What will happen to us after death? Where will we all go? This is one of the great interrogations of all human beings, whether Christians or not. Throughout history, the answer to these questions has often been sought in a manner that doesn’t demand a rigorous moral attitude that is coherent with the belief in an eternal life and a infinite God who rewards and chastises….
The eschatological teachings of the Church, based on Revelation, and expounded throughout the centuries by the Magisterium, address these questions with authority and wisdom. And, as Guardian of truth, the Church has a missionary purpose that is derived from Christ’s mandate to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples and to seek to attract all to to perennial truth. But…what is the real truth about this topic?
[Note: The present declarations are found in the cited article-interview of Eugenio Scalfari, attributed (without quotation marks) to Pope Francis. However, as these words have not been the object of any official disclaimer – causing confusion among Catholics – we include them here, together with the customary array of magisterial teachings.]
Enter in the various parts of our study
I – The human soul is immortal and cannot be annihilated
II – The immortal soul receives its eternal retribution: reward or punishment
III – The Church should labor so that the world know its Savior and Judge
Since in our days (and we painfully bring this up) the sower of cockle, ancient enemy of the human race, has dared to disseminate and advance in the field of the Lord a number of pernicious errors, always rejected by the faithful, especially concerning the nature of the rational soul, namely, that it is mortal, or one in all men, and some rashly philosophizing affirmed that this is true at least according to philosophy, in our desire to offer suitable remedies against a plague of this kind, with the approval of this holy Council, we condemn and reject all who assert that the intellectual soul is mortal, or is one in all men, and those who cast doubt on these truths, since it [the soul] is not only truly in itself and essentially the form of the human body, as was defined in the canon of Pope Clement V our predecessor of happy memory published in the (general) Council of Vienne [n. 481] but it is also multiple according to the multitude of bodies into which it is infused, multiplied, and to be multiplied. . . .And since truth never contradicts truth, we declare [n. 1797] every assertion contrary to the truth of illumined faith to be altogether false; and, that it may not be permitted to dogmatize otherwise, we strictly forbid it, and we decree that all who adhere to errors of this kind are to be shunned and to be punished as detestable and abominable infidels who disseminate most damnable heresies and who weaken the Catholic faith. (Denzinger-Hünermann 1440-1441. Lateran Council V – Ecumenical XVIII – Leo X, Bull Apostolici Regiminis Session VIII, December 19, 1513)
The soul is a part of the human species; and so, although it may exist in a separate state, yet since it ever retains its nature of unibility, it cannot be called an individual substance, which is the hypostasis or first substance. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, I, q. 29, q. 1, ad. 5)
Because that alone in our soul which belongs to the intellect in act is separate and uses no organ; I mean that part of the soul whereby we understand actually and which includes the possible and agent intellect. And that is why Aristotle goes on to say that this part of the soul alone is immortal and everlasting, as being independent of the body in virtue of its separateness. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa contra Gentiles, bk. II, Ch. 78, no. 12)
Again, since the intellectual soul has an operation independent of the body, it is subsistent, as proved above (Question 75, Article 2): therefore to be and to be made are proper to it. Moreover, since it is an immaterial substance it cannot be caused through generation, but only through creation by God. Therefore to hold that the intellectual soul is caused by the begetter, is nothing else than to hold the soul to be non-subsistent and consequently to perish with the body. It is therefore heretical to say that the intellectual soul is transmitted with the semen. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, I, q. 118, a. 2)
That in the meantime we die, we are passing over to immortality by death; nor can eternal life follow, unless it should befall us to depart from this life. That is not an ending, but a transit, and, this journey of time being traversed, a passage to eternity. (Saint Cyprian. Liber de Mortalitate, no. 22: PG 4, 597)
The Apostle of the Gentiles later on makes himself the herald of this truth which associates men as brothers in one great family, when he proclaims to the Greek world that God ‘hath made of one, all mankind, to dwell upon the whole face of the earth, determining appointed times, and the limits of their habitation, that they should seek God’ (Acts 17:26, 27). A marvelous vision, which makes us see the human race in the unity of one common origin in God ‘one God and Father of all, Who is above all, and through all, and in us all’ (Eph 4:6); in the unity of nature which in every man is equally composed of material body and spiritual, immortal soul; in the unity of the immediate end and mission in the world; in the unity of dwelling place, the earth, of whose resources all men can by natural right avail themselves, to sustain and develop life; in the unity of the supernatural end, God Himself, to Whom all should tend; in the unity of means to secure that end. (Pius XII. Encyclical Summi pontificatus, nos. 37-38, October 20, 1939)
Now, man is not wrong when he regards himself as superior to bodily concerns, and as more than a speck of nature or a nameless constituent of the city of man. For by his interior qualities he outstrips the whole sum of mere things. He plunges into the depths of reality whenever he enters into his own heart; God, Who probes the heart (cf. 1Kings 16:7; Jer 17:10), awaits him there; there he discerns his proper destiny beneath the eyes of God. Thus, when he recognizes in himself a spiritual and immortal soul, he is not being mocked by a fantasy born only of physical or social influences, but is rather laying hold of the proper truth of the matter. (Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, no. 14, December 7, 1965)
The Sacred Congregation, whose task is to advance and protect the doctrine of the faith, here wishes to recall what the Church teaches in the name of Christ, especially concerning what happens between the death of the Christian and the general resurrection. […] The Church affirms that a spiritual element survives and subsists after death, an element endowed with consciousness and will, so that the ‘human self’ subsists. To designate this element, the Church uses the word ‘soul’, the accepted term in the usage of Scripture and Tradition. Although not unaware that this term has various meanings in the Bible, the Church thinks that there is no valid reason for rejecting it; moreover, she considers that the use of some word as a vehicle is absolutely indispensable in order to support the faith of Christians. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter on certain questions containing eschatology – Recentiores episcoporum Synodi, May 17, 1979)
The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God – it is not ‘produced’ by the parents – and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection (cf. Pius XII. Humani generis; Paul VI, CPC # 8; Lateran Council V). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 366)
The ‘resurrection of the flesh’ (the literal formulation of the Apostles’ Creed) means not only that the immortal soul will live on after death, but that even our ‘mortal body’ will come to life again (Rom 8:11). Belief in the resurrection of the dead has been an essential element of the Christian faith from its beginnings. ‘The confidence of Christians is the resurrection of the dead; believing this we live’ (Tertullian, De res, 1,1: PL 2, 841). How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep (1Cor 15:12-14). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 990-991)
You must not ‘grieve as others do who have no hope’ (1Thess 4:13). Here too we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well. So now we can say: Christianity was not only ‘good news’—the communication of a hitherto unknown content. In our language we would say: the Christian message was not only ‘informative’ but ‘performative’. That means: the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life. (Benedict XVI. Encyclical Spes salvi, no. 2, November 30, 2007)
II – The immortal soul receives its eternal retribution: reward or punishment
What is ‘rising’?
In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus’ Resurrection.
Who will rise?
All the dead will rise, ‘those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment’(Jn 5:29; cf. Dan 12:2). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 997-998)
Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ (cf. 2Tim 1:9-10). The New Testament speaks of judgment primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in his second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith. The parable of the poor man Lazarus (cf. Lk 16:22) and the words of Christ on the cross to the good thief (Lk 23:43), as well as other New Testament texts (2Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23; Heb 9:27; 12:23)) speak of a final destiny of the soul – a destiny which can be different for some and for others (Mt 16:26). 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 a purification (cf. Council of Lyons II: DS 857-858; Council of Florence: DS 1304- 1306; Council of Trent (1563): DS 1820.) or immediately (cf. Benedict XII. Benedictus Deus: DS 1000-1001; John XXII, Ne super his: DS 990) – or immediate and everlasting damnation (cf. Benedict XII. Benedictus Deus: DS 1002.) (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1021-1022)
We believe that cleansed in his death and in his blood we are to be raised up by him on the last day in this body with which we now live; and we have hope that we shall obtain from him either life eternal, the reward of good merit or the penalty of eternal punishment for sins. Read these words, keep them, subject your soul to this faith. From Christ the Lord you will receive both life and reward. (Denzinger-Hünermann 72. The formula called the ‘Faith of Damasus’)
Giving us an example with his resurrection, that we shall live as He, who after two days on the third resurrected living from among the dead, in this way we also at the end of this age believe that we shall resurrect in all places, not with a ethereal figure, or among the shadows as an illusionary vision, as the condemnable opinion of some affirmed [against the patriarch Eutiquio of Constantinople; cf. Gregory I the Great, Moralia XIV 56, no. 72], but within the substance of true flesh, in which now we exist and live, and at the hour of judgment presenting ourselves before Christ and his holy angels, each one will give an account (2Cor 5: 10) of that which pertains to his own body – as he proceeded; well or badly – to receive from Him either the kingdom of eternal bliss for his own actions or the sentence of perpetual condemnation for his crimes. (Denzinger-Hünermann 574. Sergius I. Council of Toledo XVI, May, 693, Profession of Faith, no. 35)
By this edict which will prevail forever, with apostolic authority we declare: that according to the common arrangement of God, souls of all the saints who departed from this world before the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ; also of the holy apostles, the martyrs, the confessors, virgins, and the other faithful who died after the holy baptism of Christ had been received by them, in whom nothing was to be purged, when they departed, nor will there be when they shall depart also in the future; or if then there was or there will be anything to be purged in these when after their death they have been purged; and the souls of children departing before the use of free will, reborn and baptized in that same baptism of Christ, when all have been baptized, immediately after their death and that aforesaid purgation in those who were in need of a purgation of this kind, even before the resumption of their bodies and the general judgment after the ascension of our Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, into heaven, have been, are, and will be in heaven, in the kingdom of heaven and in celestial paradise with Christ, united in the company of the holy angels, and after the passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ have seen and see the divine essence by intuitive vision, and even face to face, with no mediating creature, serving in the capacity of an object seen, but divine essence immediately revealing itself plainly, clearly, and openly, to them, and seeing thus they enjoy the same divine essence, and also that from such vision and enjoyment their souls, which now have departed, are truly blessed and they have eternal life and rest; and also [the souls] of those who afterwards will depart, will see that same divine essence, and will enjoy it before the general judgment; and that such vision of the divine essence and its enjoyment makes void the acts of faith and hope in them, inasmuch as faith and hope are proper theological virtues; and that after there has begun or will be such intuitive and face-to-face vision and enjoyment in these, the same vision and enjoyment without any interruption [intermission] or departure of the aforesaid vision and enjoyment exist continuously and will continue even up to the last judgment and from then even unto eternity. Moreover, we declare that according to the common arrangement of God, the souls of those who depart in actual mortal sin immediately after their death descend to hell where they are tortured by infernal punishments, and that nevertheless on the day of judgment all men with their bodies will make themselves ready to render an account of their own deeds before the tribunal of Christ, ‘so that everyone may receive the proper things of the body according as he has done whether it be good or evil’ (2Cor 5:10). (Denzinger-Hünermann 1000-1002. Benedict XII, Constitution Benedictus Deus, January 29, 1336)
We firmly believe and affirm also that judgment by Jesus Christ will be individually for those who have lived in this flesh, and that they will receive either punishment or rewards. (Denzinger-Hünermann 797. From the letter Eius exemplo, to the Archbishop of Terraco, December 18, 1208)
And although He according to divinity is immortal and impassible, the very same according to humanity was made passible and mortal, who, for the salvation of the human race, having suffered on the wood of the Cross and died, descended into hell, arose from the dead and ascended into heaven. But He descended in soul, and He arose in the flesh, and He ascended equally in both, to come at the end of time, to judge the living and the dead, and to render to each according to his works, to the wicked as well as to the elect, all of whom will rise with their bodies which they now bear, that they may receive according to their works, whether these works have been good or evil, the latter everlasting punishment with the devil, and the former everlasting glory with Christ. (Denzinger-Hünermann 801. Lateran Council IV (1215 AD) – Ecumenical XII (against the Albigensians, Joachim, Waldensians, etc.)
In fidelity to the New Testament and Tradition, the Church believes in the happiness of the just who will one day be with Christ. She believes that there will be eternal punishment for the sinner, who will be deprived of the sight of God, and that this punishment will have a repercussion on the whole being of the sinner. […] Christians must firmly hold the two following essential points: on the one hand they must believe in the fundamental continuity, thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit, between our present life in Christ and the future life (charity is the law of the Kingdom of God and our charity on earth will be the measure of our sharing in God’s glory in heaven); on the other hand they must be clearly aware of the radical break between the present life and the future one, due to the fact that the economy of faith will be replaced by the economy of fullness of life: we shall be with Christ and ‘we shall see God’ (cf. 1Jn 3:2), and it is in these promises and marvellous mysteries that our hope essentially consists. Our imagination may be incapable of reaching these heights, but our heart does so instinctively and completely. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter on certain questions containing eschatology – Recentiores episcoporum synodi, May 17, 1979)
From the records of the Gospels the equality of men consists in this, that all have received the same nature, and are called to the same highest dignity of the sons of God; and at the same time that, since the same end is established for all, each is to be judged individually according to the same law, to obtain punishments or rewards according to merit. (Denzinger-Hünermann 3130. Leo XIII, Encylical Quod Apostolici muneris, December 28, 1878)
Éscatos, in fact, means ‘last’. This word (or more frequently, what it means) does not only appear in many passages of the conciliar documents, but it also penetrates the entire idea of Christian life, of the history, time and human destiny beyond death (man’s ‘four last things’, according to the language of catechism and preaching, that is, death, judgment, hell and heaven); principally, what prevails is the idea of the plan of God with relation to humanity, the world and the glorious and eternal final epilogue of the mission of Christ. This notion brings to mind a Church on its way to another life; not established definitively on this earth, but rather provisionally, engaged within a messianism that is extended beyond time. […] It is true that we accept the words of the Lord, which infuse us with the certainty that with His coming to the world, ‘the kingdom of God is already in our midst’ (cf. Lk 17:21); we already possess – within the Church animated by the Holy Spirit – immense riches of a new life. But, after, with the prophetic emanation that permeates the entire Gospel, Christ shows us that his historic coming, which we know from the Gospel, is not the final one. (Paul VI. General Audience, September 8, 1971)
Consequently the moral life has an essential ‘teleological’ character, since it consists in the deliberate ordering of human acts to God, […] but this ordering to one’s ultimate end is not something subjective, dependent solely upon one’s intention. It presupposes that such acts are in themselves capable of being ordered to this end, insofar as they are in conformity with the authentic moral good of man, safeguarded by the commandments. This is what Jesus himself points out in his reply to the young man: ‘If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments’ (Mt 19:17). Clearly such an ordering must be rational and free, conscious and deliberate, by virtue of which man is ‘responsible’ for his actions and subject to the judgment of God. (John Paul II. Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, no. 73, August 6, 1993)
For great wrath ought to be preceded by great forbearance, that the sentence of God may be made more just, and the death of the sinners more merited. God does not know sinners because they are not worthy that they should be known of God; not that He altogether is ignorant concerning them, but because He knows them not for His own. For God knows all men according to nature, but He seems not to know them for that He loves them not, as they seem not to know God who do not serve Him worthily.[…] For death separates the soul from the body, but changes not the purpose of the heart. (Pseudo-Chrysostom in: Saint Thomas Aquinas. Catena Aurea, Mt 7:21-23)
For when a man is changed by some process from one thing into another, not to be what he was is to him an ending, and to be what he was not is a beginning. But the question is, to what a man either dies or lives: because there is a death, which is the cause of living, and there is a life, which is the cause of dying. And nowhere else but in this transitory world are both sought after, so that upon the character of our temporal actions depend the differences of the eternal retributions. We must die, therefore, to the devil and live to God: we must perish to iniquity that we may rise to righteousness.(Saint Leo the Great. Sermon LXXI, On the Lord’s Resurrection, I, 1)
III – The Church should labor so that the world may know its Savior and Judge
“Having been divinely sent to the nations that she might be ‘the universal sacrament of salvation,’ the Church, in obedience to the command of her founder and because it is demanded by her own essential universality, strives to preach the Gospel to all men” (Ad Gentes 1): ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and Lo, I am with you always, until the close of the age’ (Mt 28:19-20). […] Missionary motivation. It is from God’s love for all men that the Church in every age receives both the obligation and the vigor of her missionary dynamism, ‘for the love of Christ urges us on’ (2Cor 5:14; cf. Apostolicam actuositatem 6; Redemptoris missio 11). Indeed, God ‘desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’; (1Tim 2:4) that is, God wills the salvation of everyone through the knowledge of the truth. Salvation is found in the truth. Those who obey the prompting of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation. But the Church, to whom this truth has been entrusted, must go out to meet their desire, so as to bring them the truth. Because she believes in God’s universal plan of salvation, the Church must be missionary. […] By her very mission, ‘the Church . . . travels the same journey as all humanity and shares the same earthly lot with the world: she is to be a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God’ (Gaudium et spes 40 # 2). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 849; 851; 854)
The Judge who returns at the same time as Judge and Saviour has left us the duty to live in this world in accordance with his way of living. He has entrusted his talents to us. Our third conviction, therefore, is responsibility before Christ for the world, for our brethren and at the same time also for the certainty of his mercy. Both these things are important. Since God can only be merciful we do not live as if good and evil were the same thing. This would be a deception. In reality, we live with a great responsibility. We have talents, and our responsibility is to work so that this world may be open to Christ, that it be renewed. (Benedict XVI. General Audience, November 12, 2008)