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Where Does the Soul Go after We Die?

My husband and I disagree about where our souls go after we die. I believe that you are judged right away and that if you are found worthy your soul will go to Heaven immediately. My husband believes that we will not be judged until Jesus returns on Judgment Day and that no one's soul goes to Heaven until then. Could you please tell us what the Church teaches? — A reader in Alexandria

As Catholics, we believe that when a person dies, the soul separates from the body. He then stands before God in judgment. Remember that the soul is really "who" we are: while the body lies in death, our soul — who we are — lives on and returns to the Lord for judgment. The Catechism clearly teaches, "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 purification or immediately, — or immediate and everlasting damnation" (No. 1022).

Let's dissect this teaching: When we die, our soul stands in judgment immediately. We will have to account for our lives, for the good that we have done and for the sins we have committed. We call this the particular judgment because it is particular to each person. If we are free of all sin and the hurt caused by sin, we immediately will be welcomed into Heaven, where we will enjoy the beatific vision, seeing God face to face. If we have died with venial sins or the hurt caused by sin, our Lord in His love and mercy will first purge and heal the soul in the place called Purgatory; after this purgation and healing, our soul will then be welcomed into Heaven. However, if we have died rejecting God, with mortal sins and with no remorse for those mortal sins, then we will have damned ourselves to Hell; the firm rejection of God that we made in this life, will continue on in the next. This teaching is substantiated by our Lord's declaration to the repentant thief, St. Dismas: "This day you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). (Note that this teaching on the particular judgment was defined at the Second General Council of Lyons in 1274.)

At the end of time, our Lord will come again to judge the living and the dead. Our Lord taught in the Gospel of St. John: "The Father has given over to Him [Jesus] power to pass judgment because He is the Son of Man; no need for you to be surprised at this, for an hour is coming in which all those in their tombs shall hear his voice and come forth. Those who have done right shall rise to life; the evildoers shall rise to be damned" (John 5:27-29). Here again the Catechism teaches, "In the presence of Christ, who is Truth itself, the truth of each man's relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life" (No. 1039).

Here then is a judgment not only of the individual standing alone, but also as a member of society and before the whole community of mankind. Those who have already died and have been judged will remain in Heaven or Hell; those who have not died will now be judged and enter Heaven or Hell. Since after the final judgment, only Heaven and Hell will exist, St. Augustine and others speculated that all purification of the soul — for those already in Purgatory and now those faithful awaiting judgment at this final judgment — will be completed. Here then is a succinct presentation of the Church's teaching concerning the judgment of our soul. Whether we consider the particular judgment or the final judgment, we must be ready to face judgment. Archbishop Fulton Sheen stated, "For when the curtain goes down on the last day, and we respond to the curtain call of judgment, we will not be asked what part we played, but how well we played the part that was assigned to us" (Moods and Truths, 75).

Just a note: If you have enjoyed reading Straight Answers for the past six years, a book, entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available with 100 "straight answers" about the faith. This book may be purchased directly or through mail order from the Queen of Apostles Family Gift Shop (703-354-0742), the Pauline Book and Media Center (703-549-3806), and other local Catholic gift and bookstores in the area.

Fr. Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria. Copyright 1999 Arlington Catholic Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1999