This series covers five leading thoughts about what happens to us after death, Annihilation, Catholic Options, Soul Sleep, Instantaneous Resurrection, and Disembodied Existence. None of these postings is an exhaustive discussion but I want to see what the Bible has to say about each.
This is the second post and covers Catholic Options.
· Catholic Options Immediately After Death
o Hell – eternal punishment for those who are in a state of wickedness.
o Purgatory – this is the place where believers go who are not spiritually perfect to become perfected.
o Heaven – eternal reward for those who are completely purified when they die (or become purified in purgatory).
Please excuse me if I’m not 100% accurate on the current Catholic doctrines. Much of this comes from my own upbringing in the Catholic Church before Vatican II. Other parts come from reading Millard J. Erickson’s Christian Theology, the New Catholic Encyclopedia, as well as where it appears Scripture either supports or contradicts these points.
At this point, I need to define soul. While the previous post on annihilation was not concerned with the soul versus the body. They were both the same and if one ceased so did the other. However, this post and the following are vitally concerned with the difference between the body and soul. When the body dies, the soul, which is the essence of who we are, lives on.
Immediately after people die, their souls become aware of their status before God. The way Erickson explains it, the soul at this point is in such agreement with God’s judgment that it voluntarily move to heaven, hell, or purgatory. The basis he provides is Hebrews 9:27, “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (NASB). I could probably stop right here except it would make sense to understand why some would go to one place or another.
The only reason that a soul would go immediately to heaven is if the person was absolutely in a state of grace. A state of grace would mean that they did not have any venial or mortal sins at the time of death. My understanding was that when I went to confession and did all my penance, I was in that state of grace. If I died at that moment, I would go to heaven. However, if I had even one very minor, insignificant, momentary, lapse such as a bad thought. I would have a venial sin and would not go directly to heaven. The probability of that happening is very small and only the saints are believed to have achieved that. And, I’m not too sure about them.
I don’t know the biblical basis for going to heaven only if you are in a perfect state of grace. From a Protestant viewpoint, we are all sinners, even after we have been saved, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). However, when we look at the verses on either side, it is evident that Jesus’ blood cleanses us from all sin, and that would include venial and mortal. Then when we do sin, and confess them, we are cleansed from those as well. I suspect that the Catholic position on these verses support their view of purgatory for any unconfessed venial sin and hell for unconfessed mortal sins. The Protestant view is that in the context of verse seven, we do not lose salvation but fellowship with God because Jesus paid for the penalty of all our sins (Heb 10:10). Admittedly, there are Protestants that also believe you can lose your salvation, but that is a topic for another study.
If a person has venial sins when they die, their soul goes immediately to purgatory. Purgatory is a place of suffering and torment that lasts until satisfaction for the sins has been accomplished. Another flavor is that penance may not have been sufficient for the sin so these insufficiencies must also be atoned for in purgatory. Catholics support this from verses such as, “And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come” (Matt 12:32). They quote only the last part of the verse. In addition, the New Catholic Encyclopedia admits that the basis of purgatory is tradition and not the Bible.
I think a short explanation of venial sin versus mortal is in order. I thought that there was a clear demarcation between the two and there must be some list somewhere within the Catholic Church that could be referenced. I believed venial sins were something like hitting or teasing your brother or sister. Mortal were killing, adultery, even missing Mass on Sunday, Easter, or Christmas. Then there was the issue of eating meat on Friday, which was just as serious as murder. I later found out that it was OK to eat meat on Friday if you were in the armed forces. The more official definition is that mortal sin “causes the eternal loss of the soul in hell … , and venial sin, which does not cause eternal DAMNATION and which even the just commit in daily life.” With this kind of confusion and not always static definitions, it is no wonder that purgatory is actually a comforting thought. If I mess up and don’t know it, I don’t go to hell, only purgatory. If my penance wasn’t pure enough I still had a second chance. Oh, in addition, prayers and other good works by living people can help those in purgatory.
The problem with purgatory is that it is a works based means of salvation. It says that Jesus’ death on the cross isn’t sufficient payment for our sins. We must work off some of them ourselves even if the work is done in the afterlife. It goes against, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph 2:8-9) as well as many other verses.
The Catholic teaching on hell is rather straightforward. If a person dies with original or a mortal, they are immediately judged and go to hell. There are no second chances, no purgatory, just everlasting hell. Now there are shades of this that are not as clear. Limbo was a place that was not heaven or paradise and reserved for “good” people who were not baptized to remove original sin.
All said, if the concept of purgatory were eliminated, the Catholic view of what happens to a person immediately after death is not essentially different from some of the Protestant viewpoints. However, that big parenthesis of purgatory that stands between heaven and hell is a significant doctrinal issue. It was an issue of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) where the Catholic Church responded to the Reformation. The Church’s stance on purgatory has remained essentially unchanged. Vatican II reaffirmed the decrees of Trent.
 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3 ed. (Grand Rapids, USA.: Baker Academic, 2013), 1080, Kindle.
 Ibid., 1079.
 Scripture quoted in this post is from The New American Standard Bible (NASB), 1977.
 J. F. X. Cevetello, and R. J. Bastian, s.v. "Purgatory." . 2nd ed. Vol. 11, Detroit: Gale, 2003. 824-829. , accessed 14 Oct. 2015, http://go.galegroup.com.access-proxy.sno-isle.org/ps/retrieve.do?isETOC=true&inPS=true&prodId=GVRL&userGroupName=sirls_main&resultListType=RELATED_DOCUMENT&contentSegment=9780787676940&docId=GALE|CX3407709208.