A take on the afterlife

Charles 5 Comments

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.   


  1. Charles

    You are such a wind up merchant – you must have been drinking to rattle things up a bit.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes purgatory as a state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God’s friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven (1031; cf. 1472)

    You wrote:
    “There are several references to the belief that we cannot approach God without undergoing some kind of purification.”

    I think you’ll find that Christians generally believe that Jesus was ‘some kind of purification.’

    If I was a believer, which I’m not, I’d refer you to this:

    John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

    Wasn’t the once and for all sacrifice of our Lord enough for ye? Was his death not enough to take away the sins of the world after all then?

    Hebrews 10:10
    … we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

    11 And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins:

    12 But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God.

    We don’t need a process of reintegration a la Psalm 51 – it’s already happened – the price is paid for God’s sake.

    On the other hand, if I was a non believer, which I’m not,

    I’d say Bollocks! Soul? Pah! Human soul – what sort of oxymoron is that? How can the ‘human soul’ be in any sort of ‘state’ – good bad or ugly? State implies a condition in a fixed place and time and by default ‘after death’ is out of time.

    Then I’d have to challenge, in my non-believing facile way, ‘who sees all on earth from the heights of heaven, and comes down when he is called upon’. Really? Shout a bit louder then, Damascus – try imploring Mary for a real kick in the pants to get God going – she’s right up there in the holy Quadrinity.

    You don’t need to die to be in hell – ask the mothers whose infants were smashed to smithereens by Herod, no wait, you can ask the mother I met last week whose unborn baby died a week before birth, or the neighbour who has called on the Almighty every day for the past 5 months to cure him of his terminal cancer. Still if he’s lucky, as a protestant, he’ll get to queue up in purgatory for the rest of ‘eternity’ (whatever that is) as a reward for his miserable faithfulness as the fire purifies his sinful, Godless cancer.

    I know that’s the childish argument of a foolish non believer because God doesn’t work like that, and He just wants everyone to learn inner strength and trust in Him through all their trials and tribulations in this life because obviously they’ll seem like nothing when everyone is reunited with Him in His heavenly dwelling place ( assuming it’s a real place ‘in the universe’ and assuming the Catholics let anyone else in.)

    Purgatory was invented to keep people coming back for more – more praying, more begging, more obedience – out of fear that their failures will result in the grateful dead dropping through the floors of purgatory and into the everlasting darkness of nothingness. (Which by the way, sounds like bliss to me)

    PS: You don’t need to die to be in heaven either – list your own versions here.
    Here’s mine:
    And all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well: Thank XXX for Julian of Norwich

  2. Charles

    Heaven and hell are best conceptualized without religion:

    Hell is nothing.
    Heaven is everything.

    What fool needs a god to tell them such a self-evident truth?

  3. Charles

    Hell! What a powerful tool for getting people to fall into line. When Pope Benedict XVI talked about ‘aggressive forms of secularism’ a while back I did wonder what could be more aggressive than threatening people with hell and damnation. Apart from the inquisitions, the medieval witch hunts, child sex abuse, the vilification of unmarried mothers, homosexuals, scientists…

  4. Charles


    You drag religion down to a state of fear for the many stirred up by the cleverness of the few. The reality is that most religious people don’t live in existential terror of death. Most people’s anxieties are down-to-earth, concern for their own lives and the lives of loved ones.

    It’s also worth pointing out that religion adapts to the contemporary times, too. For example, most religions embrace religious freedom: heresy is no longer punished, except in some Islamic and, ironically, atheistic states.

    Atheists in Funeralworld will never win a decisive victory by insisting that religion is for irrational people. When people endure fatal illnesses, they might undergo an upsurge of faith, or faith might be renewed among bereaved people as they strive to cope with their grief. Fear of hell?

    Atheists invariably change the subject here to how religious organisations have vices as well as virtues. Let’s deal with that now. I agree! But crime and corruption are fought from within as well as from the outside, by rebuilding and not raising to the ground. New Labour sleaze wasn’t a New Labour policy just as church scandals show a serious breaching of ideals that needs to be cleansed in no uncertain terms.

    Some American mega-churches seem to behave like secular corporations, founded on profit-making and preaching the ‘gospel of prosperity’. Other sects seem to be ruled by power-hungry elites who are as controlling, backward and brutal as communist dictators.

    Many atheists and religious people would again find themselves in agreement that the God of such churches seems to have more in common with Mammon than Jesus Christ.

    Modern religion reacts against aspects of secular culture that might be deemed to have led to social injustice. When a government wages war or causes suffering by messing up the economy, we blame politicians, not secularism itself. So when things we disagree with are done in the name of religion, religion itself is not the culprit. Man’s extremity offers religion a reason to deliver a remedy.

    1. Charles

      Er…when did I insist that religion is for irrational people? Not that there’s anything wrong with being irrational – it’s one of my finer qualities. Religion makes a lot of sense – well as much sense as anything in this mad world. All I know is that the more I watch the news, the more I think we’re all going to hell in a handcart.

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