Thank you for phoning me about the loss of your dear husband only a year ago after so many years together as a married couple. I can imagine how close you were and how lonely you feel since you and your husband didn’t have children—you and Larry were a family. Although you live across the country on the opposite coast, I feel a closeness with you in our sisterhood of new singleness—something we never asked for or imagined, but which God has chosen for us in His love and plan.
Do I have any good news to give you about our separation from our beloved spouses who have finished their earthly course first and been called Home by the Lord? I believe I do, and I’m eager to share it!
After my husband died and I walked several years into the experience of singleness myself, I wrote several books to help others who have lost a spouse: Singled Out for God’s Assignment, The Widow’s Might, and Walk the
Since then, I have become a Catholic Christian after much study and by strong conviction. I now believe there is more of God’s truth that I was not aware of when I wrote the above books.
Through my books I ventured to offer some biblical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and practical help to assist my readers through the grief process toward healing with trust in Jesus Christ and optimism for the future.
I want to be clear: the Christian insights, encouragement, and counsel I presented when I published those books continue to be valid. They are biblically based and still help and bless people from varied religious backgrounds because I offer a non-sectarian Christian perspective on the topics. What I wrote as an evangelical was good, but I now believe it was incomplete. I want to offer a balanced view in line with my Catholic faith and present readers with biblical truths they may not have considered before.
So what’s the difference?
I previously understood that when a person dies, if he or she at some time had a “born again” experience as an evangelical would interpret it, he goes straight to heaven. He has a guaranteed reservation for heaven regardless of how he may live after his once-for-all conversion or whether he may die in unforgiveness or with unconfessed sin on his soul. His salvation was still considered eternally secure. However, the raising of one’s hand in an evangelistic meeting and/or “coming forward” publicly and repeating the sinner’s prayer or “making a decision” are, in historical fact, recent evangelical traditions adopted and started to be practiced during the revivalist awakenings in North America. I no longer see that as the balanced teaching of the Holy Scriptures. “Not every one who says to Me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” Jesus said. (Matt. 7:21)
From the days of early Christianity, the Catholic Church, which was the only church for most of 1500 years, taught that what determines one’s eternal destiny is the state of the soul at death. Statements such as “he who endures…perseveres…abides…stands firm…does My will…obeys My voice…keeps my commandments…” are more balanced Scriptural exhortations and promises. God’s question to me is: What is the state of your soul now and what have you done since you raised your hand and prayed the sinner’s prayer? Moreover, how we finish our lives is all important.
As an evangelical I didn’t think nor did I hear taught that any communication or communion was possible between the believing departed and those left behind. We always imagined that the departed one was now so totally occupied with the glories of heaven that he was oblivious to anything or anyone on earth. Pure conjecture! Therefore, we stopped praying for our departed loved one because since he went directly to heaven, our prayers were no longer needed. It never entered our minds to ask for his prayers on our behalf.
Catholic teaching from the earliest days of Christianity differs in important ways. Whether or not the Christian’s soul goes directly to heaven, which is possible for some, depends on whether he died in a state of grace with no unconfessed mortal sins. The degree of holiness one has attained is another factor that determines whether or not one’s soul will have a swift or even an instant entrance into the presence of God after death.
Another factor is whether good deeds were a fruit of his life in proof of his faith, (not as a basis for his salvation). (James 2:14-26) Good works are the “proof of the pudding.” Many Scriptures indicate that Christians will be judged on the basis of their deeds; among them is 2 Cor. 5:10. The Catholic Church is absolutely clear, however, that we cannot earn salvation by our works or by keeping the works of the Law. Salvation is given as a free gift by God’s grace alone through the merits of Jesus Christ.
This perspective was new to me, of course, and I spent much time and prayer to see if it agreed with Scripture. We are to test all things and hold fast to God’s revealed truth and the balanced teachings of God’s Word.
As I understand and now believe the Catholic teaching to be the true interpretation of Scripture, the soul of a person whose faith is genuine and personal but whose life may have been somewhat deficient in holiness or in good deeds of mercy and love is indeed on his way to heaven because Jesus paid for and forgave his sins. (1 Cor. 3:10-15) He may, however, upon departure from this life, experience a temporary pause en route to his heavenly destination during which time the consequences of his forgiven sins are dealt with. At that point he may suffer loss or receive reward.
Shouldn’t we welcome the opportunity for God to finish the work of making us pure and holy, since “nothing unholy can enter God’s presence?” (Rev. 21:27) Who of us can claim to be without sin and living in perfect holiness and not in need of this cleansing process to make us fit for heaven? (1 John 1:8-10)
God’s provision for holiness
Directly related to how we view the loss of our Christian loved one in death, and how we view our own soul’s journey to heaven when our life is over, is the teaching about Purgatory—the temporary stopover. The word comes from the Latin purgatio simply meaning cleansing or purifying. The word Purgatory is archaic and at first sounds not only strange but ominous to modern evangelical ears. Without accurate information, I initially wrote it off as unbiblical, a peculiar invention of the Catholic Church, and a hangover from the Dark Ages. On the contrary, it is an authentic, biblical, generous, and loving provision by God to enable our souls to become fit for heaven. It is like a happy and necessary “pit stop,” so to speak, on our sure way to our heavenly home. Or perhaps like a speed bump—not meant to stop us but to slow us down a bit. It is definitely not Hell from which there is no way out or onward. Nor are we being punished for sins which God already forgave.
Is this purification process the same as the declaration “It is given to man once to die, and after that the judgment.”? (Heb. 9:27) Is this the time when we all go through what the apostle Paul describes in 1 Cor. 3:11-15 as God “testing by fire the quality of each man’s work”? These are end times questions—eventually we will find out God’s time line. Meanwhile, let’s trust God with the details. To know it will happen is enough for us now.
The Church does not attempt to say definitively whether Purgatory is an actual place, or a state, a process, or a condition. We can be sure that only the soul or spirit is involved, not the body. Any pain that we may feel is not physical, of the senses. Although we think and speak in terms of duration, the time element doesn’t really apply either. When we die, we step outside of time into eternity where God is. Catholic teaching is clear and biblical—this is not a second chance to be saved. One’s eternal state is permanently fixed at the moment of death. At death the books are closed. The Church also declares that it is unable to judge what the eternal destiny of any soul will be—heaven or hell, only two alternatives. Nor should we be so presumptive to say we know a person’s eternal state with certainty. Where any soul will spend eternity is known only to God and decided with perfect justice, mercy, and love by Him.
Hope for the grieving
How is this doctrine relevant for someone who has lost a Christian spouse, loved one or friend through death? These broader implications taught by the Catholic Church are full of hope and joy! The Church, by the authority Jesus delegated to it until Christ returns, teaches that souls can be aided in their purification by prayers, sacrifices, and loving deeds of Christians on earth on their behalf. Our departed loved one may still need our prayers until they arrive safely in heaven. The spiritual logistics of how this all comes about are a mystery. We don’t fully understand, but we take on faith the teachings of the Church that Christ established. The Church teaches that the souls being purified cannot pray for themselves, but they can pray for other souls undergoing purification and pray for us on earth.
When our Christian loved one’s soul ultimately reaches heaven, he can continue to intercede for us. More good news—we can request his prayers! He is not able to answer those prayers by his own power because those who were human on earth will continue to be human in heaven. They do not become angels nor will they ever be divine. The departed one prays for us to God the Father through Jesus Christ, the One Mediator.
What a comfort to realize that the living and the departed remain united forever in the “Communion of saints!” We do not suffer stark separation from our departed loved one. We really don’t need to seek “closure.” The good news is that we don’t need to shut the door on them. Saints (holy ones righteous in Christ) on earth and saints (holy ones righteous in Christ) in heaven continue to be one family together, and the departed ones are still fully alive! Let’s not think of them as dead! We may be surprised when we get to Heaven how thin the veil between us has been.
Never fear—we do not “communicate with the dead” in the sense that the Bible forbids, nor do we seek to know the future from them, which is forbidden by God. We may, however, freely ask for their intercession in the same way that we seek the prayer help of our family and friends on earth.
As a Catholic Christian, I am now satisfied and joyful to firmly accept these biblical teachings.
Making it personal
I am not under the illusion that I will be able to reach a goal of holiness by the end of my life. I hope and I strive and pray to endure and persevere, and when I finish my course to die faithful in Christ. After that, I would be happy, if necessary, to allow my soul to get cleaned up a bit—or a lot—in the “mud room,” as it were, before an angel escorts me into the spotless wardrobe room. There I will be given a white wedding garment of holiness tagged with my name, so I can be appropriately dressed for the “Welcome Home Reunion” and “Wedding Supper of the Lamb” in God’s magnificent presence with all the angels and saints and the rest of His children who knew Him on earth.
We won’t have physical bodies at that point yet because our resurrection comes later! I wonder how it’s going to work to have my soul clothed with a white garment. I’m willing to leave all those logistics to God. I’m relieved to learn about this Purification process in advance so I won’t experience it as a surprise! Now I can joyfully anticipate that opportunity on my way to heaven, whether it will all take place in only an instant after death or whether time somehow still applies to it.
The automated car wash
It helps me to visualize my soul’s purification process like going through an automated car wash!
My Chrysler is mud-splashed and grimy. I plan to drive to an important event to meet a special person, and I want it to be clean. Someone gave me a paid-in-full coupon, and I present it to the attendant at the car wash. Several men jump around my car and hand-rub soap suds all over the car body. One beckons me to drive slowly forward and center the tires onto ramps that lead into a dark, cavernous space.
“Put your car in neutral, roll up your windows, lower your antenna, and take your hands off the steering wheel” are instructions posted on a sign. I do as I am told, sit back, relax, and let it be done unto me with my glad consent. I have nothing to do with the cleansing process. I know I need it. Of course, I know I won’t have to go through this process forever—I see light at the other end of the building.
An outside power propels my car through the dark tunnel. Lights blink at intervals. Soon the noise is deafening as high pressure warm water squirts at my car from every direction. Monster-like, black, spongy tentacles begin to slap and seemingly punish my poor car. I keep reminding myself, “This is a happy thing!” This continues for a short, frightening time, and then the noise abates. All is quiet until clean, warm water sprays over my car followed by bursts of hot air.
My clean car slowly rolls out of the enclosure and down the exit ramps into the bright, welcoming sunlight. I blink my eyes from the brilliance. My car is spotless, dirt free, and sparkling. I’m happy to be ready for the wonderful event to which I have looked forward so long.
Do you see the similarity to Purgatory? To Purification? Who wouldn’t welcome that? Thank God for providing it for all of us who long to fully gaze upon His face in the beauty of His holiness!
I hope this will be an encouragement, comfort, and good news to you, Marcia. You have not really “lost” your husband Larry! If he is in the presence of God, he is alive and well and may be praying for you.
Your friend and prayer helper,
Leona Choy welcomes correspondence with anyone who wishes to comment on or discuss the topics she addressed in this BLOG.