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What happens when I die?

Brantly Millegan - published on 01/21/13

If one thing is certain in life, it is that, ultimately, we all die. The question is, what comes afterwards?

Upon death, a soul’s eternal fate is sealed. There are only two possible final outcomes: eternity in heaven or hell.

Upon death, a soul’s eternal fate is sealed: “Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ” (CCC 1021). There are no second chances after death to change one’s eternal fate.

“It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9.27). Each person will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and will “either [enter] into the blessedness of heaven – through a purification or immediately – or immediate and everlasting damnation” (CCC 1022).

Heaven is a “perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity – [a] communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed… Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC 1024). Indeed, “[t]his mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description” (CCC 1027).

Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and who attained perfect purification in their earthly life will go straight to heaven after death: “[T]he souls of those who have incurred no stain of sin whatsoever after baptism, as well as souls who after incurring the stain of sin have been cleansed…are straightaway received into heaven and clearly behold the triune God as he is, yet one person more perfectly than another according to the difference of their merits” (Florence, Session 6; July 6th, 1439).

Others, however, “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but [are] still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030). Indeed, “if truly penitent people die in the love of God before they have made satisfaction for acts and omissions by worthy fruits of repentance, their souls are cleansed after death by cleansing pains” (Florence, Session 6; July 6th, 1439). This final purification is called Purgatory. We can help those in Purgatory attain heaven faster by offering prayers and penance for them (CCC 1032).

The only other eternal alternative to heaven is hell. According to the teaching of Jesus, hell is an “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25.41), “eternal punishment” (Mt 25.46), and a “fiery furnace [where] there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 13.42).

There are two kinds of punishment in hell: the pain of loss and the pain of sense. The pain of loss is the despair from the knowledge that one has lost the greatest good – God – forever, with no hope of recovery. The pain of sense is the sensory punishment that each person experiences in proportion to their sins (Hontheim).

All those who die with original sin or in a state of mortal sin are condemned to hell: “[T]he souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains” (Florence, Session 6; July 6th, 1439).

Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)

Council of Florence (Florence)

Hontheim, Joseph. "Hell." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 17 Dec. 2012 .

Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version.

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