What is heaven?
Heaven is often depicted in movies and tv shows as a radiant, sunny respite in the clouds, where the dead gather like fleshy angels against the backdrop of a perfect blue sky to enjoy their white robes and harps forevermore. Is there any truth to this image? If so, where is it? After all, modern telescopes have pierced beyond the earth’s atmosphere, scanned the stars and so far turned up nothing of the sort. That fact has naturally prompted many to question the existence of such a place, and that doubt has had all sorts of ramifications for how we feel about the world and live our lives.
So, what exactly is the Church talking about when it speaks of heaven? Before answering that question, it’s very important to be honest and acknowledge: no one fully knows. As St Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). That’s as true today as it was when St Paul wrote it. When it comes to speaking of the things beyond this life, certainty is a rare commodity indeed. However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t know anything about it.
To turn to the Catechism, the first things it says about heaven contain the seeds of what the Church thinks and teaches on the topic. CCC 1023 says that “those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live for ever with Christ. They are like God for ever, for they ‘see him as he is,’ face to face”.
The first, and most important thing, to understand about heaven is that it’s life centred perfectly on God. CCC 1024 and 1025 define heaven in turn as “perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity” – a “communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed”.
Heaven is to be with Christ, to live in him and is “the ultimate end and fulfilment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness”. It is also where we find our truest identity, separated finally from sin and its effects as we are. That is heaven in its essence; full communion with God, his saints and ourselves. But how does this manifest itself? What will heaven be like experientially?
Scripture speaks of it in images, as it’s impossible to convey the full reality in words: life, light, peace, a wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise. We know it will be an embodied reality, and that we won’t just float around as pure spirits for eternity, as the resurrection of the body and the renewal of creation are another core tenet the Church espouses about – hopefully – our final state (more on that in another column).
Heaven won’t take place in the sky, or on another planet – although both are natural misunderstandings. Heaven is a higher form of reality, and so it’s natural to associate that with places that are “above us”. Rather, heaven is more akin to a new phase of existence, one in which evil and sin are left behind, and neither we nor the world bear the pain or suffering they entail anymore.
In 2010, Pope Benedict said: “All of us today are well aware that by the term ‘heaven’ we are not referring to somewhere in the universe, to a star or such like; no. We mean something far greater and far more difficult to define with our limited human conceptions” (General Audience, August 15, 2010).
In 1999, John Paul II made a similar comment: “In the context of revelation, we know that the ‘heaven’ or ‘happiness’ in which we will find ourselves 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” (General Audience, July 21, 1999).
While there are few concrete images and concepts we can cling to in order to better understand heaven, perhaps the best thing to keep in mind is that of the loving embrace of our Creator, who knows us fully, and is welcoming us home to life as he intended it.