Question: I would really like to know the truth about what happens to us after we die?
Answer: Thank you for your question about the afterlife. The Church teaches what is known as the Four Last Things: death, judgement, Heaven, and Hell.
Death is understood to be the separation of the soul, which is immortal, from the body. The soul yearns for the body, and the body ceases to have life and deteriorates without the soul. During the Creed we profess a belief in the “Resurrection of the Body,” which is the rejoining of our bodies and souls at the end of time.
Of judgement there are two kinds: particular and general.
Upon death, we enter into our particular judgement, which is based on our works and faith. This particular judgement directs us to one of three places: Heaven, Hell or Purgatory. Those who enter Heaven or Hell have reached their final destination, which will not change. Those souls in Purgatory, though they suffer purgation, can have joy because they are guaranteed the final destination of Heaven.
The final or general judgement will take place at the end of time, when all souls will be rejoined with their bodies. At this judgement, those in the state of Purgatory will be joined to the blessed in Heaven.
“Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfilment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC 1024).
In Heaven, the Blessed (Saints) definitively share in the life of God and will behold the Beatific Vision, the vision and contemplation of God in His glory. Though the Church teaches what is revealed about Heaven, she also recognizes that the life of the Blessed is beyond all understanding and description.
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Hell is the state of those who have freely chosen to not love God. Our earthly lives, and actions therein, define this free decision. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes Hell as the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed” (CCC 1033).
No person is predestined for Hell, but a person may freely exclude himself/herself from Heaven by refusing to repent of mortal sin. His/her punishment is the direct result of his/her decision, made by the actions of his/her earthly life (there is no second chance after death), which is mainly the eternal separation from God.
Union with God is what man was created for, and as long as man is separated from this union, he/she is left unfulfilled. The souls in Hell will never reach fulfillment, only emptiness, because they have decided to definitively refuse to seek this fulfillment in God, but rather in things.
Purgatory is not listed among the last things because there will eventually be no souls in Purgatory, but this does not mean that Purgatory doesn’t exist.
“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” (CCC 1030).
More information on this topic can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1020 to 1060 (Part 1, Article 12) or the more easily readable United States Catechism for Adults, Chapter 13.