Question: How will God judge non-Catholics at the time of their death?
— William Bandle, Manchester, Missouri
Answer: Scripture says, “God does not see as a mortal ... The Lord looks into the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). Thus, God, who knows our hearts, will judge us based on what is there. Not all have had the same opportunity to come to know the Lord, his Church and the help of the sacraments. God is just; he knows this and will judge accordingly.
Jesus says, “That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations or act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating, shall be beaten only lightly” (Lk 12:47-48).
In terms of non-Catholics who lacked some knowledge or sacraments of the Church, God will look into their hearts and judge them based on what they reasonably could have known and their actions based on that.
Therefore, to say that God looks into the heart does not mean that he merely looks to a person’s feelings or disposition. Rather, as Scripture says, we will be judged by our deeds (see Rom 2:6-11). Did our actions correspond to what we knew was expected of us or not?
Thus, the degree of a person’s knowledge of God’s will and his obedience to that knowledge in deeds will be key on the Day of Judgment. This does not mean all non-Catholics and other nonbelievers simply get a pass. Their ignorance of full Catholic teaching must be what is called “invincible ignorance,” meaning a lack of knowledge that they could not reasonably overcome. Thus, if one is lazy or makes excuses when seeking the truth, God will take it into account.
Since the Lord alone sees into our heart, he alone will be our just judge.
Heaven without family?
Question: How will we be happy in heaven if we know that loved ones, perhaps even our own children, are in hell?
— Peter Tate, Long Beach, California
Answer: How we will experience happiness in heaven is somewhat mysterious to us now. But, what we call happiness now is often rather egocentric in its parameters. Subjectively, we cannot imagine being happy without the presence of both loved ones and things we like. However, the happiness of heaven will be perfected in and by the love of God and of his profound justice toward every person he created.
Thus, heaven is not simply our self-designed paradise. Specific qualities are celebrated in heaven: love of enemies, chastity, esteem of the poor, love of truth. There are some who either do not esteem or outright reject some or all of these qualities. Perhaps the saddest fact is that the souls in hell would be even less happy in heaven.
God’s justice respects that not everyone wants the grace he offers. As such, he lets them live apart from him, though he sustains them in his love. In heaven, it would seem that we will come to accept the justice of God who respects the freedom of every human person.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org.