of dr. Kevin Vost, Psy.D.
St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the question in Theologica, and in accordance with Scripture and the teachings of the Church makes it clear that some souls go directly to Heaven or Hell. The souls of those who die without any guilt or unpaid debt even for venial sins in the soul will go directly to Heaven.
Whoever dies in a state of grace, united with God in charity, without mortal sins in the soul, will obtain Paradise. Taking up 1 John 5: 16-17, Thomas reminds us that some sins are mortal and others not mortal, but simply venial.
The word “mortal” to indicate mortal sins comes from the Latin term “mors“, Death. Mortal sins cause spiritual death and exclude us from God’s graces, leading to damnation, and not salvation, if we do not repent. In mortal sin we deliberately and selfishly turn away from God in favor of earthly goods. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1857), we read that for a sin to be mortal there are three requisites: “It is a mortal sin that which has as its object a grave matter and which, moreover, is committed with full awareness and deliberate consent”. Venial sins (from the Latin “came”, Pardonable), are inferior moral transgressions that concern less serious matters. They imply an unordered or inappropriate concentration on earthly goods, but not a deliberate departure from God. They do not exclude us from divine graces, but “through venial sins the affections of man are blocked to the point of being slow in reaching out to God” ( ST, III, 87, 1).
Thomas says that venial sins are “wood, straw, stubble” which are cleaned up and consumed by the fire of Purgatory (1 Cor 3:12). The punishments of Purgatory cleanse us of the debt of punishment for mortal sins that have been confessed and whose guilt has been forgiven, but their punishment has not yet been fulfilled in life. Regarding venial sins, Thomas makes it clear that we should never become complacent or negligent towards them, as total complacency and lack of contrition could lead to mortal sin. As for the venial sins themselves, however, the punishments of Purgatory can extinguish not only the debt, but also the guilt.
We can see this in the case of a person who could die in his sleep in a state of grace without mortal sins in the soul, after having committed some venial sin for which he has not yet experienced contrition. In a hypothetical example (which perhaps reveals the Angelic Doctor’s penchant for elevated and abstract thinking), Thomas describes the case of a man who commits a venial sin and “did not really think of being forgiven or remedying that sin, perhaps he thinks of a triangle that has three equal angles at right angles, and while he is engaged in this thought he falls asleep and dies ”. Thomas declares that such a man would be “cleansed” of the guilt of his venial sin in the flames of Purgatory after death “because punishment, if it is voluntary, will have the power, by virtue of grace, to atone for that sin since it is compatible with grace itself “. Whoever dies without repentance, with a mortal sin in the soul, has knowingly rejected the love and mercy of God and has chosen to exclude himself from Paradise. His soul goes directly and irrevocably to Hell.
Ascent to Heaven
Interestingly, Thomas compares the situation of souls after death to the way gravity affects the physical body. Objects lighter than air will immediately rise, while heavier objects will immediately fall, unless some obstacle prevents them. A soul freed from all debt of sin will immediately rise to Heaven, while a soul in mortal sin will descend to Hell. An obstacle that can prevent souls without mortal sin from ascending to Paradise is the debt of venial sin, “whereby the ascent must be postponed until the soul is cleansed.”
The Catechism teaches that after death we all face an immediate “particular judgment”, in which Christ determines whether our soul will go directly to Heaven or Hell or must first undergo a period of purification (1022).
Thomas explains that each person is both an individual person and a member of the human race. In the particular judgment we are judged as individual persons. When Christ returns for the Final Judgment, our souls will be reunited with the body and we will all be judged together as members of the human race.
Those who reach Paradise will experience a blessing inexpressible in words, since with a luminous body they will see the face of God, origin and source of all good, the glorified Body of Christ and the perfect universe.