The Catholic church has been around for nearly 2,000 years. We are still one of the largest Christian denominations globally, with over 1.3 billion baptized followers worldwide. We are the oldest continually functioning international institution in the world. Because of our age and reach, many of the traditions other denominations practice today can trace their roots back to our ancient traditions. Still, it can be tough to know what belongs to whom.
For example, do Catholics believe in the Resurrection? Yes, as it says in the Bible, one day Jesus will return to earth and he will raise all who have died, returning each person’s soul to the body from which it was released. The bodies will be returned to health and vitality, and be made whole again. Bodies of the righteous will be free of suffering and pain, and able to perform many of the same miracles Jesus once did.
Jesus died for our sins so that we might be reunited with God in heaven. He was rewarded for his sacrifice by God and was resurrected from the dead. This, too, is God’s promise to us that one day Jesus will return, and we will all rise and live once again. But what exactly is a resurrection, and why is it capitalized sometimes but not every time? And where do we go while we’re waiting for Jesus to return?
Nearly all Christian traditions believe in some variation of the Resurrection. It is a core tenant of the Bible that someday, Jesus will return and collect his faithful children. Sometimes the details vary a bit between denominations, but the gist is the same. The term “resurrection” actually has an upper and lowercase variation. The Resurrection was when Jesus rose from the dead, while one day, Jesus will return and resurrect the dead.
The Resurrection of Jesus is the basis for our Easter holiday. It is a bigger celebration than Christmas. We begin on Ash Wednesday with 40 days of fasting called Lent. Today, most people give up something meaningful to them instead of not eating for a month. Our Holy Week marks the momentous events leading up to his death and Resurrection. It begins with Palm Sunday and moves to Holy Thursday, which was when he shared the Last Supper with his disciples. Good Friday marks the day he was crucified and buried. He rose three days later on Easter Sunday.
According to 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”
As Catholics, we believe that when Jesus returns to earth, he will raise our bodies back up and reinstate our souls into our old “homes.” This is one reason why, until fairly recently, we weren’t allowed to cremate our dead. However, in 1963 the Vatican relaxed its rules on the practice, allowing it if certain guidelines were followed. Still, we don’t do it very often, although it is gaining in popularity.
We believe that we’ve already been offered proof that we will one day be resurrected. God raised Jesus, His only son, from the dead after being buried for three days in a tomb. This was His promise to us that one day Jesus will return and resurrect us. As it says in 1 Corinthians 15: 12-14, “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
We believe that the human soul is eternal and lives on after the body dies. The two will be reunited at the resurrection, and it is then that we’ll face our final judgment. What is that? Well, during the End Times (which is when Jesus will return), those who have lived a good life will return to life, while those who lived a sinful, unrepentant life will be condemned to hell forever.
Purgatory, Heaven, And Hell
If we believe that human souls are eternal, where do we go while we’re waiting for Christ to return? Well, it turns out we’ve got three choices: heaven, hell, and purgatory.
Heaven, of course, is the goal. It is the hope of all Catholics that we’ll be reunited with our loved ones in heaven, where the Lord waits and the angels sing. Thankfully, we aren’t expected to live the life of a monk or nun in order to see the “Pearly Gates.” Rather, we just need to follow a few simple guidelines in order to be saved: be baptized, repent, and have faith.
One of the ways we repent is through confession. Because, try as we might to be good people, sometimes we still do things that we shouldn’t. Confession gives us the opportunity to come clean before God (by way of a priest). We have two kinds of sin in Catholicism: mortal and venial. Mortal sins are so horrible they are an offense to God, like murder. Venial sins are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, like gossip or being jealous of a friend’s new toy.
During confession, we can kneel or sit. We have little booths that we enter so we can confess our sins privately. We are separated from the priest by a screen, so we stay anonymous. We make the sign of the cross, say a short prayer, then confess everything we need to get off our chests. The priest then gives us a penance to perform, which depends on how serious our sins were. We then say another prayer, and the priest absolves us, and we are once again forgiven.
But what exactly is heaven, anyway? Well, obviously, we can’t really know until we get there. There is some debate about whether heaven is an actual place “in the sky,” or God’s home, where we are united with Him as souls upon our death. As it says in 2 Corinthians 5:1, “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”
In addition to knowing and being one with God, heaven is also all the best parts of life with none of the sorrows or pain. It is where all our questions are answered, our broken hearts mended, and our loves fulfilled. It is where we are reunited with our loved ones and we are able to put away the toils of the living and finally rest.
But what if we haven’t repented? What if we’ve done some bad things or some really terrible things? That’s where purgatory and hell come into the picture. Purgatory is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1030-1031)as, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death, they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.”
When we die, we are judged (which isn’t the same as the Final Judgment; that comes later). If we are pure and ready, we go to heaven. If we are damned, we go to hell. But, if we’re not that bad but still need some time to atone for our sins, we go to purgatory. It’s not a great place to be. Our time there is difficult, as we cleanse ourselves of what we brought with us. Still, our family members who are still alive can help us make our transition faster by saying prayers for us and offering up Masses on our behalf.
Hell is, well, hell. It is a place of damnation, of pain, of torment. In Revelation 14:11, it says about hell, “And the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” Those who have committed mortal sins and have not repented end up here. They face eternal punishment for their crimes and are forever damned to be separated from God.
Catholics face judgment twice in their post-life existence: once immediately upon death, and again during the Last Judgment. The second time comes around when Jesus returns to earth. According to many Protestant denominations, prior to Jesus coming to earth, the Rapture will happen, and all worthy living people will be automatically zipped up to heaven. All remaining unworthy mortals will be left on earth to tough it out until Jesus comes back.
While we believe in the Rapture, we don’t believe in that rapture. We believe this is a misunderstanding of the texts surrounding Jesus’s return to earth. In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, it says, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
Instead, we believe that during the Second Coming of Jesus, the worthy dead will rise first, then those of us who are still alive will be next, and all of us will join Christ in a new life. We believe the Second Coming and the Last Judgment will happen at the same time. They are not separate events. Moreover, our church doesn’t worry as intently about the rapture as many other Christian traditions do. It is not something we tend to focus on that much. Instead, we prefer to keep to the traditions that help us remain cleanses and free from sin. In the event that it happens, we’re ready. The Catholic religion is one of the oldest and longest practicing Christian traditions in the world. Our practices are based on hundreds of years of experience, philosophy, study. It brings us great peace to know without a doubt that all the suffering we’ve experienced on earth will one day fade away, and we’ll be reunited with our loved ones in heaven.
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