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Dear Fr. Joe: Do people go right to heaven or wait until the end of time?

Well, assuming they “make the cut”….
In a nutshell, we believe that immediately upon death, a person stands before God in what we call “particular judgment.” At that point, his or her soul will go to purgatory, heaven or hell, while the natural processes begin to occur in the body. Then, when Jesus returns, there will be another judgment and, wherever we are, our bodies will join our souls there, though in a different form than they are now.

Where do we get all this? From our two best sources: sacred Scripture and sacred tradition.
In Hebrews 9:27, it says, “And it is appointed that each man die once, but after this comes the judgment.” At the moment of death, each of us will look at God face to face and we will be judged. I think it’s easiest to think of it this way: Our whole lives are a process of coming to know Jesus better or not and when we see Jesus, if we have a relationship with him, we will, to paraphrase the words of Jesus, “know each other.”
This is a key idea. I think, too often, we pretend that if we are “good” or “nice” then we will be instantly “saved.” That’s not at all how Jesus presents it. I think it was Father Rohr who pointed out that Jesus never once used the word “nice.” Instead, each of us needs to commit to following Jesus daily and allowing him to guide us. We need to spend time with Jesus in prayer every day and grow in our knowledge of who Jesus is and what that means. If our ideas of love and wisdom aren’t growing and changing daily, we can take that as a sign that we are not growing in our relationship with Jesus. All along the way, the sacraments are there to help, guide, and strengthen us in this relationship so that we can be who we are called to be.
If we’ve nourished this relationship with Jesus, then when we see him, we will know him, and at that point, enter into what we call “purgatory.”
I know there are a lot of bad ideas out there about purgatory, but I have a way to explain it that might help. Don’t think of purgatory as a separate place from heaven, but as a part of heaven. (People who go to purgatory are definitely going to heaven.) Think of it like this: If you come into a crowded room and I’m on the other side, then it will take you a bit to get to me. That process of you drawing closer to me is like the experience of purgatory. (Notice in this model I’m God? That may very well be why I like this model so much.) Either way, as we draw close to God, all the ways that we’ve damaged our souls are slowly healed by the fire of God’s presence. All that is impure in us and distorted is burned away by the fire of God’s love. It hurts, but it’s a good hurt, a weight room burn, as it were.
I digress.
When Jesus returns, we “wrap up” the whole thing. Those who are in heaven or hell stay there at the second coming of Christ. Those in purgatory enter heaven. At this point, all those who are alive during this time experience their particular judgment as well as general or “final judgment.” At this point, we will see our lives and the lives of every person in the light of God’s mercy, love, and justice; in other words, it will all make sense at this moment.
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!

– Father Joseph Krupp