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Questions about Catholic teachings on the afterlife:
I have been going to bible classes with a Catholic priest who has studied scripture for over 30 years and is a scriptural scholar with many degrees in scriptural studies. He recently talked about the afterlife and told us that heaven, hell and purgatory are not a place, it is a state of life. He said many think that they are going to heaven when they die, but it is not a place, or there is no burning in hell, because when we die we are spirit and a spirit does not occupy time and space. The Kingdom of God is in us and once we live in commune with the Triune God, follow his will and commandments, we are in heaven. There is no going up to heaven as we think, because we are already in heaven; where our spirits go is a mystery. I have asked other priests also, and they told me it’s all a state of life, not a place. I sometimes see you mention in your reflections about going to heaven and also about the purifying fires of hell when we die, and I just wanted to share this with you. Please share your ideas with me; it would be nice to hear your perspective. I am an avid reader of your daily Good News Reflections. It has helped me much; in fact the Lord talks to me through them in my daily walk with him. Every day the message hits home. Thanks. ~ Margaret on Facebook
What you heard is correct, but it needs clarification. First, I want to point out that when I’ve written about purifying fires, it was about purgatory, not hell. Hell is eternal separation from God; there is no purification possible for those who don’t want to be purified. Eternal separation from God is an eternal death, because God is the source of life. Thus, we can say that hell is a state of lifelessness, not a place. But scripture also says it’s a place of torture, like a “fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth,” as Jesus describes it in Matthew 13:50, which indicates an on-going consciousness that is, so to speak, being alive without having life.
We need to remember that human words cannot adequately describe what we have not yet experienced. During our present life, we are very limited in our understanding of the after-life, and our awareness of reality is confined in four dimensions of space and time, although scientists have discovered that there could be many more dimensions. Therefore, it is safe to say that the word “life” isn’t the same in the after-life as what that word means in our current lives.
The same is true for the word “place.” Does the word “place” always have to indicate a location? We often refer to hell as located down below our feet, below the ground we walk on, because the center of the earth is so hot that the earth’s rocky core is molten and fiery. During the time Jesus walked the earth, the Jews in Jerusalem referred to hell as “gehenna,” which was the name of a nearby valley where children were burned as a sacrifice to the gods. But hell is not literally located in that place.
Perhaps one way to attempt to give words to what hell is, is this: Being aware of our existence and of the horribleness of evil without the joy of being fully alive like God created us to be. The “where” of hell is not what matters.
Similarly, the location of purgatory and heaven do not really matter. Are they “up” in the sky? Jesus repeatedly said, “The kingdom of God is at hand,” i.e., right here, right now.
The kingdom of God is heaven, i.e., the fullness of God and everything that belongs to God and everyone who loves God. We experience some of that during our life on earth. Death is not the door to purgatory and/or heaven; death is the door to the fullness of heaven, and if at the moment of death we are still carrying earthly baggage (sinful desires, attitudes, and attachments to anything that is not God), we are mercifully purged of them. Purgatory is a process of purification.
If it helps to think in terms of a place called purgatory and a place called heaven, then I like to say that purgatory is a suburb of heaven. It’s part of the City of God, but on the outskirts. As we purge ourselves of everything unGodly, we move closer and closer to the center of the City of God where God sits on his throne. However, God is everywhere in heaven and on earth and throughout the universe in all of its dimensions, including universes and dimensions that we cannot yet see or know; he is not literally sitting on a literal throne. His “throne” is his power, his kingship, his authority, his love, etc.
Likewise, it is probably inadequate to say that souls literally “burn” in hell the way we see things burn on earth. The word “purgatory” comes from the Latin word for “cleansing fire,” but this does not mean that the souls in purgatory are suffering from literal flames. Think of how your heart has “burned” for someone when you passionately cared about them. That’s a little bit of purgatory! Or when you felt so bad about something you did, you suffered the pain of regret; that’s a little bit of purgatory too.
Okay, do you have a headache yet from reading this and trying to grasp what we can never really understand while we’re on earth? Here’s another mind-stretcher: It’s not just “places” after death that’s impossible to understand; “time” is part of the same mystery. Here on earth, we measure time linearly: past, present, and future. The ancient Hebrews spoke only of time as past and future; the present moment is already the past. And now the next present moment is in the past. Ahhh, here’s the present! Nope, it’s past now.
In that “now” moment that is neither past nor future – that is “eternity.” We don’t live there yet, but it’s here all the time. And from God’s perspective, all times of the past and the future are really the eternal now. Sooooo …… from God’s perspective, the crucifixion of Christ is “now,” his resurrection is also “now,” and so is his Second Coming. And that means …. tadaaa! …. when we die (i.e., when we leave our earthly existence) and enter into the fullness of the kingdom of God, we will experience time differently than we do now. We will live in the eternal now.
Let’s say, for the sake of this discussion, that the Second Coming of Christ is going to happen in the year 3700 A.D. On earth, that’s 1,689 years from now. But in heaven, the Second Coming won’t be in our future; it will be in our eternal “now,” which means we will benefit from it “immediately” (another word that won’t mean the same in heaven), which means we will receive our glorified bodies instead of floating around in eternity as a ghost-like spirit.
A “glorified” body is a human body like the kind Jesus exhibited after his resurrection. It was solid and not solid at the same time. He walked through walls to appear to his disciples, and yet Mary Magdalene could hug it, and the wounds could be touched by Thomas. This was a foreshadowing of the perfect bodies we will all eventually have.
And where will we go with these bodies? Don’t ask me today. Ask me in the now of getting together in heaven someday.