Imagine that you’re minding your own business, walking down a street in Cardiff, when a stranger approaches you and introduces themself to you. Very quickly the stranger asks you a direct question: “If you were to die tonight, do you know, without a shadow of a doubt, whether you would go to heaven?”
Actually, that might have happened to some of us. Is there anyone in church today who has had such a conversation?
At the start of July this year, there were teams of Christians all over Cardiff asking that very question as part of a Mission to Wales.* The Mission will continue in future months, so if you haven’t been stopped yet, there’s a chance it might happen in the near future. But what answer would you give?
Now as Catholics, we believe in Purgatory – that for many souls, some purification may be needed before we can enter heaven. If the stranger asks you whether you would go “STRAIGHT to heaven”, you might say no, expecting to spend time in Purgatory first. But I don’t want to spend time today talking about Purgatory, or how to avoid it. I want to talk about our final destination. We know that all souls will either end up in Heaven or in Hell.**
Do you know what you have to do to make sure that you will end up in Heaven, not in Hell? I’ve tried asking lots of Catholics the question “will you go to heaven when you die”, and many of us don’t seem too sure about it! But we can be certain! St Paul seems pretty confident in today’s Second Reading that if he died, he would go to be with Jesus. Our Lord came to show us the way and tell us what we need to do. So here is your 5-minute guide on “How to Get to Heaven”.
Step One: Get Baptised.
Baptism wipes away all our past sins. When an adult – or a child old enough to understand – chooses baptism, they’re asking God to wash away everything bad from the past. Someone who dies just after baptism will surely go straight to Heaven.
Step Two: Avoid Mortal Sin.
Remember that a Mortal Sin is committed when we choose to do, or neglect, something which is serious in God’s eyes, in full knowledge of the situation, and with moral freedom to choose our course of action. It’s not possible to commit a Mortal Sin by accident – it’s because we’ve made a deliberate and free choice of something bad that the sin becomes mortal.
Step Three: If you do commit Mortal Sin, go to confession.
And if you aren’t sure whether your sin is mortal or not, go to confession. What you can be sure of, is that any sin sincerely confessed to a priest will be forgiven.
Imagine that some terrible explosion destroyed all our bodies in the next sixty seconds. If you know that you’ve been baptised, and you’ve confessed any mortal sins committed since your baptism, you can rest assured in the knowledge that your final destination is Heaven.
On the other hand, if you’ve been avoiding baptism, or avoiding confessing the serious sins on your conscience, then start worrying, because your final destination would be the Other Place, and you don’t want to go there!
Of course, we can always try to pick this simple teaching apart with clever “What-If” scenarios. What if someone dies waiting for their scheduled baptism or on the way to confession? But God knows our hearts, and will not punish us for failing to do something we were genuinely trying to do.
Some of you might find a worrying word stirring in your consciousness at this moment, the word presumption. Weren’t we once taught as Catholics that we should avoid presuming we would go to heaven?
Not exactly, no.
What the Church says*** we can’t presume is that, if we don’t bother to repent of our sins, God will admit us to heaven anyway. No – the first message of Jesus is that we must repent! While Jesus does sometimes talk about good works – the sheep who feed the hungry and visit the prisoners are welcomed into heaven – we have to put all his teachings together to get the full picture, and Jesus spoke many times to warn us that our sins can send us to Hell if we don’t change our ways. So in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “Seek the Lord while he is still to be found! Turn back to God, who is rich in forgiving!”
Our Church also says that we can’t presume that our good deeds will “earn” our entry to Heaven. That’s what today’s parable is all about. Heaven is not a reward for doing a full lifetime’s work on earth. Rather, the deal God offers us is this: “If you’re working for me on the day you die, you’ll receive the reward in heaven.” On the other hand, if you’ve been labouring for a whole day, but you can’t look the master in the eye when it’s time to receive your wages, you will not receive your reward after all.
It’s very simple. Get baptised. Avoid sin. Confess the sins you can’t avoid committing. Never turn away from the deal God offers, that you must work for him on earth, and when you die, by the free gift God is offering, you will certainly go to heaven!
So next time someone stops you on the street to ask “If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven?” you should know exactly what answer you should give. And if that answer is not an unambiguous YES, I strongly urge you to do something about it!
* Full disclosure: CatholicPreacher led a team of 12 Catholics on the streets of Cardiff as contributors to the Mission.
** OK, this is an over-simplification for preaching purposes. Heaven and Hell are the long-term destinations pending the Second Coming. It’s possible a soul could be in Purgatory until the Last Judgment. And for a soul which has been in Heaven, or waiting in Purgatory for the Last Judgment, the ultimate destination is “the new heavens and the new earth” which the Bible promises. I’m using “ending up in Heaven” as shorthand for this. Souls in Hell receive their eternal body at the Last Judgment and then return to Hell.
*** The Council of Trent (Chapter XII of the Sixth Session) taught that no person could rashly presume to be predestined to eternal life “for without special revelation it is impossible to know whom God has chosen for himself”. However, this is a teaching about final perseverance (“If I don’t die right now, can I be sure I won’t commit a mortal sin between now and the moment I die”) rather than a teaching saying we can’t know the state of grace we’re in right now. Rather, because baptism and sacramental confession are objective acts, and Mortal Sin requires a conscious knowledge of one’s own action, I can make a very clear statement about whether I am in a “state of grace” right now. Baptism attains that state; mortal sin loses it; a genuine intent to confess the sin with a firm purpose of amendment regains it, sealed by actually making confession insofar as that is possible.