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Beliefs about the afterlife

What happens after we die? Overview;
Catholic & Orthodox Church beliefs

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What happens after we die? This is one of the questions found so often in the field of religion in which different faiths teach a variety of incompatible, mutually exclusive beliefs. Meanwhile, most people are totally onvinced that they know the answer precisely.

Many mental health professionals and religious historians believe that  religion was created millennia ago as an attempt to explain how the universe works and what happens to people after death. Religions were originally developed so that people could have a sense of power over their life and environment. Knowing that they may be wiped out at any time by starvation, animal attacks, drought, floods, foreign army attack, illnesses, accidents, etc., ancient people sought security in an insecure world. Religion filled that need.

There are few if any fears more serious than the fear of death. Religions answered these fears with a belief that somehow a person's personality, memories, talents, and consciousness survived death in a new form.

There is general agreement among persons of all religions that a person's eventual destiny after death will be one of the following:

bullet Heaven: Eternity is spent in Heaven or Paradise with God, in a state that is beautiful beyond our ability to conceive.

bullet Hell: Eternity is spent in Hell with Satan and his demons. All are tormented and tortured, in isolation from God, without any hope of mercy or relief.

bullet Annihilation: The body rots. One's, spirit, memory, personality, awareness, body, and mind disappear and are no more.

bullet Transmigration of the soul: Our soul and spirit are reborn into a human fetus or newborn child.

bullet Reincarnation: Our soul and spirit are reborn into another living entity - not necessarily human.

Most people believe that up to three of the above destinations and states exist. For example, some faith groups teach that people who are saved go to Heaven; those who are unsaved go to Hell and are eventually annihilated. They regard the other options as religious fantasy which do not exist in reality. But, of course, there is no general agreement about which are the true states and which are the fantasies.

There is close agreement within most faith groups, but little agreement between religions, about what criteria is used to determine whether, for example, a person has been saved and will eventually reside in Heaven or is unsaved and will spend eterninty in Hell.

There is also little agreement about the processes, locations, and states that a person will go through between death and their final destiny.

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Roman Catholic beliefs:

The church teaches that when a person dies, their body starts its process of decomposition. Meanwhile, the soul leaves the body and is immediately evaluated in a Particular Judgment. 1This belief is partly based on Hebrews 9:27: "And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment." (KJV).

There are three possible destinations or states of being immediately after the judgment:


Heaven: Those few people whose "love for God has been perfected in this life" have their bodies "glorified" and taken immediately to their eternal reward in Heaven. Perhaps the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, the saints and a some others will qualify for this path.


Hell: If they have committed a mortal sin which has not been forgiven, or have rejected God, then they are taken immediately to Hell where they will be tortured forever without any hope of relief or mercy.


Purgatory: If the person dies in a state of grace, but loves God "imperfectly," then their souls immediately enter Purgatory. Here, they suffer for a time in order to cleanse themselves of their accumulated imperfections, venial sins and faults. Any mortal sins that they have committed, and for which they have been forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance, may have some residual temporal punishment still remaining; this has to be discharged as well.

The inhabitants in Purgatory are systematically tortured with fire. The dead remain in purgatory until they have become sufficiently purified to enter heaven. However, if their friends and family offer Masses, prayers and other acts of piety and devotion, then their stay in Purgatory will be shortened. Purgatory is very similar to Hell; the main difference is that one will eventually be released, perhaps after millennia of torture.

Although most Catholic believers have regarded Heaven, Hell and Purgatory as actual places, the church's teaching is that they are both a place and a state of existence.

Later, when Jesus returns to earth in the "second coming", he will conduct the General Judgment (a.k.a. Final Judgment):


Those who have previously died have already faced the Particular Judgment; that decision will continue in force. Those in Heaven or Hell will continue to spend eternity there. However, those who are in Purgatory at the time of Jesus' second coming will be released and moved to heaven immediately.

At the time of the second coming, the bodies of the dead will be reconstituted; this produces a bodily resurrection. At that time, they will be permanently reunited with their souls. This second judgment is needed so that the entire human race can learn about every person's life and comprehend the "justice, wisdom, and mercy of God."


All people who are alive on earth at the time of the second coming will be assembled together (Matthew 25:31-32). "Those who have rejected the Lord in this life, who have sinned mortally, who have no remorse for sin and do not seek forgiveness, will have condemned themselves to hell for all eternity." The others will go either to Purgatory or Heaven, depending upon the perfection of their love for God. The same evaluation criteria will be used in the General Judgment as for the Particular Judgment.

Every "deliberate thought, word, deed and omission" of every individual that has ever lived, would be reviewed at the Final Judgment. The only exception would be thoughts and acts of Jesus of Nazareth, who lived without sin. This would presumably be a very time consuming process. It would be necessary to include the life histories of each of the billions of humans that have lived on earth for the past many hundreds of thousands of years that the human race has been in existence.

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Eastern Orthodox beliefs:

The beliefs of these churches very closely parallel those of the Roman Catholic church. However, they have no formal belief about the existence of Purgatory.

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Some related topics on this website:

bullet What religious groups believe about heaven, hell, purgatory, etc.
bullet What does the Bible say about heaven, hell, purgatory, etc?
bullet Salvation: beliefs of Christians both now and in the 1st & 2nd centuries about who will go to Heaven and who to Hell.

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  1. W.G. Most, "Particular Judgment," at:
  2. "What happens when we die?," at:

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Copyright 2001 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Latest update: 2010-DEC-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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