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Father Nick Nelson: The four last things — nothing in this life is worth missing heaven for

In the liturgical rhythm of the year, the church focuses on various realities of the Christian life. For example, during Lent we remember Christ’s temptations in the desert and we give extra effort to root out sin in our life.

Father Nicholas Nelson
Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

During the month of November, we recall the end of things. This makes sense considering the liturgical year ends during the month of November. In the readings, especially the gospels, the church gives us readings that remind us of what the church traditionally refers to as “The Four Last Things” — death, judgment, heaven, and hell.


Death is a reality that we all have to deal with. We must all wrestle with the question as to what will happen to us when we die. We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ” (1021). The time for mercy is here on earth. Once we die, it is the time for God’s justice.


Particular Judgment: From the Catechism, “Every person receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death” (1022). We will be judged on whether we accepted and returned the divine life and love that was offered us. Love takes two. God doesn’t force us to “love” him. Love cannot be forced. If we lived our life and made choices contrary to God’s will, he respects that, and he gives us what we want, eternity without him. In our particular judgment, we are either headed to hell or to heaven, either immediately or following a final purification, purgatory.

Last or General Judgment: This is the lesser known judgment. From the Catechism: “The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life” (1039). At the end of time, the truth of everything will be known to all. At the Last Judgment, those who have died will already be enjoying heaven or be miserable in hell. That someone is in heaven or hell will not change. But Christ will come and show to each person the “domino effect” of both the good and the evil they did. We will see how that little noticed word of encouragement motivated a person into becoming a great saint of the church. We will also realize how that seemingly private sin against chastity hurt the Body of Christ and affected our ability to love others. This final revelation of everything to everyone will mean embarrassment and shame for those in hell and glory and honor for those in heaven because they accepted God’s mercy for their sins. Our bodies will also be reunited with our soul to either enjoy the glory of the blessed in heaven or the misery of damned in hell.


From the Catechism: “We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. … To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and blessed is called ‘hell’” (1033). Hell is real, and people go there. If a man dies with even one unrepented mortal sin on his soul, he will go to hell. In a sense, hell is a form of God’s mercy, which is never opposed to his justice. To those who have rejected the light of God during their life, to see God in his eternal glory is intolerable. It’s similar to exiting from a dark movie theater to the brilliance of a bright sunny day. Hell and heaven are forever. No do-overs.


From the Catechism: “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live forever with Christ. They are like God for ever, for they ‘see him as he is,’ face to face! … Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (1023). Don’t be fooled and think that heaven will be boring. Heaven is the most real life. Even the best of life on earth is just a shadow of heaven. Those in who die in friendship with God either go to heaven immediately or after a final purification.

Purgatory: From the Catechism: CCC 1033, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified … undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (1030). Purgatory is temporary and has two main purposes. One is purgation or purification, and the other is reparation. Justice demands that we make reparation for our sins. If we don’t make adequate reparation for our sins in this life, purgatory is where we make final reparation.

Purgatory is such a great gift. It means we don’t have to be totally perfected when we die. And if a soul makes it to purgatory, they will eventually be in heaven for eternity. But it isn’t God’s first plan for us, so neither should it be ours. Our goal should be to be saints by the time we die. So make reparation for sins and be purified of your attachments now!

My friends, nothing in this life is worth missing out on heaven for. Did I scare you? Good! Now, Get to confession!

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of St. Mary, Cook; St. Martin, Tower; and Holy Cross, Orr. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected]