What is eternity like? What are the sights and feelings? Scripture and private revelation help paint that picture
By ANDREW HANSEN
The last four things: death, judgment, heaven (maybe a stop in purgatory along the way), and hell. That is what the Catholic Church teaches. In a culture that continues to write off life after death or paints hell as a picture of “you’ll probably be laughing with friends,” it is paramount that as believers, we always have in mind that what we do on earth, how we live our faith, and how we honor God and His creations has everlasting effects, good or bad.
The truth is hell is far worse than any of us can imagine. On the other hand, the joys and beauty of heaven are also unimaginable. Despite not knowing fully what heaven and hell will look, feel, or be like, Scripture and private revelation offers us a glimpse, and we are not talking about puffy clouds, harps, or meeting St. Peter at the pearly gates.
In this edition of Catholic Times, we offer you Scripture passages and quotes from saints who had visions or dreams of heaven and hell that can help you better understand, picture, and appreciate what eternity is, and why you must always strive to become a saint. A quick note on private revelation: the Catholic Church says one does not have to believe private revelation. However, the Church also recognizes that private revelation from saints can be a good thing that can help people in their faith journey.
When reading Scripture and quotes from saints who had dreams or visions, always keep in mind that they should not necessarily be taken literally because as Scripture tells us, “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
Heaven — what we do know as revealed to us through the Catholic faith
First, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states, “Those who die in God's grace and friendship and are perfectly purified (either here on earth or in purgatory) live forever with Christ. They are like God forever, for they ‘see Him as He is,’ face to face” (CCC 1026).
- Heaven is union with God. “By his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has ‘opened’ heaven to us. The life of the blessed consists in the full and perfect possession of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ. He makes partners in his heavenly glorification those who have believed in him and remained faithful to his will. Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ” (CCC 1026).
- We do not become angels in eternity. We will not have our bodies at first, however, at the end of time, our bodies will be reunited with us (Cor. 15 16-18).
- Our bodies will become glorified bodies (Phil. 3:21). While we do not know what that will truly look like, our bodies will be perfect.
- We will retain our own identities. We will not become “someone different.” “To live in heaven is ‘to be with Christ.’ The elect live ‘in Christ, but they retain, or rather find, their true identity, their own name’” (CCC 1025).
- There is no pain in heaven. None.
- At the end of the time, all the remaining souls in Purgatory will enter heaven.
- Speaking of the end of time, “The Last Judgment will come when Christ returns in glory. Only the Father knows the day and the hour; only he determines the moment of its coming. Then through his Son Jesus Christ he will pronounce the final word on all history. We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and of the entire economy of salvation and understand the marvelous ways by which his Providence led everything towards its final end. The Last Judgment will reveal that God's justice triumphs over all the injustices committed by his creatures and that God's love is stronger than death” (CCC 1040).
What will heaven look and feel like?
What Scripture tells us
“He (God) will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
“For this reason, they stand before God’s throne and worship him day and night in his temple. The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:15-17).
“He (God) will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself” (Phil. 3:21).
“Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of its street. On either side of the river grew the tree of life that produces fruit twelve times a year, once each month; the leaves of the trees serve as medicine for the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will look upon his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22: 1-5).
What saints who had visions of heaven tell us
"Today I was in heaven, in spirit, and I saw its unconceivable beauties and the happiness that awaits us after death. I saw how all creatures give ceaseless praise and glory to God. I saw how great is happiness in God, which spreads to all creatures, making them happy; and then all the glory and praise which springs from this happiness returns to its source; and they enter into the depths of God, contemplating the inner life of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, whom they will never comprehend or fathom. This source of happiness is unchanging in its essence, but it is always new, gushing forth happiness for all creatures.”
“As I stood there basking in the splendor of those gardens, I suddenly heard music most sweet — so delightful and enchanting a melody that I could never adequately describe it. A hundred thousand instruments played, each with its own sound, uniquely different from all others, and every possible sound set the air alive with its resonant waves. Blended with them were the songs of choristers.
“In those gardens, I looked upon a multitude of people enjoying themselves happily, some singing, others playing, but every note, had the effect of a thousand different instruments playing together. At one and the same time, if you can imagine such a thing, one could hear all the notes of the chromatic scale, from the deepest to the highest, yet all in perfect harmony. Ah yes, we have nothing on earth to compare with that symphony.”
St. John Bosco
“It is a light which knows no night. Rather, as it is always light, nothing ever disturbs it. In short, no man, however gifted he may be can ever, in the whole course of his life, arrive at any imagination of what it is.”
St. Teresa of Avila
“I then found myself in heaven with the Blessed Virgin, the angels and the saints. They treated me with great kindness. In their company were my parents. I saw the brilliant throne of the Most Holy Trinity and Jesus Christ in His humanity. There was no sun, no lamp, but everything was bright with light.”
St. Mariam Baouardy
“The good of these souls is beyond what your mind’s eye can see or your ear hear, or your tongue describe, or your heart imagine. What joy they have in seeing me who am all good! What joy they will yet have when their bodies are glorified! But while they do not have this latter good until the general judgment, they do not suffer. They lack no happiness, for the soul is filled, and in this good fullness the body will share.”
St. Catherine of Sienna reported this is what God said to her
Hell — what we do know as revealed to us through the Catholic faith
- Hell does exist. “Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (CCC 1035). Mortal sin is “grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (CCC 1857).
- What is hell? “The state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’” (CCC 1023).
- One cannot get out of hell.
- God predestines no one to go to hell (CCC 1037).
- God spoke of hell and of its existence: “Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,’ but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven’” (Matt. 7:21).
What will hell look and feel like?
What Scripture tells us
“A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice, ‘Anyone who worships the beast or its image, or accepts its mark on forehead or hand, will also drink the wine of God’s fury, poured full strength into the cup of his wrath, and will be tormented in burning sulfur before the holy angels and before the Lamb. The smoke of the fire that torments them will rise forever and ever, and there will be no relief day or night for those who worship the beast or its image or accept the mark of its name’” (Rev. 14: 9-11).
“The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (Matt 13: 41-42).
“For it is surely just on God’s part to repay with afflictions those who are afflicting you, and to grant rest along with us to you who are undergoing afflictions, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his mighty angels, in blazing fire, inflicting punishment on those who do not acknowledge God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:6-9).
“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire” (Mk 9:43).
“And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’” (Mk 9:48).
What saints who had visions of hell tell us
“The entrance seemed to be by a long narrow pass, like a furnace, very low, dark, and close. The ground seemed to be saturated with water, mere mud, exceedingly foul, sending forth pestilential odors, and covered with loathsome vermin. At the end was a hollow place in the wall, like a closet, and in that I saw myself confined.
“I felt a fire in my soul. My bodily sufferings were unendurable. I have undergone most painful sufferings in this life, yet all these were as nothing in comparison with what I felt then, especially when I saw that there would be no intermission, nor any end to them.”
St. Teresa of Avila
“As soon as I crossed its threshold, I felt an indescribable terror and dared not take another step. Ahead of me I could see something like an immense cave which gradually disappeared into recesses sunk far into the bowels of the mountains. They were all ablaze, but theirs was not an earthly fire with leaping tongues of flames. The entire cave — walls, ceiling, floor, iron, stones, wood, and coal — everything was a glowing white at temperatures of thousands of degrees. Yet the fire did not incinerate, did not consume. I simply can’t find words to describe the cavern’s horror.”
St. John Bosco
“The kinds of tortures I saw: the first torture that constitutes hell is the loss of God; the second is perpetual remorse of conscience; the third is that one’s condition will never change; the fourth is the fire that will penetrate the soul without destroying it — a terrible suffering, since it is a purely spiritual fire, lit by God’s anger; the fifth torture is continual darkness and a terrible suffocating smell, and, despite the darkness, the devils and the souls of the damned see each other and all the evil, both of others and their own; the sixth torture is the constant company of Satan; the seventh torture is horrible despair, hatred of God, vile words, curses and blasphemies.
“Each soul undergoes terrible and indescribable sufferings, related to the manner in which it has sinned. There are caverns and pits of torture where one form of agony differs from another. I would have died at the very sight of these tortures if the omnipotence of God had not supported me!”
“God the Father said to me, ‘I tell you, in hell there are four principal torments, and all the others are offspring of these.
“’The first is that these souls are deprived of seeing me. This is so painful for them that if they could, they would choose the sight of me along with the fire and excruciating torments, rather than the freedom from their pains without seeing me. The first suffering revives the worm of conscience, and this is their second torment. For when they see that their sinfulness has deprived them of me and of the company of the angels and made them worthy instead of seeing the demons and sharing their fellowship, conscience gnaws away at them constantly.
“’The sight of the devil is their third suffering, and it doubles every other torment. At the sight of me the saints are in constant exaltation, joyfully refreshed in reward for the labors they bore for me with such overflowing love and to their own cost. But it is just the opposite for these wretched little souls. Their only refreshment is the torment of seeing the devil, for in seeing them they know themselves better: that is, they recognize that their sinfulness has made them worthy of him. And so, the worm gnaws on, and the fire of conscience never stops burning.
“’Their suffering is even worse because they see the devil as he really is — more horrible than the human heart can imagine. You will recall that when I once let you see him for a tiny while, hardly a moment, as he really is, you said that you would rather walk on a road of fire even till the final judgment day than see him again. But even with all you have seen you do not know how horrible he really is. For my divine justice makes him look more horrible than still to those who have lost me, and this is in proportion to the depth of their sinfulness.
“’The fourth torment is fire. This fire burns without consuming, for the soul cannot be consumed, since it is not material but spiritual. But in my divine justice I allow my fire to burn these souls mightily, tormenting them without consuming them. And the tremendous pain of this tortuous burning has as many forms as the forms of their sins and is more or less severe in proportion to their sins.’”
St. Catherine of Sienna reported this is what God said to her
“Mary opened her hands once more, as she had done the two previous months. The rays [of light] appeared to penetrate the earth, and we saw, as it were, a vast sea of fire. Plunged in this fire, we saw the demons and the souls [of the damned].
“The latter were like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, having human forms. They were floating about in that conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames which issued from within themselves, together with great clouds of smoke. Now they fell back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fright (it must have been this sight which caused me to cry out, as people say they heard me).
“The demons were distinguished [from the souls of the damned] by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black, and transparent like burning coals. That vision only lasted for a moment, thanks to our good Heavenly Mother, who at the first apparition had promised to take us to Heaven. Without that, I think that we would have died of terror and fear.”
Sister Lucia, one of the three visionaries of Our Lady of Fatima in 1917 (Church approved Marian apparitions)