Who is in heaven? Answer is — ‘We just don’t know’

| Father Michael Schmitz | July 30, 2014 | 2 Comments

Q. My dad died, but I think he was agnostic. He never clearly claimed Jesus. He tolerated faith in my mom and in us, but he never gave any indication that it reached him. Is he in heaven?


A. Please accept my sincere condolences and know that I will pray for you and for the repose of your dad’s soul.

That might be the only answer that I can provide. The Church instructs us to pray for all of the dead. In doing this, she is telling us that we must always have hope.

It is interesting: The Church has never ever said that any specific person is in hell. The Church has many canonized saints, but when it comes to those who may never have said “yes” to God with their life, the Church refuses to make any declaration about their salvation.

The Church wisely does this because the truth of the matter is that we just don’t know.

A family member once asked me about her deceased husband, who had left the Catholic Church and gone to another Christian community. She asked me, “Is he in heaven?”

I had to answer honestly: “I don’t know.”

This upset her greatly, but I can’t make a judgment in a case where I don’t have enough information.

Take care in judging

We can judge a person’s actions. We can do this because the data is there; we know what a person has chosen to do. But we may never judge a person’s heart. This is a distinction that Jesus himself makes in the Sermon on the Mount. One moment, he commands us not to condemn another person (Matthew 7:1-5), and the next, he points out that we know trees “by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-20).

What Jesus is pointing out is that we must be wise during this life, and we must discern good actions from bad actions, but there is also quite a bit going on in every choice that we do not know. We can see actions (and can therefore judge the goodness or evil of the action), but we do not know the core of the person, and therefore may not judge what we do not know.

We don’t know all of the situations in your dad’s life that may have prohibited him from making a clear and public “yes” to Jesus. We don’t know the degree to which he may have been secretly cooperating with God’s grace. Because of this, the Church tells us to have hope and to pray for those who have died.

My relative was well-loved by his friends and family. By many accounts, he brought a great deal of joy to this world and to the people around him. I am sure that your dad had many good qualities and did a lot of good in his life.

But of course, these things are not what get us to heaven. Heaven is open to us solely by the free gift of God made possible by the cross and resurrection of Christ. We have the choice to cooperate with God’s grace (in our words and actions) or to ignore or reject them.

And I think that this is a very important point: I don’t have to expressly reject God’s grace. I may simply ignore it. I can live my life on my terms and not give God the position that belongs to him by right.

It’s our choice

We choose either heaven or hell with our actions. Doing God’s will is how we cooperate with God. (It is, in fact, how we love him. See John 14:15.) Not doing God’s will (to the extent that we know it and, of course, by the power of his grace) is making a choice for life without him.

If we choose to live this life excluding God, he will not force us to spend eternal life with him. Essentially, we get what we’ve chosen.

As C.S. Lewis put it, at the end of our lives, we either say to God, “Thy will be done,” or God says to us, “thy will be done.”

My relative was very troubled by what I told her about “not knowing.” She thought that I was trying to say that her husband was in hell. But I was not saying this at all. In fact, I regularly pray for him and offer up the holy sacrifice of the Mass for him at least once a month.

I think that too often, people imagine that funerals are a celebration of the person’s life. While there may be a lot to celebrate in a person’s life, that is not the role of the Catholic funeral Mass.

We call it “the holy sacrifice of the Mass.” We offer it for the repose of the soul of the deceased person.

We do this because we believe that it actually does something. The sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary (made present on the altar) is the thing that redeems and sanctifies us. The Mass is for the purification of the soul of the departed.

I recommend praying for your father. I recommend joining your prayers to the Church’s at every Mass. It is also a beneficial practice to specifically have a Mass said for the repose of your father’s soul. There is literally nothing better we can do for anyone who has died.

Father Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at fathermikeschmitz@gmail.com.

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Category: Ask Father Mike

  • Razor5621

    That is the “nice” answer but leaves out the parts most people don’t want to hear . . . but no less truthful.

    Our Cateshism makes a distinction between mortal and venial sin (CCC 1857). Three criteria are stated for a mortal sin:
    – The sin must be “grave”
    – The person must have full knowledge
    – The soul must give deliberate consent
    If we die after committing a mortal sin without having been absolved in a VALID confession (that may not necessarily have to be in a confessional but it is probably rare that a VALID confession is done outside the confessional) then we suffer the pain of hell for eternity. There is no chance of purgatory or heaven (CCC 1035).

    None of the three criteria for mortal sin are black and white in every situation but the first two are typically easy to distinguish in most cases. Some examples of grave sin are black and white because our Catechism comes right out and says so. Use the excellent search tool in the online Catechism for a list. Search for “grave”. You’ll have to filter through some other matches but you’ll probably learn something about your faith in the process 🙂

    Full knowledge can be tricky but generally we know when we have committed a really bad sin–after all, the truth is “written on our hearts”.

    However, the third criteria is where I tend to agree with Fr. Schmitz. There really is no way to know if the person committed a sin with deliberate consent. There may have been extenuating circumstances that leave the soul less culpable and only God can read the soul.

    With that said, let’s not fool ourselves here. There is no question that God is merciful AND just. Mercy and justice go hand-in-hand. To see a person who obviously lived their life without God and say that we don’t know whether they are in heaven–and just leave it at that–certainly is not a compassionate answer. It just opens the door to the thinking “Well, I’m a better person than HE was”. Very dangerous thinking! Taken to it’s logical conclusion it leads to the heretical teaching that NO ONE is in hell–which directly opposes Catholic doctrine.

    What we tell the loved one should be both merciful AND just. After all, the dead person has already made their choice but the living soul still has a chance to amend any sin in their life–especially mortal sin. We are better off telling folks the whole truth. A more compassionate answer is “We do not know with ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY that he/she is in hell but all the evidence suggests that he/she is!” The soul hearing this will certainly be more apt to amend any sin in their own life. Then we can open a dialog about learning more about their faith through the Catechism, papal encyclicals, writings of the doctors of the church, etc.

    Remember, love is not an emotion–it is an act of the will. When we look at love as an emotion the natural conclusion is to only tell people what makes them FEEL GOOD. On the other hand, when our eyes are focused on eternity and the saving of souls, we know the WHOLE truth is necessary.

    • John Landau

      What is the WHOLE truth? This is a ridiculous and prideful answer. Telling someone their loved one is probably in Hell is not MERCIFUL at all. It’s the sin of pride that would cause someone to condemn another. Using fear to make people “amend their own lives” as you say has nothing to do with God nor does it directly fulfill any truth to this matter. Fear cannot co-exist with pure LOVE that is Jesus Christ, our Lord. We cannot judge. That’s God’s role, not man’s. God’s forgiveness and grace TRANSCEND the confessional, dogma and Catholic doctrine. If you miss this point, you may be allowing fear, judgement, and pride to get in the way of the Holy Spirit’s mission for you. Pope Leo XIII said in his encyclical: “Now the remission of all sins is given by the Holy Ghost as by the Gift of God” (Summ. Th. 3a, q. iii., a. 8, ad 3m). Concerning this Spirit the words of the Liturgy are very explicit: “For He is the remission of all sins.” Get out of dogma and the catechism and ask the Holy Spirit for his 7 gifts, etc. This will change your whole spiritual direction.