With so many opposing views and different things said about souls and where we go after we die, it’s no wonder why death remains a topic that many Catholics and even non-Catholics find confusing. So what exactly happens to us after we die, and how long does our soul stay after our final breath? Let me answer these questions here by discussing what the Catholic Church teaches us about death.
Our souls immediately leave our bodies after we die. It does not linger, “roam around”, or wander the earth. It immediately proceeds to God for judgment. Then depending on how we have lived our lives, the good we’ve done, and the sins we’ve committed, we can either go to heaven, purgatory, or hell.
So when and how does one’s soul go to heaven, purgatory, or hell? Does this mean that we believe in the afterlife? Continue reading to know the answers to all these questions.
Where Does the Catholic Soul Go After Death?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC #1022) states: “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. At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.”
So when we die, our souls immediately leave our earthly bodies to stand before God for judgment. That said, there’s nowhere in our doctrine that says our souls wait for a specific time before finally leaving the Earth. This means that we reject the 40-day belief despite its popularity even among our fellow Catholics.
The Church teaches us that our souls will be judged “at the very moment” of our death. So where does it go?
Well, here’s where all the good and bad things we’ve done in life come in. Each person will be judged according to their own deeds. So if you are free from all sin, then you can enter Heaven immediately. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC #1023): “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship, are perfectly purified, live forever with Christ.”
The Church teaches us that the “perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity – this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels, and all the blessed” is called Heaven. It is the “ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” (CCC #1025)
Now, for those who die with sins and are not fully purified, their souls will be brought to Purgatory. This is a place where the Lord, with all his love and mercy, will purge and heal people’s souls. After getting purified, their souls will then be allowed to enter heaven.
On the other hand, those who willingly reject God and his love, their souls will go directly to hell. The same goes if one continues to live in sin. From CCC #1033: “We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves…”
Is There Life After Death in Catholicism?
In the Catholic tradition, we are taught that we will have to face two judgments: when we die and at the end of the world. The first is called the “particular judgment”, which I have described above. The second one is the Final or Last Judgment, which we’ll discuss in more depth below. But first, you have to understand one thing: our souls never die.
“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.” CCC #366
With that said, we don’t cease to exist after we die. Our souls will live on, waiting for Jesus’ return. When he finally does, he will then judge the living and the dead. This is the Final Judgment where those who have already been judged will stay in either heaven or hell, and those who haven’t will now be judged and enter either heaven or hell. But before we are judged for the final time, our souls will be reunited with our earthly bodies.
These teachings can all be seen in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, where it says:
“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.” (CCC #997)
“In the presence of Christ, who is Truth itself, the truth of each man’s relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life.
The Last Judgment will come when Christ returns in glory. Only the Father knows the day and the hour; only he determines the moment of its coming. Then through his son Jesus Christ, he will pronounce the final word on all history. We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and of the entire economy of salvation and understand the marvelous ways by which his Providence led everything toward its final end. The Last Judgment will reveal that God’s justice triumphs over all the injustices committed by his creatures and that God’s love is stronger than death.” (CCC #1039-1040)
So our souls will be waiting in Heaven or Hell until Christ comes back to judge us for the last time and reunite us with our bodies. Therefore, death is not the end. As Catholics, we believe that there is life after death – with each of us retaining our individualities and having the ultimate goal of being reunited with Christ.