What do you think heaven will look and feel like?

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | November 3, 2014

As we celebrate the feast of All Saints and commemorate the faithful departed this weekend and during the month of November, the thought of life after this life naturally comes to mind. And one question that arises is: What is heaven?

We all have an idea of what we think heaven is like. For some, it’s being in a constant state of happiness, without worries or fears of any kind. For others, it’s a reunion with lost friends and relatives. Some might think of enjoying a huge feast — the “heavenly banquet.” Still others might laugh as they think about sitting on clouds and playing a harp all day.

Our parents and grandparents probably could answer “What is heaven?” from the pages of the Baltimore Catechism (lesson 37; question 1395): “Heaven is the state of everlasting life in which we see God face-to-face, are made like unto him in glory, and enjoy eternal happiness.”

The more recent Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that heaven “is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (n. 1024).

St. John Paul II, in a famous teaching on heaven, hell and purgatory in 1999, said “heaven becomes an image of life in God.”

How did we get all our ideas about heaven?

Our Jewish ancestors certainly believed in a place where God lived in glory, looking down upon the earth from his throne (Ps 11, v. 4). The Jewish word “shamayim” refers to the highest places over earth. And ancient Jews certainly believed in an afterlife, often as a place where the righteous went after death; think of Elijah ascending in a fiery chariot or of when God promises an aging King David a place with his ancestors “when your days are completed.” However, the Jewish tradition was not to speak of an afterlife very much. This, in part, was because the Hebrew people had been liberated from Egypt, which had a huge preoccupation with the afterlife.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin speculates that, “The Torah (the Jewish scriptures), therefore, might have been silent about afterlife out of a desire to ensure that Judaism not evolve in the direction of the death, obsessed Egyptian religion.”

However, by the time Jewish history approached Jesus’ day, the idea of heaven was evolving as both a place where God dwelled and a place where the faithful could also hope to dwell. The First Book of Maccabees, written about 100 years before Christ, speaks of Heaven interchangeably with God’s name. For example, Judas Maccabees notes that “victory in war does not depend upon the size of the army, but on strength that comes from heaven” (1 Mc 3:19). So there was a definite equating of God’s presence being the same as heaven.

Jesus, of course, speaks of heaven a great deal, both as a place where the just go after death (think of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man), and also as the place from which he came: “I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the one who sent me” (Jn 6:38). And perhaps most comforting of all is Jesus’ promise from the cross to the dying thief: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43).

Since Jesus’ time, theologians have attempted to understand what “being in paradise” will be like. By the fifth century, St. Augustine’s understanding was that heaven was “a city of God” where Christ is and where we can also be — both now and in eternity: “While in heaven he is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. … We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love.”

In the 13th century, we find two of the greatest theologians of the church — Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. And the two offer two different approaches to heaven. Aquinas took the more place-specific approach: heaven is where God and the saints are able to look down open earth and hell. (Of course, he did say that there was a difference between bodily space and spiritual space, referring to existence in “a manner that cannot be fully manifest to us.”) Scotus tended to approach heaven as an experience of God’s love and presence. Both men, though, definitely viewed heaven as where God is and as a something that humans can attain, through Christ.

In 1999, St. John Paul clarified both approaches and said heaven “is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. It is our meeting with the Father which takes place in the risen Christ through the communion of the Holy Spirit.”

Pope Benedict XVI also addressed what heaven is like, especially when we think about our deceased loved ones:

“God, on the contrary, never passes away and we all exist by virtue of his love,” the now-retired pontiff said. “We exist because he loves us, because he conceived of us and called us to life. We exist in God’s thoughts and in God’s love. We exist in the whole of our reality. … It is not merely a ‘shadow’ of ourselves that survives, but rather we are preserved and ushered into eternity with the whole of our being in him, in his creator love. It is his love that triumphs over death and gives us eternity and it is this love that we call ‘heaven.’’’

So heaven is not about a being a ghost or existing in a place high above the sky and far from those left behind, but heaven is about existing in the presence of total love forever.

That’s a comforting thought to remember as we take time during the month of November to remember those who have gone to God before us.

 

Sources:Summa Theologica”; vatican.va; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Baltimore Catechism”; Catechism of the Catholic Church; “Jewish Encyclopedia”; “Jewish Literacy”; jewishvirtuallibrary.org; “Vision of God in Heaven” by St. Augustine; “Confessio”; Catholic Answers at catholic.org.

 

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