As Christians, we must recognize that we have no right to judge the final disposition of somebody’s soul. Oh, we can and should judge behaviors, and condemn sin, especially within our own ranks (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:11-13). But in the end, when somebody dies, none of us have any right to assume that they have gone to Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell. Only God can judge them in death.
Most modern Christians would agree with this sentiment, at least to a point. If I told your average modern Christian that I was certain Adolf Hitler was rotting in Hell, most would (rightfully) correct me. Jesus Christ died on the cross to forgive all human sins—even those as gruesome, horrific, and revolting as Hitler’s. It is possible that Hitler, in the very last millisecond of his earthly life, was truly repentant for what he had done. And if he was, he might not have ended up where our limited human instincts might expect. God’s forgiveness extends to the worst sins, and is contingent on nothing more than our honest contrition and repentance.
This is all well-and-good in the theoretical, talking about historical figures like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and others far removed from our lives today. Christian theology on forgiveness is a radical theology that has the potential to extend even to these monsters, so long as they seek and accept that forgiveness. But what about when it is our loved ones who die? What about cases where we mourn the death of a close relative or friend?
It is always wrong to make assumptions about the disposition of people’s souls in death. This is true when we assume that Hitler went to Hell, but it is equally true when we assume that our beloved grandmother (for example) went to Heaven. Like Hitler might have been truly contrite in his very last millisecond on earth, it is equally possible that our apparently holy and faithful grandmother held to a private sin and was fully unrepentant to her very last millisecond on earth. We cannot know; indeed, it is not our place to know in this life.
So we must be cautious with our thoughts, speech, and actions when our loved ones die. It is easy to focus only on a positive idea that they have gone to Heaven. It is comforting to say that ‘they’re in a better place now,’ as if we are certain that it is true. But we can’t be certain. We aren’t the judge; God is. We must work to abandon our own assumptions and recognize that we can’t truly know the state of anybody’s soul but our own.
Many funerals today, even among Christians, are more like canonizations. They are filled with confident declarations that the deceased is looking down upon us from eternal glory in Heaven. In Christian communities, this is a side-effect of the erroneous Calvinist doctrine that once one is ‘saved’ through Baptism they are always ‘saved,’ regardless of their subsequent transgressions and sins. But the traditional Christian funeral is something different entirely; it is a prayer for the dead. We pray for the dead as the Israelite soldiers prayed for their fallen brethren (cf. 2 Maccabees 12:44-45) and as St. Paul prayed for his deceased friend Onesiphorus (cf. 2 Timothy 1:16-18). We pray in hopes that the dead have made it to eternal glory in Heaven, knowing full well that it is possible they didn’t.
Our God is a forgiving God, but it is incumbent on each individual to accept that forgiveness and to repent of (meaning ‘turn away from’) our sins. It is incumbent on each of us, as Baptized Christians, to seek forgiveness for our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, recognizing the authority Christ gave to his Apostles and their successors to forgive sins in his name (cf. John 20:21-23). Those who outright refuse to be contrite and seek forgiveness for their sins will be eternally punished. Those who accept and embrace this forgiveness with true contrition will be eternally rewarded—either immediately in death, or following a final purification in Purgatory.
These are the basic tenets of Christian belief on the afterlife, and our funerals should reflect them—not the fairy-tale belief that everybody we love automatically goes to Heaven and lives happily ever after. We must be honest with ourselves and with others. We must pray for the dead, particularly the holy souls in Purgatory who are undergoing purification in preparation for Heaven. We must pray in hope, and in faith. And in the end, we must recognize that it is God’s judgement—not ours—that determines the repose of souls in death.