Question 159: What is purgatory?
Purgatory, often imagined as a place, is actually a condition. Someone who dies in God’s grace (and therefore at peace with God and men) but who still needs purification before he can see God face to face is in purgatory. When Peter had betrayed Jesus, the Lord turned around and looked at Peter: “And Peter went out and wept bitterly”—a feeling like being in purgatory. Just such a purgatory probably awaits most of us at the moment of our death: the Lord looks at us full of love—and we experience burning shame and painful remorse over our wicked or “merely” unloving behavior. Only after this purifying pain will we be capable of meeting his loving gaze in untroubled heavenly joy.
Question 160: Can we help the departed who are in the condition of purgatory?
Yes, since all those who are baptized into Christ form one communion and are united with one another, the living can also help the souls of the faithful departed in purgatory. When a man is dead, he can do nothing more for himself. The time of active probation is past. But we can do something for the faithful departed in purgatory. Our love extends into the afterlife. Through our fasting, prayers, and good works, but especially through the celebration of Holy Eucharist, we can obtain grace for the departed.
Question 161: What is hell?
Hell is the condition of everlasting separation from God, the absolute absence of love. Someone who consciously and with full consent dies in serious sin, without repenting, and refuses God’s merciful, forgiving love forever, excludes himself from communion with God and the saints. We do not know whether anyone at the moment of death can look absolute Love in the face and still say No. But our freedom makes that decision possible. Jesus warns us again and again not to separate ourselves definitively from him by shutting our hearts against the need of his brothers and sisters: “Depart from me, you cursed … As you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (Mt 25:41, 45).
Question 162: But if God is love, how can there be hell?
God does not damn men. Man himself is the one who refuses God’s merciful love and voluntarily deprives himself of (eternal) life by excluding himself from communion with God. God yearns for communion even with the worst sinner; he wants everyone to convert and be saved. Yet God created man to be free and respects his decisions. Even God cannot compel love. As a lover he is “powerless” when someone chooses hell instead of heaven.
Question 163: What is the Last Judgment?
The Last Judgment will take place at the end of the world, at the second coming of Christ. “All who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (Jn 5:29). When Christ comes again in glory, his full splendor will shine upon us. The truth will come plainly to light: our thoughts, our deeds, our relationship to God and to other men—nothing will remain hidden. We will recognize the ultimate meaning of creation, comprehend God’s marvelous ways for the sake of our salvation, and finally receive also an answer to the question of why evil can be so powerful if God is in fact the Almighty. The Last Judgment is also our day in court. Here it is decided whether we will rise to eternal life or be separated from God forever. Toward those who have chosen life, God will act creatively once again. In a “new body” (see 2 Cor 5) they will live forever in God’s glory and praise him with body and soul.
Question 164: How will the world come to an end?
At the end of time, God will create a new heaven and a new earth. Evil will no longer have any power or attractiveness. The redeemed will stand face to face with God—as his friends. Their yearning for peace and justice will be fulfilled. To behold God will be their blessedness. The Triune God will dwell among them and wipe away every tear from their eyes; there will be no more death, sorrow, lamentation, or trouble.