Series: Know Mary, Know Jesus

Where the Soul Goes Immediately After Death

What happens when someone dies? Unfortunately, it seems that the number of people who live with ignorance – whether intentional or not – of the next life grows with each passing generation. As a result, it is always good to remember and call to mind the Church’s immemorial and unchanging teachings on the places in the next life – there are four places to where a soul may go after death. Before Our Lord’s Ascension, there was a fifth place which is now closed.
 

What Is Death?

Death is the separation of the soul from the body. At death, our ‘natural life’ upon this earth comes to an end and our physical body suffers decay. Yet, life upon this earth has never been the purpose of man’s existence. Rather, we are pilgrims passing through this ‘vale of tears.’

God is not the author of death. He did not “create” it.[1] Death is a consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin (i.e., original sin) that was not part of mankind’s original state. Yet, death is not the end of man’s existence since the soul is immortal and can never die.[2] Death is the doorway to life everlasting.

Death is real – all mankind must undergo death. Even Our Lord Jesus Christ – Who did not have to undergo death because He was sinless – chose to undergo death to bring about the salvation of mankind. And it is widely believed that at the end of Mary’s sinless life, before the Assumption of Her soul and body into Heaven, that She too experienced death.[3]

We will one day die. There is no avoiding it.[4] As such, understanding the places of the afterlife and doing everything we can to avoid hell and enter Heaven is essential. These are not theoretical mental exercises. We will without a doubt one day be judged and sentenced. Prepare for your Judgment like it were to happen today. Where would God sentence you? If you have unrepentant mortal sin on your soul, there is only one possibility – hell.
 

The Five Places After Death

Hell: Hell is real. We know that the devil too is real and in hell.

Turning again to the Baltimore Catechism, we recall: “Hell is a state to which the wicked are condemned, and in which they are deprived of the sight of God for all eternity and are in dreadful torments. The damned will suffer in both mind and body because both mind and body had a share in their sins. The mind suffers the ‘pain of loss’ in which it is tortured by the thought of having lost God forever, and the body suffers the ‘pain of sense’ by which it is tortured in all its members and senses” (Q. 1379 – 1380).

Purgatory: Purgatory is not a permanent place but a temporary place of purification which many souls experience before being able to enter Heaven. Contrary to what some may think, those who die in the state of mortal sin go to hell for all eternity. To those utterly lost souls, there is no hope of escape or relief.

But to souls who die with only venial sin on their souls or to those who die with the temporal effects of any sin on their souls, Purgatory offers an opportunity to purify their souls to be able to enter Heaven. Yet, Purgatory is not without its pains and sufferings, which will be greater than any suffering we can experience on earth.[5] Purgatory involves suffering, as Pope St. Gregory I affirms: “Even as in the same fire gold glistens and straw smokes, so in the same fire the sinner burns, and the elect is cleansed.”

Succinctly put, according to A Catholic Dictionary from 1951, Purgatory is:

“The place and state in which souls suffer for a while and are purged after death, before they go to Heaven, on account of their sins. Venial sins, which have never in life been remitted by an act of repentance or love or by good deeds, and grave sins, the guilt of which with its eternal punishment has indeed been removed by God after an act of repentance but for which there is still left a debt of temporal punishment due to His justice on account of the imperfection of that repentance, must be purged away after death by the pain of intense longing for God, whose blissful vision is delayed, and also, as is commonly taught, by some pain of sense inflicted probably by material fire.”[6]

Limbo of the Fathers: When we say the Creed, we profess our belief that Our Divine Lord “descended unto the dead” or “descended to hell,” as some translations state. But this hell is not to be confused with the Hell of the Damned. The Catechism of the Council of Trent states: “We profess that immediately after the death of Christ His soul descended into hell, and dwelt there as long as His body remained in the tomb; and also that the one Person of Christ was at the same time in hell and in the sepulcher.”

Seeking to clarify the meaning of Christ’s descent to hell, the Catechism of St. Pius X explains: “Hell here means the Limbo of the holy Fathers, that is, the place where the souls of the just were detained, in expectation of redemption through Jesus Christ.” The Roman Catechism[7] corroborates this by explaining: “Hell, then, here signifies those secret abodes in which are detained the souls that have not obtained the happiness of heaven. In this sense the word is frequently used in Scripture” (cf. Philippians 2:10).[8]

Up until Our Lord’s Ascension, the doors of Heaven were closed because of Adam’s sin. While the debt for this sin was paid through the death and Resurrection of Christ, the doors remained closed until He, the Victor over death, should open them and be the first to walk through them. Ascension Thursday recalls this sublime mystery: the opening of Heaven to the souls who had waited in the Limbo of the Fathers. It was on the day of the Lord’s Ascension that humanity, in the Person of Christ, first entered Heaven. And on that day, the Limbo of the Fathers was definitely emptied and “closed”[9] as the souls who had waited there were finally admitted to Heaven.

Heaven: The Baltimore Catechism reminds us: “Heaven is the state of everlasting life in which we see God face to face, are made like unto Him in glory, and enjoy eternal happiness… The happiness in Heaven consists in seeing the beauty of God, in knowing Him as He is, and in having every desire fully satisfied” (Q. 1395 – 1396).

Heaven is the goal each of us should be striving for. But Heaven is the immediate destination after death only for those who die in the state of sanctifying grace and have no temporal effects or unremitted venial sins on the soul. Nothing impure or defiled may enter Heaven (see Apocalypse 21:27, the last book in the Bible). Thus, Purgatory is an immense gift making it possible for us to make it to Heaven, so long as we die in the state of sanctifying grace.[10]

Sadly, we know from Our Lady of Fatima and from many other testimonies of the saints and mystics that very few souls ultimately make it to Heaven. Even Our Lord Himself made this clear when He said: “Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!” (Matthew 7:13-14)

Limbo of the Infants: The Limbo of the Fathers (limbus patrum) – the place of waiting for the souls of the just who died prior to Our Lord’s Ascension – is not to be confused with the Limbo of the infants (limbus infantium). Often informally only called “Limbo” instead of “Limbo of the infants,” it refers to the place of natural happiness where go the souls of those who die without personal sin but without sanctifying grace. This could include, for example, young children who have not reached the age of reason, infants, and babies who die in utero. What is infallibly certain is that without God’s sanctifying grace[11] it is impossible to enter and to exist in Heaven.

Indeed, one of the greatest crimes of abortion is the deprivation of the unborn child’s soul from Baptism. Since Baptism, “or a desire for it” (cf., Council of Trent), is necessary for salvation, these souls cannot enter Heaven. Yet, due to the love of God, they do not suffer the pains of hell with the souls of the damned. Pope St. Pius X and other theologians have asserted that the Limbo of the infants is a place of rest, yet without the joy of seeing God face-to-face, where such children go for all eternity. It would be analogous to the best possible day on this earth we could imagine that lasted forever. Yet, these souls will never see God, which is the chief and greatest joy of Heaven.

While some in the Church have tried in recent years to discredit the existence of this Limbo, this modernistic tendency is in direct contrast to the teaching of Pope Pius VI in Auctorem Fidei (Aug. 28, 1794):

“The doctrine which rejects as a Pelagian fable, that place of the lower regions (which the faithful generally designate by the name of the limbo of children) in which the souls of those departing with the sole guilt of original sin are punished with the punishment of the condemned, exclusive of the punishment of fire […] [is] false, rash, injurious to Catholic schools.”

 

Conclusion:

Heaven is our goal. Let us take concrete action in our lives to frequent the Sacraments, participate in routine devotions, wear the Scapular, pray the Rosary daily, fast and do penance, and learn more about the Catholic Faith so as to help others save their souls.[12]


[1] As the Scriptures testify, “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). Our Lord Himself asserts, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12:27).

[2] Note that at the Second Coming of Christ, and the General Judgment, all bodies will be resurrected. The elect will have glorified bodies for all eternity and the damned will have horrific bodies that augment their sufferings in hell for all eternity. The ‘resurrection of the body’ for all at the end of time is a de fide dogma which every Catholic is obligated to believe, for God Himself has revealed it.

[3] This has not been taught de fide, but it makes theological sense. Our Lady is the perfect Christian. She wanted to imitate Her Son in all things. If He suffered the painful separation of body and soul in death, then She too would have wanted to experience this suffering. So while She did not have to suffer death, as She did not sin, would She not have chosen this path for greater conformity to Her Divine Son?

[4] People often quip that only two things in life are certain: death and taxes. This statement is inaccurate. In truth, there is only one thing which I can know with absolute certitude about my life, and that is that I will die.

[5] Catholics should not have the attitude of “Well, as long as I make it to Purgatory, then I’m safe.” First, one should “aim higher” so that if he misses Heaven, he gets to Purgatory. If one’s goal is ‘just’ Purgatory, then a ‘miss’ means hell. But more importantly, one who thinks thus does not realize that “one second” in Purgatory will be more painful than the sum of all the pain experienced in one’s entire lifetime on earth. In His goodness and mercy, God will provide enough suffering, trials, and grace for a person to make sufficient reparation for all their sins. We should strive to accomplish this while we are here on earth, and even to make more reparation to help atone for the sins and temporal punishment of others (e.g., by meriting as many indulgences as possible).

[6] http://www.catholicessentials.net/purgatory.htm. We should do everything we can to offer our prayers and indulgences for the Poor Souls. It is a work of mercy. See https://acatholiclife.blogspot.com/2005/08/why-have-mass-for-deceased-loved-one.html for more information.

[7] Also known as The Catechism of the Council of Trent.

[8] This should not be seen as a contradiction or misuse of the term “hell,” especially when one understands what the word “limbo” means. The Latin term “limbus” means the border or margin of a structure. This term is encountered in biology and other sciences; for example, referring to the junction of the cornea and sclera in the eye. So in the Catholic use of the word, limbo is the border, peripheral margin, or outermost limit of the region known as hell. The pains and suffering are not the same as in the other regions. For previous generations of Christians this was never a problem. For example, Dante journeys through various “levels” of hell and of Heaven. St. Paul speaks of the “third Heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2). It is only in more modern times that we seem to have “forgotten” that our tradition speaks of varying levels in both Heaven and hell.

[9] The use of the term “closed” denotes that no souls will ever again go to the Limbo of the Fathers. In other words, for all those who die after Our Lord’s Ascension, the Limbo of the Fathers is no longer an option.

[10] We should regularly receive the Sacrament of Confession. Sacramental Confession is necessary for the forgiveness of sins. However, rather than merely meeting the minimum requirement to go only once a year, we should ideally go to Confession roughly every two weeks in order to better fight temptation and to better ensure that if death were to strike today, we would not be sentenced to an eternity in hell. https://acatholiclife.blogspot.com/2006/03/necessity-of-confession.html

[11] The normal means by which man first receives sanctifying grace is Baptism. Once this grace is received, it can only be lost by mortal sin. Naturally, sacramental Confession restores sanctifying grace that has been lost. Each of the seven Sacraments confers God’s sanctifying grace.

[12] For more information on death and the places in the afterlife, see “Eschatology: The Catholic Study of the Four Last Things,” available at https://www.lulu.com/en/us/shop/matthew-r-plese/eschatology-the-catholic-study-of-the-four-last-things/paperback/product-1wvjdy47.html

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