November 2007 - Volume 12, Issue 4

What Happens When You Die?

By Rev. Raymond K. Petrucci

A photo of a tree with no leaves against a gray skyMost November days are shrouded in gray. At least, it seems so. For some, an overcast sky is ominous, forbidding, and dreary; there are others who prefer a gray canopy for their day. For me, a spirit of thoughtfulness and introspection captures my mind and soul on gray days. Thus, it is well that November is a month for remembering our beloved who have departed this world and for celebrating the lives of the saints.

These musings evoke the following question: What happens when you die? Mystics and theologians have offered their insights. The religions of the world have answers in their scriptures and traditional beliefs. Various cult followers are convinced that they have discovered the truth. The Old Testament brings us from an early view of an Underworld where the good and the bad alike rest in eternal sleep to a concept of an eternal life with God. Judas Maccabeus made atonement for the dead that they may be delivered from sin. The gospels teach about a Final Judgment, Heaven and Hell, reward and punishment, as does the final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelations. The Church commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken for the benefit of the dead.

But what actually happens when death overtakes us? Is there a tunnel with an inviting bright light at its end? Are we beckoned by our departed loved ones to join them in paradise?

In a humorous vein, I imagine a newly departed soul appearing before the Pearly Gates and encountering a telephone. The anxious arrival raises the receiver to his or her ear and hears the following:

Welcome to Heaven. If you know your party's extension,
you may press it at any time.
For Final Judgment, press 1.
For a lawyer, press 2.
For Saint Peter, press 3.
For our directory of the Communion of Saints, press 4.
For directions to "The Other Place," stand on the marks indicated and press 666.
Or please stay on the line and your Guardian Angel will assist you.

As with all mysteries, knowledge of what occurs in the experience of death is far beyond the capabilities of the human mind. That fact, of course, is what makes it a mystery. Nevertheless, scripture and Church teaching provide insight and expectations regarding the issue. Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory have been part of the terminology regarding the afterlife for centuries. Before venturing further, let us offer a simple definition of these three "places."

Heaven– the condition of living in God's perfect love. The experience of the Beatific Vision, the Communion of Saints, and love beyond imagining shared eternally.

Hell– Total separation from God and from all love. It is the soul spending eternity in a state of complete self-centeredness and emptiness.

Purgatory– a process of bringing a soul from a state of imperfect love to a state of perfect love. It is a condition of joy in the midst of suffering because the soul is bound for heaven.

Although Purgatory has struggled for recognition as of late, it seems a sensible belief to me. Purgatory was formulated by the efforts of theologians in the Councils of Florence and Trent. The concept of a cleansing fire is found in scripture and in Church tradition. Are purgatory and hell real? Indeed, I tend to be a bit cynical when questioned about the reality of purgatory and hell. Often, I respond to such a query by stating something to the effect that given what I witness reported in the media about the abominable actions of human beings each day, I tend to have no problem believing in purgatory and hell; I have difficulty believing in heaven.

A photo of a the sun's rays coming through the cloudsI do believe that that second birth known as death opens one to the greater mystery of life. One must bear his or her heart before God. If one has directed his or her life toward loving God, neighbor, and self, the destiny of the soul looks bright. All that is unworthy of God would have to be stripped from the soul, resulting in a soul enlightened by the fullness of God's truth and love. There would be a profound sadness regarding the tragedy of sin in one's life and a wondrous joy over the power of God's mercy toward the repentant.

Only God knows what is to be and is the only one who can answer the question of what will be one's final state. In my opinion, what happens when you die reflects what happened while you lived.