As the days grow short, what are the four last things?

By | November 7, 2011


Of these final four things, death is perhaps the easiest to explain — mostly because we have all experienced death in one form or another. We know that life, as we know it now, ceases to exist and the soul is separated from the body. St. Paul describes death as being away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8).

We also know that death was not God’s original intent for humans, but that death entered the world through sin (Rom 5:12). Just as humans have failed through their actions toward God and others, our bodies will fail us.

However, even as we know death is inevitable, we also know that death is not the end — because of Christ. So we can say, as St. Thérèse of Lisieux did as she neared death: “I am not dying, I am entering life.”


The church teaches that there will be two judgments: particular and last judgment. The last judgment comes at the end of time and, in a way, closes the book. This is where the Apostles’ Creed tells us that Christ “will come to judge the living and the dead.”

Unless we do not die before the Second Coming, the particular judgment is of more immediate concern to us now because the church teaches that this is what happens to every person when he or she dies. Citing the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of a “final destiny of the soul” that differs for each person.

“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 or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation” (n. 1022).


When we pray for the dead, we are praying for those in purgatory. The church’s teaching on purgatory was largely set down by the Council of Trent (1563), though the idea of purification has been with the church since its earliest days. The church teaches that purgatory exists as a means by which those who are not perfect at death will be able to enter into God’s presence.

In trying to understand purgatory (which is not in the list of “four last things”), we should remember the purpose for which we were created: to seek God, to know him, to share in the divine life and to love God completely (Catechism, n. 1). If we have not completed this task by the time we die, we are able to do so through purgatory.

As Blessed John Paul II reminded us in a series of general audiences in 1999, “The term (purgatory) does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence. Those who, after death, exist in a state of purification are already in the love of Christ who removes from them the remnants of imperfection.”


“The Catholic Encyclopedia” defines hell as “the place or state of men (and angels) who, because of sin, are excluded forever from the beatific vision,” or the presence of God. Blessed John Paul II described hell as “the state of those who definitively reject the Father’s mercy, even at the last moment of their lives.”

The late pope added that, while we have very clear images and descriptions of what hell might be like, we should be cautious that these images “be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God. Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.”


Heaven, on the other hand, is the final goal we all pray we will attain, through God’s merciful love. It is where we will see “God face-to-face” (1 Cor 13:12).

“The Catholic Encyclopedia” describes heaven as the abode of the blessed and adds that, “Only the perfectly pure and holy can enter heaven, but for those who have attained that state, either at death or after a course of purification in purgatory, entry into heaven is not deferred, as has sometimes been erroneously held, till after the general judgment.”

Blessed John Paul II called heaven “a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity.” And that is the one last thing we all hope to attain.

Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Catechism of the Catholic Church”; the Vatican website at; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”; and “The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism.”


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