[ WordBytes on FAQs & Teachings of the Faith ]
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.
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© 2011 by Terry A. Modica
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“How do you explain the many saints who have visions of hell and purgatory. They are very graphic and terrifying. If they are not places then what do these saints see and do they really see them?”
This is not something that can be fully explained from our earthly perspective. We need to accept that fact that rarely (or even never!) is our understanding of something as full as God’s understanding of it. We cannot assume that any human’s vision or words fully and accurately describe any of the places of the afterlife. Visions by saints and mystics vary enough to safely assume that there may be some degree of symbolism in the visions, or some degree of personal interpretation or variations in understanding what is being seen. We limit our understanding of what God is trying to convey if we think that every vision is to be interpreted strictly literally.
As I have tried to explain in my article, the word “place” can mean more than just a physical location. We on earth think very physically and 3-dimensionally when we use the word “place”. To say “That place over there on the other side of my house is the living room” is to be very specific about a certain “space” in the house, which has only three dimensions: up-down, left-right, and front-back. But when we talk about a “place” called purgatory, we are no longer speaking of a 3-dimensional piece of space on the planet or under the planet’s dirt or above the clouds.
Jesus ascended “up” into heaven, which by our normal use of the word “up” indicates that heaven is above the clouds. But that’s just way too limiting of where heaven is located. The “where” of heaven or hell or purgatory is not important. It’s not even possible to give it a defined location. Heaven is “up” in that it is far superior to everything earthly – that is the point of “where” heaven is, not that is is located above earth’s clouds.
As to the terrifying nature of purgatory, we must remember that purgatory is not hell. Blessed John Paul the Great said that there is joy in purgatory.
For more information on this subject, please read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I have already provided a link to a web course that teaches what the Catechism says about the afterlife.
“Hi! Terry, you have beautifully put forth the understanding of Heaven and Hell. We are all sinners and imperfect in our own eyes in some way or the other, but in God’s eyes we all are perfect, those of us who love God and need God in our day to day lives. So we already have glorified bodies but we need to pray for the souls who do not want to accept Jesus as their Saviour so that when they meet Jesus face to face they will not be purging for their sins but will have glorified bodies like us.”
We won’t be perfect until we have finished purging ourselves of everything that’s unheavenly, and for 99.9% of us, that won’t happen until after our deaths. And yet, when God looks at us today, he looks at us through the crucified Jesus, who took our sins to the cross. He sees as as his children, who sin one way or another each day, and who are moving forward to heaven with each effort me make to overcome our sinful tendencies.
A point of clarification: We do not already have glorified bodies. Not while we live in this world, where everything is imperfect and tends to decay. A glorified body is what Mary the Blessed Mother of Jesus was given (although at what point in life we do not know), which is why she was “assumed” directly to heaven at the moment of her death (assumed = she went to heaven in spirit and body). Elijah of the Old Testament also went bodily to heaven.
A glorified body experiences no corruption at all: no sickness, no imperfections.
Stacie from Clemson, SC, said:
“Terry, so what your saying is that even the souls in purgatory receive their ‘glorified bodies’ evn though they are confined to the periphery (out-skirts) of Heaven. This makes sense; with their ‘glorified bodies’ they are able now to adequately expiate their unforgiven sins that they incurred while living in a ‘limited’ condition here on this earth. Am I correct in this assumption?”
Stacie, we can only guess. It seems to me that only a fully purified person is ready for and able to have a glorified (i.e., fully sanctified) body restored to them by Christ. What I am sure of is that if souls in purgatory have no bodies yet, God in his infinite mercy provides a wonderful way — one way or another — to expiate sins.
I’ve long thought (again a guess) that one way that such expiation is accomplished is by praying for those our sins have damaged. Therefore, I often pray for the souls of people I know who might be in purgatory by asking them (through Jesus) to pray for a specific need or person here on earth that had been negatively affected by them before they died.
“Yet you said above in your article that when we die ‘we will benefit from it [Second Coming] “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. I’m confused. And what does Saint Paul mean when he says that we are ‘sleeping in Christ’?”
It is indeed confusing. We cannot comprehend what time is like in the afterlife, where time is called “eternity.” Right now, we are used to linear time (the passing of time). You posted your question at 12:43, and I answered nearly an hour after that. But theologians tell us that time isn’t measured the same way in the after-life.
Also, the word “sleeping” in St. Paul’s usage might not be what you think. He is not saying that after death we are unconscious, like we are now when we go to sleep at night.
The word “sleep” in the New Testament is often used as a euphemism for the “state of physical death.” This is clearly seen in 1 Corinthians 15:18 & 51, two verses in a passage that depicts the importance of the resurrection of Christ as it relates to both those who are physically dead and those who remain physically alive. The Greek root word in this case, as well as in many others, is koimao, which can refer to physical sleep but is also used to refer to physical death.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13 & 15, he is referring to Christians who have passed on from this life. In 1 Thessalonians 5:6, 7, & 10, the Greek root word is “katheudo,” which sometimes refers to the state of slumber, Paul uses it to speak of those who are “spiritually asleep,” i.e., unconcerned about sin and careless about spiritual duty.
The site is of great help.
Our spirits are like what we see in our dreams. They walk, run, jump, fall, be in different places at the same, painless, experience no hunger and always mysterious. Heaven is a home for such bodies we do not go to, we return to where we came from..because if God knew our existence before we were born, it means we have a place somewhere, our space is still there…worse happen when we get in this world and fail to recall the direction back to our destination. According to me there is no past or future we are always present, today is present tomorrow still will be present for us..we get old but the time remain the same.