St. Thomas Aquinas addresses this question in his Summa Theologica, and to reduce his nuanced arguments into one word – maybe. Thomas makes clear, in full accord with Scripture and Church teaching, that some souls do go straight to heaven or hell. Souls of those who die without any guilt or unpaid debt for even venial sins on their souls will immediately rise to heaven.
All who die in a state of grace, united to God in charity, without mortal sin on their souls, will ultimately attain heaven. Thomas reminds us (expanding on 1 John 5:16-17) that some sins are mortal and some are not mortal, but are merely venial.
Those who die unrepentant, with mortal sin on their souls, have willingly rejected God’s love and mercy and chosen to exclude themselves from heaven. Their souls go immediately and irrevocably to hell.
Rising To Heaven
Thomas compares the situation of souls after death to how gravity affects 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 souls free of mortal sin from rising to heaven is the debt of venial sin “for which its flight must needs be delayed, until the soul is first of all cleansed.”
The Catechism teaches that after death we all face an immediate “particular judgment,” in which Christ determines whether our souls will proceed immediately to heaven or hell, or must first undergo a period of purification (1022). The Catechism defines purgatory as a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” (CCC 1030). It notes that “this final purification of the elect . . . is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1031).
The purification is necessary because, as Scripture teaches, nothing unclean will enter the presence of God in heaven (Rev. 21:27) and, while we may die with our mortal sins forgiven, there can still be many impurities in us, specifically venial sins and the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven.
When Christ returns for the Last or General Judgment our souls will be re-united with our bodies and we will all be judged together as members of the human race. Those who attain heaven will experience unspeakable bliss, as with glowing bodies, they look upon the face of God, the origin and source of every good, upon the glorified body of Christ, and upon a perfected universe.
Read more in the “Why Do We Do That?” series from Deacon Mike Fritz.