SO, WHAT IS HEAVEN REALLY LIKE?
“God transcends the intellect, and is inaccessible to it”
St John of the Cross: “Living Flame”
I attended a school Mass recently. The priest was talking to a class of seven year olds and one of them said that he was sad because his grandmother had just died. The priest reassured him that she was now safely in Heaven and beyond all pain and sorrow.
“Now”, he said, “who wants to go to Heaven!” This was met with silence. “Come on”, he smiled, “hands-up all those who want to go to the joy of Heaven!” After a few hesitant glances at their friends, one or two children tentatively raised their hands, only to put them slowly down again, much to the astonishment of the priest. You can always rely on children not to toe the party line. Of course, when you think about it, their response was understandable. Which of us would want to leave our beloved family and friends, our home and all our familiar surroundings, for the promise of an unknown land, even one described as without pain and suffering? If the priest had described Heaven as a wonderful, happy place where we will live with all our family and friends, I’m sure a forest of hand would have shot up.
It reminds me of the true story of a little girl who in the middle of the night went in to her parents’ room saying she was frightened. Her mother reassured her that Jesus was looking after her at all times and the girl replied “Yes mummy, I know that, but I want someone with skin on”. I think we all want someone with skin on.
All this got me thinking about Heaven. What, as Christians, do we know about it? How can we learn truly to long for Heaven?
We should begin with the gospels. To encapsulate Jesus’ ministry, St Mark says this:
“The time has come,” (Jesus) said. “The kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) (NB: In this blog I will take the Kingdom of God and Heaven to be the same thing, as is generally understood).
The Ascension – Catherine Andrews
This means that Jesus is ushering in the kingdom. In some astonishing way, He is the kingdom. The signs that the kingdom has come are that sickness is cured, sadness is removed, prisoners are set free and the dead rise (see Matt 1:15).
This is a wonderful start, but that doesn’t really tell us what Heaven will be like in detail. How we long to have some flesh on the bones, however impressive the bones are!
The parables take us a little bit further. Heaven is often referred to as a banquet or a wedding feast. In Matthew 22:2, for example, a huge feast is prepared by a king for his son – all are invited. This is a great image – there will be true fellowship, laughter and carefree joy in Heaven. But it is only an image. Heaven will not really be a wedding feast!
Again, Jesus has a number of statements (see especially Luke, Chapter 15) beginning “the kingdom of Heaven is like…” (a pearl of great price, a man who sowed seed, a lost coin, a shepherd seeking a lost sheep etc,) but the point of these is not to describe Heaven in detail but primarily to assert the supreme importance of living for God, of putting Him first, and the fact that He cares infinitely for each one of us.
Of course, Jesus hinted that, in some mysterious way, the Kingdom of Heaven begins now. (“The Kingdom of Heaven is among you”, he said – Luke 17:21). In fact, the original Greek word for “among” is actually ἑν, which really means ”in”! So Jesus has started the process now in each of his believers. By following Him, we may begin to taste already the living water that will flow within us (Luke 7:38). A hint of what this might be like is given when we consider Jesus’s state after the resurrection, when his body was no longer bound by the restrictions of time and space.
Indeed, of central issue is that we will have a glorified body. Thomas Aquinas, that prince of Catholic theologians, famously said “My soul is not me”. He meant (he will forgive me for such a pithy summary), that as human beings we are more than spirit, we are a body and mind as well, and in Heaven this little trinity will be raised up in a perfect unity. And of course both Jesus and Our Lady went bodily to Heaven, so it would be strange if we spent our time there disembodied.
The Catechism states that at the moment of death we will be judged and the blessed will enter Heaven – usually after purification (Purgatory). Slightly confusingly, the Catechism then says that these souls are already in Heaven before they take up their bodies at the last judgement.
“to live in Heaven is to be with Christ. The elect live in Christ but they retain, or rather find, their true identity, their own name (Catechism of the Catholic Church para1025).
Frustratingly, the Catechism goes on: “The mystery of blessed communion with God …is beyond all understanding and description” (para 1027). But there is a tantalising hint : “In the glory of Heaven the blessed joyfully continue to fulfil God’s will in relation to other men and to all creation (my italics). So we will not, as is often implied, simply be gazing at God in bliss. We will be in communion with God and others and there will be a new creation..
Assumption of the Virgin” by Tilman Riemenschneider (1505-1508)
Incidentally, we often think of the Last Judgement with some dread. I always find this from Basil Hume very encouraging:
“Judgement is whispering into the ear of a merciful and compassionate God the story of my life which I have never been able to tell” (From “To be a Pilgrim”)
In our search for Heaven we need, I think, to pay special attention to St Paul. He based his life and teaching on revelation – he claimed a direct unmediated knowledge of the holy mysteries beyond that even granted to St Peter and the other apostles, who of course, unlike Paul, actually knew Jesus in the flesh. Listen to this:
I know a man (St Paul himself, of course) in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell (2 Corinthians 12).
“What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” —the things God has prepared for those who love him. These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.” (my bold text).
What then can we learn from him about the details of Heaven? Well, not very much, alas. He kept to his conviction that, whatever he said, it would be wholly inadequate to convey the wonder of Heaven, and that, in any case, he was not allowed to speak of such things! (He does not say why). His principal aim seems to have been to encourage us and reaffirm our faith. (see 1 Corinthians 15:12; 2 Timothy 4 1-8; Romans 8: 18-25; 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10). He wants above all to keep us on the right track:
“The kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding” (Rom 14:17-19).
When he does attempt some detailed description, it is very brief and seems a little unreal:
“After that, (the second coming of Christ) we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them (the dead) in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (Thessalonians 4:17).
After all these hints and metaphors and guesses, what can we assert with some confidence about Heaven?
1) We will retain our individuality, with a glorified body, but, following the purification of Purgatory, our false self, or ego, will no longer exist. In other words, no more self-importance, pride, feeling you are better than others, jealousy, envy, wishing others ill etc. What a relief that will be! And there will be no more misunderstandings!
2) We will rise in Christ. Our lives will centre on loving relationships – first and foremost with God – we will be like Him and see Him as he really is!) and presumably with other people – but it will be an inclusive not an exclusive love – in other words we will love not just our family and friends but everyone else as well,(equally (?)).
3) There will be no more sickness, no more death, no more fear or sorrow.
4) There will be a new earth, also incorruptible, and indescribably beautiful.
3) There will be millions of angels!
4) It will be infinitely more wonderful than we can imagine.
5) I will be shooting up my hand when asked if I want to go.
Angel by Bernini – The Ecstasy of St Teresa
I want to give the last word, (well, nearly) to a man whose ferocious intellect and extraordinarily profound insight and imagination have shed light on this and related issues for millions. CS Lewis had a great belief in the wonder and joy of Heaven and considered that there, finally, we would be the persons we were meant to be all along.
“These small and perishable bodies we now have were given to us as ponies are given to schoolboys. Not that we may be some day free of horses altogether but that some day we may ride bare-back, confident and rejoicing, those greater mounts, those winged, shining and world-shaking horses which, perhaps even now, expect us with impatience, pawing and snorting in the King’s stables. Not that the gallop would be on any value unless it were a gallop with the King; but how else, since he has retained his own charger – should we accompany Him?”
Miracles. C S Lewis
I know, I know. I can hear you saying: “That’s all very well, but what will Heaven really be like?”
Ask me another.