Hi, Mike —
Let me just preface my comments by saying:
- what we know about these things or
- rather what the Church Teaches about these things
is in human language. Therefore it really doesn't do these mysteries of faith justice. Rather it is the Church's attempt, led by Holy Spirit, to understand and explain what is to come.
My understanding is that the Particular Judgment is between you and God. It happens at the time of death.
The Final Judgment is simply the same judgment but it is very public and it happens at the end of time. Of course even this is a difficult thing to understand.
Well, for those of us who exist within time, it's a concept we can only grasp at so the idea of when something happens is relative.
All that said, let's deal with some of the specifics.
With a few exceptions, the souls of the Faithful Departed don't have bodies. We really don't know how they exist. Obviously, they are still individuals that are recognizable so they must have so form but they are in a form of a pure spirit without a body as we understand it, or a body such as the Resurrected Body Christ has.
Catholics believe that Mary was assumed body and soul in to Heaven. Whether or not she died first is a matter of two different traditions.
- In the East, the tradition is she died or fell asleep and her body along with her soul was taken to Heaven.
- In the West, the tradition is that she was assumed without dying.
In any event, she would have been transformed into her resurrected body, as we will be, at the end of time. Scripture seems to indicate that Elijah was assumed alive and there are references in the New Testament of Moses being assumed after death. On the Mount of Transfiguration Jesus meets with both of them while Peter, James, and John witness it.
There is also an obscure reference to a man named Enoch in Genesis 5 (Noah's grandfather) who is said to have walked with God and then was no more. Some traditions believe that Enoch was assumed. We know dogmatically that Mary has her body and a very strong case can be made for Moses and Elijah having their bodies.
Finally, there is this passage in Matthew 27
51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks were split; 52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints that slept arose, 53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
Now at first, this seems to have taken place just as Jesus died but verse 53, indicates it happened after His Resurrection. No other Gospel records this but it happened to take place on the Feast of First Fruits and Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, knew that the readers would understand that this Resurrection of some of the Old Testament Saints was a fulfillment of the Jewish feast of First Fruits so if this literary construct is to be understood as historically accurate then whoever these folks are, they have bodies in Heaven, but as I said, the majority don't.
Now to your Purgatory question. I don't treat Purgatory in terms of judgment or punishment for sin or even temporal punishment. Yes, that's a paradigm the Church has used in the past but Purgatory is place where the effects of sin on your soul are dealt with so time in the Purgatory is not exactly a sentence but it's time in Holy Spirit Hospital or Rehab Clinic for the soul.
Sure it will involve suffering but it is best compared to a healing suffering. It's perfectly fine to use the old juridical paradigm of Judgment and temporal punishment but it can lead to confusion.
Purgatory is nothing but the Love of God burning away all our selfishness and while it may hurt, it is also a source of great joy. I can give you a personal example from my own life.
Four years ago I underwent heart surgery. Somehow during my surgery, they managed to paralyze my right foot. When I woke up I was in excruciating pain because of the nerve damage. For months my foot would not move at all. If I tried to stand on it, it felt like I was ripping my calf muscle off the bone but the pain I was feeling were the nerves healing. About eight months later, I started to get the slightest of movement back. As time passed, the pained started to change, both in sensation and in location and, sure enough, every time that would happen, I would start to regain sensation and movement in that area of the foot and leg a few weeks later. So I started to recognize this pattern. Every time I felt a new pain, in different spot, as much as it hurt, it also gave me hope that I was truly healing. After a year, I was told I was done healing and that I would always need a brace and never be able to drive but I was convinced God would continue to heal me and indeed a few months later I dumped the brace and started to drive a bit.
Today, I rarely use my cane to walk. It still hurts very badly but now the pain is concentrating in my toes that still don't move. I can feel the nerves contract when I try to move my toes. It is excruciatingly painful but I love it because I know in few months my toes will move.
Well, I believe that is very much the experience of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. God is not extracting punishment rather He is healing them and healing, just like growing, comes with pain.
So I would compare the Judgment that happens vis-a-vis Purgatory to a physical exam before one is admitted to the hospital.
Ultimately, the purpose of both Judgments is to demonstrate God's mercy. Even those who are damned, are shown their sins and shown all that God was willing to forgive, if they would accept His Love and Mercy.
In fact, the soul who experiences Hell is experiencing God's love but, in their case, it is a source of torment, because they are constantly rejecting that Love. They don't believe they deserve it. And they're right they don't, just as the saved don't deserved to be saved either.
Love, Grace, and Mercy are not extended because we deserve or earn it. It is extended because we need it. More importantly, because it is God's nature and character to Love, forgive, and give of Himself, that's all He wants to do: Give Himself to us. That's why He created us. He wants to treat us a Father, not a Judge.
As to you're last question about those who claim to have seen Heaven — It's possible.
The Church has approved certain private revelations. Again, we must be careful. Obviously, if the person who claims to have seen Heaven in some out of body experience then comes back spewing things which contradict orthodox Christian doctrine, we have reason to doubt what they saw. They might have had a real experience but they could have also been deceived by demons.
I hope this helps,