God, but due to original sin, we lost that gift. Now we are subject to illness, injury, and bodily corruption, which all lead to death eventually. Similarly, we do not know when the end of the world – Jesus’ second coming – will occur. Any person still on the earth on that day will also experience the final things. None of us knows the hour, day, or means of the end of our earthly life, which makes it particularly important that we stay vigilant in our spiritual life, so that we are always prepared and won’t be caught off guard.
Therefore stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matt 24:42-44)
After death comes judgement. The Church distinguishes between two types of judgement – the particular judgement and the last judgement. The particular judgement refers to each individual at the moment of death, when the body and the soul will separate. The soul will encounter Jesus and be held accountable for its life. Our sins, virtues, love, faith, works, and level of commitment to Jesus Christ will all be taken into account to determine what happens to the eternal soul (CCC #1022). The last judgement refers to the Second Coming of Jesus and it is a bit different because on that day, we will all experience the resurrection of our bodies, which will be rejoined to our souls wherever they are for eternity. When Jesus comes, the Truth will be revealed and He will separate the good from the bad, making a final determination about each person.
Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left…And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (CCC #1038, Matt 25:31,32,46)
Regardless of whether we die or happen to be here when Jesus comes again, we will face judgement and be held accountable for how we lived our lives.
The first, and most desirable, outcome of our judgment is heaven. Heaven is where souls will live in community with the Divine Trinity for all eternity. These souls are pure and clean and will experience never-ending eternal joy, love, and fulfillment (CCC #1024). Heaven will be so beautifully perfect that our human experience cannot even imagine it. The greatest thing you could ever imagine does not even begin to come close to the heavenly experience.
The mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise, “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of the man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (CCC #1027, 1 Cor 2:9)
Given all of this, it should be the goal of each and every person to live a life that will get them to heaven and the Church is here to help them to do that.
According to Church teaching, the next option after judgement is purgatory. Going to heaven immediately is reserved for only the purest of souls: “But nothing unclean will ever enter it…” (Rev 21:27). Save for a relatively few exceptions, most of us will be tainted by sin to some extent and therefore unclean. Purgatory is a place for the purification of the soul and if you make it there, you will eventually get to heaven.
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. (CCC #1030).
Some of our earliest Church Fathers wrote and taught about the existence and necessity of purgatory: Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom – all of from the 4th Century – and Augustine from the 5th Century. Similarly, there are several places in scripture which allude to the existence of purgatory:
Malachi 3:3: He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the LORD.
2 Maccabees 12:44-45: For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin. (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:29)
Matthew 5:26: Truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.
Matthew 12:32: And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (If this sin cannot be forgiven after death, it follows that there are others which can be, and this must be in purgatory.)
1 Corinthians 3:11-15: For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
The final option after judgement is hell. “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” (CCC #1035). It is important to understand that when a soul goes to hell, it is by that soul’s own choice in choosing to turn away from God. God has given us the gift of free will and He honors our choices as our own.
We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him….To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him by our own free choice. (CCC #1033)
God predestines no one to go to hell, for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. (CCC #1037)
So, while it saddens God greatly for any soul to go to hell, He still loves each and every single one of us enough to let us choose for ourselves where we will spend eternity.
One of the greatest lies told in our modern society today is that heaven and hell do not exist. This is a tool of Satan to take our eyes off of our eternal life and remain focused on our worldly life as if this is the only one we ever have. Without thinking about heaven or hell, we have the justification to do whatever we want in our earthly life because it makes us “happy” or brings us some sort of earthly pleasure. In reality, our time here on earth is nothing but a nanosecond when compared to the eternal existence of wherever we ultimately end up. Spend some time this week reflecting on the reality of the existence of heaven and hell and contemplate the changes you need to make in your life to help you on the path to eternal life with the Blessed Trinity.
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