Ask a Priest

After death

May 23, 2015

Dear Father,

Just feel somewhat confused about when we die. I’ve heard priests talk about being judged at the moment of death (as I thought happened) and then going to our eternal destination … ie either straight to Heaven if we are good enough, or else to be cleansed until we are ready for Heaven.

I have also heard priests talk about our departed loved ones as being ‘asleep’ and in waiting to be welcomed into Heaven.

I have always thought that our dear loved ones who led exemplary lives were immediately welcomed into the Kingdom of God.

Your help would be gratefully received!

Asked at 06:49 pm on May 23rd 2015

Dear Pauline,

Thanks for your question. To answer it well, we need to keep in mind that a human person is a permanent union of a mortal body and an immortal soul. At the moment of death, our souls are separated from our bodies. So, it is in our immortal souls that we are referred to Christ for particular judgment according to what we have done (Mt 16:27; Rom 2:6; Catechism 1021-22). The Last Judgment, however, also involves the resurrection and reunification of mortal bodies with immortal souls (Jn 5:28-29; Catechism 1038-41). Thus, in the Last Judgment, we shall be whole again, body and soul, and given our full share of eternal reward or retribution. But those who have already died and are awaiting the Last Judgment have already been judged, and their immortal souls are now either receiving the reward they will receive for all eternity or are being prepared for it by purification. We can aid them by our prayers, good works, and indulgences.

This temporary disintegration of the human person at death, the occasional separation of the soul from the body between death and the Last Judgment, has presented Christian authors with the challenge to describe it in appropriate ways. Those who have died are not like us; their bodies lie in the earth in expectation of the Last Judgment. So, St Paul, for example, said they are “asleep” until the Day of the Lord dawns (1 Cor 15:6, cf Eucharistic Prayers I and II), and that their bodies have been “sown” in the ground like seeds to bear fruit in a new life (1 Cor 15:37). This symbolic language is a help to us who must prepare for death and judgment to describe the mystery of our passage to the eternal life in Christ.

Answered by Fr Paul Rowse, OP

Replied at 01:54 am on June 02nd 2015

Thanks for your excellent answer Fr Paul, I have also wondered about this!

On another note, what happened to those who died before Jesus died on the Cross and opened the gates of Heaven (e.g. the Prophets or St Joseph)?

Replied at 03:37 am on June 04th 2015

Leanne I heard that those who died before Jesus’ death and resurrection (and were worthy of heaven) went to the “abode of the dead” where the souls of the righteous were waiting for the Messiah to open heaven.

Replied at 03:05 am on June 04th 2015

The fate of the virtuous who had died was the same; they all went to the Hell of the Fathers. The Apostles’ Creed refers to this place: “Jesus Christ … suffered death and was buried. He descended into hell.” Every just person went there, from Adam to the Lord Jesus himself, and they remained there until the Lord’s resurrection.

You might have come across some of the great artworks depicting this moment, usually under the title Harrowing of Hell. They frequently show the Lord bearing a flag or standard, a white flag with a red cross, to show his victory over sin and death, and extending a hand to Adam to lead him to a far greater paradise than the one he lost.

Replied at 05:32 am on June 08th 2015

Fr. Rouse:
It is important, I believe, not to discount the existence of hell. While we pray many will enter Heaven, and many more will “flow” through the process or state of purgation, we must acknowledge that some will turn from God and elect hell. Hell is real and we need to be reminded of it and how easy one can lose grace and be subject to an eternity without God (hell).

Replied at 11:42 am on September 07th 2015