Catholic Beliefs About God's Punishment for Sins

by Andrea Adams

Catholics believe that although God readily forgives sins through Jesus, who sacrificed his life for humanity's salvation, forgiveness does not negate the suffering that is a consequence of sin. The religion teaches that human beings will pay for their sins, either in life or after death; the severity of sin informs the extent to which sins must be satisfied.

Definition and Types of Sin

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines "sin" as "an utterance, a deed or a desire contrary to the eternal law. It is an offense against God." There are two types of sin: mortal and venial. Mortal sin is a serious offense committed deliberately and with full knowledge, and it removes sanctifying grace from the transgressor. Venial sin is less grave and does not remove grace. Sanctifying grace is considered the holy, unmerited gift of God's presence that redeems and perfects the soul and ensures the eventual entrance into heaven.

Types of Punishment

Catholics believe that there are two types of punishment for sin: eternal punishment and temporal punishment. Eternal punishment confines the soul to an eternity in hell. God's mercy absolves those who seek forgiveness of this punishment. Temporal punishment is temporary, and should be seen as a natural consequence of sin, which causes personal and social consequences. Some effects of sin are known and within our power to rectify, and some are not. It is necessary to answer for all of those consequences on Earth or after death in purgatory.

Temporal Punishment on Earth

According to the Catechism, temporal punishment ought not to be considered the wrath of God. On the contrary, the Christian "must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace." Also, the punishment corresponds to the severity and nature of the sins committed, and can be served in the following ways: "prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear."

Punishment in Purgatory and Hell

According to the Church, those who die in God's grace yet who have not completely fulfilled their temporal punishment will enter purgatory, an after-death state of purification. The Catechism refers to it as "a cleansing fire." Eventually entering heaven is assured to everyone in purgatory, and Catholics are urged to pray on their behalf to lessen their sentence. In contrast, those who die without seeking forgiveness for mortal sin will suffer the pains of hell. The Catechism refers to hell as "eternal fire," a state of unending agony because of complete separation from God, who created humans and who alone can provide life and happiness.

About the Author

Based in Kansas City, Andrea Adams has been been writing for the non-profit sector since 2006. Her areas of interest include higher education, social issues and cultural phenomena. She has a Bachelor of Science in social policy from Northwestern University.

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