Where Our Souls Go When We Die: A Thomistic Introduction to the Afterlife

The empyrean heaven is a corporeal place, and yet as soon as it was made it was filled with the holy angels, as Bede … says. Since then angels even as separated souls are incorporeal, it would seem that some place should also be assigned to receive separated souls.

— St. Thomas Aquinas, Supplement, 69, 1

Did God create places to receive our souls after death?

The Catechism teaches that after death and before the resurrection, our souls are separated from our bodies (1005, 1016). Even in Thomas’s time, some people argued that because departed souls are entirely spiritual and do not have material bodies that could be placed in or affected by a physical location, there must not be a place appointed to receive our souls after death. Thomas responds to the contrary. As we see, “the empyrean heaven,” is a corporeal (material, physical, tangible) place that is full of angels, which are purely spiritual, bodiless beings. Further, within his Dialogues, Pope St. Gregory the Great (540–604) wrote about certain departed souls who were seen or revealed to be in particular places on earth or in hell.

Thomas explains that it is fitting for nobler spiritual substances to be assigned to nobler places, in the special sense that spiritual substances can be in a place. The nobler the spiritual substance, the closer it draws to the first substance, which resides in the highest place. That first and noblest substance is God, and while He is everywhere in the universe through His essence, presence, and power, Scripture tells us His throne is in heaven (Ps. 103 [102]:19; Isa. 66:1). 

Thomas notes that incorporeal spiritual substances, such as a disembodied soul, do not occupy a place in the same way bodies do, but in a special manner unique to spiritual substances — a manner that we, as ensouled bodies here on earth, cannot clearly comprehend. Earlier in the Summa, in his “Treatise on the Angels,” Thomas explained that angels are immaterial, like our separated souls, but they too can occupy places, although they are not contained by them. This is akin to the way in which, during life on earth, “the soul is in the body as containing it, not as contained by it.” 

Further, things can share something in common in two ways: first, by having the same quality, as hot things have their heat in common. Spiritual substances cannot have anything in common with corporeal things in this way. Second, things can share something in common by a kind of proportionality, as when the Scriptures metaphorically describe the spiritual world in terms of corporeal things. For example, God is spoken of as the sun, because “He is the principle of spiritual life as the sun is of corporeal life” on earth. In this analogical sense, we can see that souls hold things in common with certain places — “for instance, souls that are spiritually enlightened, with luminous bodies, and souls that are plunged in darkness by sin, with dark places.”   

Finally, separated souls are not affected directly by corporeal places as bodies are, but knowing the places to which they have been appointed brings these souls joy or sorrow, depending on where they’ve been placed. This joy or sorrow is part of their reward or punishment, respectively. 

Do our souls go straight to heaven or hell when we die?

Some have argued that according to Matthew 25:31–46, souls are not sent to experience the joys of heaven or the torments of hell until after the Last Judgment at the end of time.  

In response, Thomas again turns to Gregory, who observed in his Dialogues that the Last Judgment will indeed provide further reward to souls in heaven because “‘whereas now they enjoy only the happiness of the soul, afterwards they will enjoy also that of the body, so as to rejoice also in the flesh wherein they bore sorrow and torments for the Lord.’ The same is to be said in reference to the damned.”

Thomas makes clear that some souls do go straight to heaven or hell. St. Paul has told us, “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1). “Therefore,” says Thomas, “after the body’s dissolution, the soul has an abode, which has been reserved for it in heaven.” Paul also proclaimed, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23). Since it is a truth of the Faith that Christ is in heaven, Gregory argues that “it cannot be denied that Paul’s soul is in heaven likewise.” Further, Scripture clearly tells us that some souls do go to hell immediately after death, as was the case for the rich man who died, was buried, and went to hell (Luke 16:22–23).

Still, some souls do not go straight to heaven or hell. Interestingly, Thomas compares the effect of sin on souls after death to that of gravity on physical bodies. Objects lighter than air will immediately rise, while heavier bodies will immediately fall, unless some obstacle impedes their path. A soul that is freed from all debt of sin will rise immediately to heaven, as a soul mired in mortal sin will descend into hell. An obstacle that can prevent a soul free of mortal sin from rising to heaven is the debt of venial sin, “for which [the soul’s] flight must needs be delayed, until the soul is first of all cleansed.”

In accord with Thomas, the Catechism teaches that after death, we all will face an immediate “particular judgment,” in which Christ determines whether our souls will proceed immediately to heaven or hell or first undergo a period of purification (1022).

Are souls ever allowed to leave heaven or hell?

Some passages in Scripture seem to suggest that souls can never leave heaven or hell. For example: “That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” (Ps. 27 [26]:4) and “As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up” (Job 7:9). 

To the contrary, Thomas cites the eloquent argument made by St. Jerome (A.D. 347–420) in the following rhetorical questions: “Wouldst thou then lay down the law for God? Wouldst thou put the apostles in chains, imprison them until the day of judgment, and forbid them to be with their lord, them of whom it is written: They follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth? And if the Lamb is everywhere, therefore we must believe that those also who are with Him are everywhere.” Jerome further argues that since demons and the devil wander about the world, “why should the martyrs, after shedding their blood, be imprisoned and unable to go forth?” Thomas also notes that Gregory cited many cases in which the dead have appeared on earth. 

Scripture tells us that no one leaves heaven or hell “simply” or forever, but it does not tell us that souls cannot sometimes leave their abodes for limited periods of time to take part in the affairs of the living and appear to men “according to Divine providence,” as Thomas says. 

What are the “limbo of hell” and “Abraham’s bosom,” and are they the same thing?

We proclaim in the Creed that Christ “descended into hell.” The Catechism explains that “Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there” (632). Further, “Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, ‘hell’ — Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek — because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God” (CCC 633).

With this context in mind, let us now go to Thomas. He argues that after death, souls cannot find rest except through faith, as Hebrews 11:6 says: “For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Because Abraham was “the first to sever himself from the body of unbelievers, and to receive a special sign of faith,” the place of rest given to people after death is called “Abraham’s bosom,” as we see in Luke 16:22–23, which says that the unfaithful rich man Dives was damned to Hades, and the faithful Lazarus “was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.” Before Christ came and set their souls free, the faithful in hell experienced partial rest in that they were not punished, but their ultimate end — being with God in heaven — had not yet been fulfilled. So the same place is called the “limbo of hell” because it was a place of waiting “in limbo” where souls were deprived of their final rest in God, and “Abraham’s bosom” because of the partial rest it afforded before the coming of Christ. “The state of the holy Fathers as regards what was good in it was called Abraham’s bosom, but as regards its deficiencies it was called hell.” 

Since the coming of Christ, Abraham’s bosom is no longer called the limbo of hell, because the saints in Abraham’s bosom now have complete rest in that they do see God. It is in this sense that the Church prays, echoing St. Luke, that departed souls will be carried to Abraham’s bosom. 

Is limbo the same as the hell of the damned?

Thomas states quite succinctly that “in hell, there is no redemption [Office of the Dead, resp. vii]. But the saints [the Patriarchs, or Fathers, and the other faithful who departed before Christ] were redeemed from limbo. Therefore, limbo is not the same as hell.” Limbo was a temporary place of waiting qualitatively distinct from the hell of the damned. Still, Thomas notes that hell and limbo may occupy the same place, or may be continuous such that some higher part of hell contains limbo. 

Should there be so many resting places for souls?

Sometimes, non-Catholic Christians criticize the Church’s teaching on the various resting places for souls. They think heaven and hell, the last two of the Last Things, suffice, and any other resting places derive from merely the traditions of men. Indeed, even before the Reformation, and within the Catholic Church herself, there were many misgivings and misunderstandings regarding the resting places for souls. Some people held that there should be many more resting places, even an infinite number, since the degrees of merit and sin are infinite! 

That Thomas provides and replies to a full ten objections in question 69, article 7, “Whether So Many Abodes Should Be Distinguished?” demonstrates the extent of this controversy. I invite you to read these objections and his replies at your leisure, but for now, I’ll supply a few of Thomas’s main conclusions.

Thomas notes that “the abodes of souls are distinguished according to the souls’ various states.” While on earth, united to the body, the soul is “in the state of meriting,” but after death, separated from the body, the soul can only receive good or evil for the merits it has already acquired, although it may not be in the proper state to do so. If it is, the soul will receive its final reward according to the two ways Thomas identifies. If the soul is pure and good, its abode is paradise, or heaven. If the soul is evil in terms of actual sin, its abode is hell, while if the soul is evil in terms of Original Sin only, its abode is the limbo of children. On the other hand, if by sin the soul is hindered or delayed from receiving its final reward, the soul’s abode is either purgatory (if the soul is hindered by a defect of the person, that is, personal venial sins) or the limbo of the Fathers, that is, Abraham’s bosom (if the soul is hindered by a defect of nature, namely, the guilt of human nature that had not yet been expiated by Christ).

This article is an excerpt taken from Dr. Vost’s latest book, Aquinas on the Four Last Things: Everything You Need To Know About Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. It is available as an ebook or paperback from your favorite bookseller or online through Sophia Institute Press.

image: 17th century engraving of the Glorification of Saint Thomas Aquinas / Rijksmuseum / Europeana (Public Domain).

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Dr. Kevin Vost, Psy D. is the author of Memorize the Faith, The Seven Deadly Sins, The One Minute Aquinasas well as numerous other books and articles. He has taught psychology at the University of Illinois at Springfield, Lincoln Land Community College, and MacMurray College. He is a Research Review Committee Member for American Mensa, which promotes the scientific study of human intelligence. You can find him at drvost.com.

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