United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
“At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.”
St. John of the Cross
[In freedom, one chooses one’s eternal destiny. The choice we make determines what eternity will be like.]
What is heaven like? Scripture uses a variety of pictures to help us understand heaven, such as a wedding party, a banquet, the Father’s house, a state of unending or perfect happiness. But the real heaven is beyond any picture we can paint of it… Seeing God face to face in all his glory is the essential aspect of heaven. This is called the beatific vision. To make this possible God must reveal himself and give us the capacity to behold him. [Thus we must be transformed and glorified to experience the fullness of the experience of God in heaven]. In the words of St. Cyprian, “How great will your glory and happiness be, to be allowed to see God, to be honored with sharing the joy of salvation and eternal light with Christ your Lord and God…to delight in the joy of immortality in the Kingdom of Heaven with the righteous and God’s friends.”
What is purgatory like? Traditionally purgatory has been described as a purifying fire. Since the human soul cannot be touched by earthly flames…[the pains of purgatory are associated with the] purification that obtains that perfection of love and holiness needed to enter heaven, that obtains a heart that is totally open to God, that obtains the necessary detachment from selfishness and self-centeredness necessary to see and experience the God of Heaven. This purging, this purification of all that is not for the honor and glory of God is what the pain of purgatory consists of.]
What is hell like? The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God” (CCC 1035). It is impossible for us to be united with God if we refuse to love him. When we sin seriously against God, neighbor, or self, we have failed to love God. Persistence in a state of serious sin reflects a choice to reject God’s love and an intention to separate oneself from him. Freely chosen eternal separation from communion with God is called hell. While images of fire have been used traditionally to picture hell, for example in the Scriptures, the reality of hell exceeds our ability to describe the pain of isolation that comes from rejecting God’s love.
Scripture and the teaching of the Church regarding heaven and hell emphasize a call to personal responsibility by which we use our freedom, aided by divine grace, to respond completely to God’s love. There is always an urgent call to conversion and repentance, for God desires all to be saved!
Cf. United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, 153-155.