Catholics believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus have changed the meaning and the effects of human death. Death is no longer the end of individual human identity, because the soul continues on after death. The Catholic Church teaches that a soul may go to heaven, purgatory or hell, depending on the quality of a person's life on earth.

Jesus Conquered Death

The Catholic Church teaches that the sacrificial death of Jesus (when he allowed himself to be captured and killed) and his resurrection (when he came back to life after being put in a tomb) have changed human death into an event less final and less sad. Catholic priests explain this during Sunday Mass, saying "he gave himself up to death, and, rising from the dead, he destroyed death and restored life." Before Jesus, death was the absolute end point of a human's existence. After Jesus, human death is a transition to another phase of life -- as a soul without a body, destined for heaven, purgatory or hell. The decision about where an individual will go is made "at the very moment of his death."

Heaven

Heaven is the preferred destination for Catholics after death. The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" explains who goes to heaven and what kind of life they will find there: "Those who die in God's grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live for ever with Christ." Heaven is the ultimate goal of all Catholics. While nobody knows exactly what a heavenly existence consists of, Catholics believe it includes seeing God "face to face."

Purgatory

It is seen as unlikely that a majority of Catholics will be perfectly purified when they die, since humans tend to sin. Those people who are neither perfectly purified nor guilty of extremely serious sin are sent to purgatory. Purgatory is a temporary location where individuals stay until they are fit to go to heaven. "Catechism" explains that heaven is the ultimate destination for those who are "still imperfectly purified," but that "after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven."

Hell

Finally, hell is the destination that Catholics hope to avoid. Nevertheless, "Catechism" emphasizes that this is a "self-exclusion from communion with God" and a "free choice" that humans make -- by failing to accept God's love and by failing to care for people in need. In artistic representations and in many sermons of the past, hell was seen as a place of fire and torment. The Catholic Church currently describes hell as an existence where the soul is separated from God forever, which is the greatest loss possible for a Christian.