How does the Christian faith depict paradise and hell? What is life after death like?
Answer: When it uses the word Heaven, the Bible, and therefore the teachings of the Church do clearly not refer to a place up with the angels above the clouds. The many metaphors used in the Bible mean that Heaven is the everlasting communion of humankind with God. We will see Him, we will be happy in Him, filled with love, joy and peace, and with goodwill to all other people. God wants to take up all of creation into His splendor, world history purified, changed and completely renewed. God wants to reward our good deeds, although they are only possible through His grace. And so there will be different levels of blessedness, just like there are different sized vessels; in Heaven everyone will reach the full extent of his own happiness.
Regarding the teaching about hell, does it not contradict God’s mercy? There can be no doubt that Jesus confirms the Old Testaments teachings: there are sins that are so profoundly evil that their consequence is a final separation from God. Everyone has to choose between life and death. God honors this freedom right down to its last consequence. The church proclaims the dogma of hell as a real possibility. It does this to make everyone see the utter importance of their own actions and to lead them to salvation. Whether there will ultimately be a person who is damned forever, the Bible doesn’t say. But to be separated from God forever, from Him who is our life, that would indeed be hell.
Fortunately it is only one desperately heavy burden that separates us from God. However, we have to admit that we will not stand before Him wholly pure and without blame when He finally calls us. And so we have been given the opportunity for purification and catharsis, which we may see as a sign of God’s mercy. We will be poor souls because we can no longer do anything for our own salvation and because the fire of God’s love causes us pain because of our sins (hence the term purgatory, which is derived from purgatorium – the place of purification). At the same time we are rich, because we belong in this place of purification for God, to the communion of saints. We can feel borne by the prayers the church prays for the departed, we can even offer our own intercessions.
We can therefore summarize: Heaven – is God whom we have won for ourselves forever. Hell – is God whom we have lost forever. Purgatory – is God as we are expecting him and in pain, while He purifies us and makes us holy.
In the end God will bring about a new Heaven and a new Earth. The Bible speaks of a heavenly banquet, or of the holy city of Jerusalem in which God will live among humankind. All of creation will be renewed. Unimaginable beauty is awaiting us. (Quoted from Winfried Henze, “Glauben ist schön. Ein katholischer Familien-Katechismus“. Harsum: Köhler, 2001. Pp. 178-80.)