Posted by Richard Rawlinson, our religious correspondent
Heaven, Hell and Purgatory are states of a human soul, not places as often represented in human language. In Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas, writes: ‘Incorporeal things are not in place after a manner known to us, in which way we say that bodies are in place; but they are in place after a manner befitting spiritual substances, a manner that cannot be fully manifest to us.’
Pope John Paul II said heaven ‘is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. It is our meeting with the Father which takes place in the risen Christ through the communion of the Holy Spirit.’
He’s saying today we may describe heaven as the state of happiness and peace we will enjoy in our definitive communion with God.
In biblical metaphor, heaven indicates part of the universe, the dwelling-place of God, who sees all on earth from the heights of heaven, and comes down when he is called upon. The Apostle Paul tells us ‘God, who is rich in mercy, out of great love for us even when we trespass, made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up with him’.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the Church’s teaching: ‘By his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has opened heaven to us’. This, of course refers to the sacramental life, whose centre is the Eucharist, but also the gift of self through fraternal charity in anticipation of heaven. We know that on earth everything is subject to limits, but the thought of the ultimate reality helps us to live better the ‘penultimate’ realities on earth.
Some have a problem reconciling the infinitely good and merciful God with eternal damnation, exclusion from God’s love in heaven. Another way of looking at it is that hell is not a punishment imposed externally by God but it’s determined by people in life.
Hell is not God’s initiative because he can only desire the salvation of his creation. In a theological sense, hell is the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it. It is the state of those who definitively reject God’s love.
The biblical metaphor of hell as a place illustrates the total misery and emptiness of life without God. But rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.
The New Testament sheds light on the condition of the dead, proclaiming Christ by his Resurrection conquered death for all. Salvation is up to people to accept freely.
Without purgatory in the mix of heaven and hell, Christian denominations go in two distinct ways: fundamentalists say you have but one chance, Life, to avoid eternal damnation; liberals dispense with hell altogether because being without love forever is too painful to think about.
Purgatory offers hope of heaven even after dying with unreptented stains of sin. It’s not a place but a condition of existence where Christ removes the remnants of imperfection as, before we enter into full communion with God, every imperfection must be corrected. This is why Catholics pray for the souls of the dead, and ask for the intercession of Christ, Mary and the saints.
Non-Catholic Christians say there’s no evidence of purgatory in sacred scripture. There are several references to the belief that we cannot approach God without undergoing some kind of purification. The Apostle Paul says: ‘If the work which any man has built on Christ’s 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 Old Testament’s Psalm 51 reveals the process of reintegration: the sinner confesses and recognises his guilt (v. 3), asking insistently to be cleansed (vv. 2, 9, 10, 17) so as to proclaim the divine praise (v. 15).
Just as in earthly life believers are united in the one Mystical Body, so after death those who live in a state of purification experience the same ecclesial solidarity which works through prayer. Purification is lived in the essential bond created between those who live in this world and those in heaven.