Tag Archives: hell

The Four Last Things: A Catechetical Guide to Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell

Fr. Wade L.J. Menezes, C.P.M.
EWTN Publishing, 110 pages

No one likes to dwell much on the fact we draw nearer to death with every passing moment, but that is an inevitability of life. So is judgment, and so is our final destiny of eternal happiness or eternal separation from God. Father Menezes’ book walks us through these ultimate realities with the assurance that we need not fear any of it if we trust in Christ, lead lives of faith, and keep our eyes on the Beatific Vision for which we were created. His closing section on “The Necessity of the Spiritual Life” offers practical guidance for doing just that.

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What are the Four Last Things?

PETER KREEFT breaks down the Catholic understanding of God’s judgment . . .

Peter Kreeft

Peter Kreeft

The Church’s teaching about life after death is summarized in the Four Last Things — death, judgment, heaven, and hell. However, even humanity outside the Church instinctively knows something about these four things.

Life’s one certainty is death. Everyone knows this, though not everyone knows what comes next. Nearly all religions, cultures and individuals in history have believed in some form of life after death. Man’s innate sense of justice tells him that there must be an ultimate reckoning, that in the final analysis no one can cheat the moral law and get away with it or suffer undeserved injustices throughout life and not be justly compensated. Since this ultimate justice does not seem to be accomplished in this life, there must be “the rest of the story.”

This instinctive conviction that there must be a higher, more-than-human justice is nearly universal. Thus the second of the Four Last Things, judgment, is also widely known. As Scripture says, “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb 11:6). The final judgment is an encounter with Christ.

Most men also know that justice distinguishes the good from the evil and, therefore, that after death there must be separate destinies for us — rewards for good and punishments for evil. Thus mankind also usually believes in some form of heaven and hell.

There are only two eternal destinies: heaven or hell, union or disunion with God. Each one of us will be either with God or without him forever. If hell is not real, the Church and the Bible are also liars. Our basis for believing in the reality of hell is exactly the same authority as our basis for believing in the reality of heaven: Christ, his Church, and her scriptures.

If hell is not real, then Jesus Christ is either a fool or a liar for he warned us repeatedly and with utmost seriousness about it. There is no reincarnation, no “second chance” after time is over. There is no annihilation, no end of the soul’s existence. There is no change of species from human being to angel or to anything else.

The particular judgment occurs immediately after each individual’s death. The general judgment takes place at the end of all time and history.

So the scenario of final events is: (a) first, death; (b) then, immediately, the particular judgment; (c) then, either hell, or purgatory as preparation for heaven, or heaven; (d) and, at the end of time, the general judgment; (e) and the “new heavens and new earth” for those who are saved.

PETER KREEFT, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, is the best-selling author of over 75 books. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Beliefs Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church” (Ignatius Press, 2001).


Catechism 101

Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ. The New Testament speaks of judgment primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in his second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith.

Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation. At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1021-1022

Everyone goes to heaven, right?

KARL KEATING writes that many people mistakenly believe they are heaven-bound . . .

Karl Keating

Karl Keating

Is that so? Haven’t you been reading the headlines? Many people behave as though they’re basically evil, including many who never make the news.

Is the abortionist a good fellow? What about those who seem to build their lives around a particular sin? Have they given their hearts to Christ — or to their passions?

True, God created everything good, including every person. But we have free will, which we can use or abuse. We all abuse it at times, and we call such abuse sin. Some people will continue in sin until the end, at which time they will take the down escalator. Others will repent of their sins and die in the state of grace; they will take the up escalator. How many will be on each escalator? We simply don’t know. Scripture doesn’t tell us the proportion outright, but there are unpleasant suggestions: “How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life” (Mt 7:14); “many are invited, but few are chosen” (Mt 22:14).

When asked whether only a few will be saved, Jesus replied, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” (Lk 13:24). Indeed, in the New Testament hell is mentioned about 30 times. Our Lord refers to “eternal fire” (Mt 18:8) and “fiery Gehenna” (Mt 18:9). Paul wraps it up by saying that when the Lord returns, he will inflict with “blazing fire those who do not acknowledge God” (2 Thes 1:8-9).

The idea that most people will go to heaven arises, perhaps, when people lack a sense of the seriousness of sin — and when they concentrate on God’s mercy to the exclusion of his justice. More than that, the idea is that he will save even those who don’t want to be saved. He won’t force his mercy or his salvation on anyone.

Salvation is a free gift, which, as with any gift, can be declined. We have no good reason to think that there will be only a few decliners. It isn’t so much a matter of God consigning anyone to hell as of the unrepentant sinner consigning himself there. The damned choose to go to hell by choosing self over God. They remain there, impenitent, unable to repent because they have grown absolute in their hatred of God.

This is all a consequence of the most frightening and glorious of our attributes: free will. God allows us to choose him or to choose ourselves. He gives us free rein to decide where we’ll go. He gives each of us enough grace to gain heaven. Only those who reject the grace go elsewhere.

KARL KEATING is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith.”


Catechism 101

The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1035, 1037

Will fallen-away Catholics go to hell?

Karl Keating writes that some fallen-away Catholics will make it to heaven . . .

Karl Keating

Karl Keating

Some will, some won’t. We don’t know the proportions, but leaving the Church is always a blunder. Let’s look first at what makes one a member of the Church.

Pope Pius XII put it concisely in his encyclical On the Mystical Body of Christ, 1943: “Only those are to be accounted really members of the Church who have been regenerated in the waters of baptism, profess the one true faith, and have not cut themselves off from the structure of the Body by their own unhappy act or been severed therefrom, for very grave crimes, by the legitimate authority.”

So three things identify the full Catholic: (1) valid reception of the sacrament of baptism, (2) profession of the Catholic faith, and (3) participation in the communion of the Church. By manifesting these marks, one comes under the triple office of the Church: priestly (baptism), teaching (confession of faith), and pastoral (obedience to Church authority).

When you were baptized, an indelible mark was placed on your soul. You never need to be baptized again because there’s no way to undo your baptism. Not even the worst sin, including heresy and apostasy, can remove a valid baptism.

Catholic tradition has held that those dissociating themselves from the Church voluntarily cease to be full members of the Church. In short, neither heretics nor schismatics are considered full members of the Church.

People leave the Church for various reasons. Some never were “in” it except out of habit. Their faith, if not dead, was a candidate for the intensive care unit. One day they simply stopped going to Mass, and that was that.

Others want spiritual nourishment but can’t seem to find it in their parishes, so they go elsewhere. There is an irony in this, of course, since the greatest spiritual nourishment is the Eucharist, which is available in every parish.

Still others leave in good faith, thinking that the Catholic faith is untrue and some other faith is true. If they and the others don’t realize their actions are wrong, they remain related to the Church spiritually, even though they cease to be legal members of it. They still may achieve justification and salvation, but these are harder to achieve the further they distance themselves from the complete truth, found only in the Catholic Church, and ordinary sources of grace, the sacraments.

If people leave in bad faith, then they have adopted for their motto what Dante put above the gates of hell: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” No one knowingly abandoning the truth and failing to repent can be saved.

KARL KEATING is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe, Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1995).


Catechism 101

Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ’s Body… do not occur without human sin: Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 2089, 817

To hell with the excommunicated?

Does the Church damn those who are excommunicated. The answer may surprise you . . .

Karl Keating

Karl Keating

Not necessarily. Only God can condemn anyone to hell. It’s not within the Church’s power to do so. The Church’s role is to help people to heaven by teaching and sanctifying. Of course, people can ignore the teaching and reject the grace. If they do and end up in hell, they go there by their own choice.

Excommunication is a Church penalty which excludes a notorious sinner — or someone grossly disobedient to Church teaching — from the communion of the faithful. It doesn’t mean the person ceases to be a Christian. Its purpose is to warn the individual that he risks losing his soul unless he repents.

We’ve seen examples of excommunication in our own time. In 1953, some bishops in China ordained new bishops without the approval of Pope Pius XII. The ordaining bishops and those they ordained were excommunicated under a provision of canon law which stated that episcopal ordinations may be performed only with the pope’s approval. These new bishops had been ordained for the Chinese Patriotic Church, a government-controlled off shoot of the Catholic Church. Other Chinese bishops remained loyal to Rome and found themselves imprisoned — the penalty for loyalty to Church authority.

In 1988, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre ordained new bishops to oversee the religious society he had founded. The ordinations were done against the wishes of Pope John Paul II. Archbishop Lefebvre, another ordaining bishop, and the three new bishops were excommunicated automatically. In this case and the Chinese case, people were excommunicated not for teaching heresy, but for gross disobedience.

Excommunication is rarely used nowadays. At one time, it’s true, it was used too frequently, and the Council of Trent warned bishops to be more careful in its application. The Council said excommunication must be used sparingly. Its purpose is to bring the wayward back to the practice of the faith and to obedience. If excommunication is wielded crudely, it will lose its effectiveness and may do more harm than good.

Now to a corollary. When Paul said that anyone preaching a heretical gospel would be anathema (Gal 1:8), he didn’t condemn the person to hell. He labeled that individual a false teacher. When the Church, in an official decree at a council, accompanies its decisions with anathemas, it’s merely doing the same thing as Paul. It’s saying, “And anyone who teaches otherwise is a false teacher.” It is not condemning anyone to hell.

Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith,” pages 17-19 (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1995).