June 26, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Heaven and hell

John F. Fink(Twentieth in a series of columns)

After the final judgment, when our bodies are reunited with our souls, we will go either to heaven or to hell for all eternity.

Heaven is the state of being in which all are united in love with one another and with God, where those who, having attained salvation, are in glory with God and enjoy the beatific vision—knowledge of God as he is. It is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.

The bliss of heaven will consist in what the Church calls two dimensions: the vertical dimension that is the vision and love of God, and the horizontal dimension that is the knowledge and love of all others in God. We will be reunited with our family and friends.

We will experience perfect happiness in heaven. All of our deepest human longings will be fulfilled. Yet some people, because of their lives on Earth, will experience greater happiness than others will because they will be given a greater capacity for happiness than others.

Just as both a large glass and a small glass can be filled to capacity but one will hold more than the other, so will some people have a greater capacity for happiness than others will. This is why we shouldn’t just try to get into heaven by doing the bare minimum here on Earth.

That brings us to hell. Yes, the Church teaches that there really is a hell, certainly the least palatable of all the Church’s doctrines. There are too many references to hell in Scripture to just pretend that it doesn’t exist. It’s a place of eternal damnation for those who used the freedom that God gave them to reject God’s love. It is the state of persons who die in mortal sin, in a condition of self-alienation from God.

We believe that God gives everyone the graces necessary to accept God’s love and live according to his precepts, but he also gives everyone the freedom to reject that love. The essence of hell is final exclusion from communion with God because of one’s own fault.

But what about the fires of hell we see in so many cartoons? This is a metaphor for the pain of eternal separation from God, which must be the most horrifying pain of all. There won’t be physical fire, which wouldn’t affect a spiritual body anyway.

And who is in hell? That’s an ancient controversy because some theologians have taught that perhaps everyone will be saved, the concept of universal salvation. We can hope for universal salvation, but we must not assume it.

Pope John Paul II said at his general audience on July 28, 1999, “Eternal damnation remains a real possibility, but we are not granted … the knowledge of whether, or which, human beings are effectively involved in it.”

The Church has said infallibly, through the process of canonization, that certain people are in heaven, but it has never said that certain people are in hell.

Next week: Purgatory. †

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