We do not often hear Heaven preached. In this last of the four letters on the Last things, it's time to reflect on that experience which we human beings are destined for and where Jesus leads us
For anyone trying to get a better idea of Heaven, the title of this article is a problem to begin with. For reasons of convenience and common usage, we often refer to Heaven as `up there'. Heaven, of course, is no more `up there' than Hell is `down there'. Since the terms were coined in the Northern Hemisphere, presumably we in Australia would be gazing up (or down) at Hell. All of which highlights the problem of speaking about Heaven in any way at all sensible.
Certainly, our imaginations are of little use since we are dealing with realities totally outside of human experience, outside of our very ability to imagine. But of course, we do and we must use our imagination. That is why analogy is such a wonderful tool, for it enables us to be the springboard, the vaulting pole to see beyond our power of normal vision. James K. Baxter somewhere described life in heaven as "swimming dolphin-like in a sea of delight". Wondrous, magical image that it is, we really only learn from it that in Heaven we shall be outrageously happy.
Many years ago, a woman came to the door and asked to speak with a priest, so I took her in and listened to her story. She was worried about going to Heaven: well, not exactly about going to Heaven, but about how she could possibly be happy there without her dog. Her Parish Priest had told her that there would not be any animals in Heaven. With the assistance of a temporary divine inspiration, I was able truthfully to assure her that if she wanted to have her dog in Heaven, then she would have it.
What the Scriptures say
The only reliable source of knowledge on our future home for all eternity is Scripture and beyond that, the reflections of theology based on those Scriptures and experience. The Old Testament books reveal a growing awareness of life after death. In common with the Greco-Roman world and many contemporary pagan faiths, the ancient Jews placed the dead in the shadowy world of Sheol, a place of darkness, of semi-alive existence. The Greeks and Romans called it the Underworld.
The psalmist repeatedly refers to Sheol in this way:
For in death there is no remembrance of you: in Sheol, who can give you praise?' (Ps 6::5)
`What do you gain by my blood if I go down to the pit (=Sheol) can the dust praise you for your faithfulness?' (Ps.31:9)
With the passage of time, hope, even confidence of a happier existence beyond the grace emerges, shyly, freshly like a snowdrop:
`Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead.' (Isaiah 26.19)
Much later, we read in the Book of Daniel:
Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, like the stars for ever and ever.'(Dan.12:2-3)
Here we have some hints, at least, not just of prolonged existence after death but of a deeply happy life.
By the time we reach the time of the Maccabees, the belief not just in some kind of life after death but of a much superior life appears strong. In 2 Mac. 7 we have the wonderful story of the mother urging her seven sons to be faithful and to embrace martyrdom, convinced of the rewards awaiting them in a resurrected life.
In the gospels...
Perhaps the most moving witness is that of Martha in the Gospel of John who told Jesus of her dead brother Lazarus "I know that he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day." (Jn 11:7) The issue of the resurrection of the dead became a major point of division among Jewish believers; the Pharisees who accepted it and the Sadducees who rejected it.
In John's Gospel (6:54) Jesus strongly asserts that he himself will return at the end of time and that he himself will raise up the bodies of the dead, the just, to everlasting bliss. When the Sadducees who did not believe in resurrection questioned him, they put to him the hypothesis of a man who married and outlived seven wives.
To which would he be husband in the next life? Jesus scolded them for their attitude and ignorance. At the resurrection there would be no marriage of men and women; they would be like the angels in heaven. Clearly then, out future state will be utterly, completely different from our present one.
What else then, can we glean from New Testament references to the manner of our existence after the death of the faithful? Well, for one thing we are assured that there will be continuity between the earthly body and the resurrected body. We will remain the same persons then as we were in life, not some totally new being. We will not be reduced to being some kind of disembodied spirit; rather, we will still be the wonderful hybrids we are now, an amalgam, a fusion of body and spirit. ` (The Lord Jesus Christ) will transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of his glorious body.'(Phil 3.21).
Paul was extremely blunt with the Corinthians (1 Cor 15) who wondered what sort of body those raised from the dead would have, telling them that these are `stupid questions.' It would seem that the Corinthians were expecting a simple extension of human living as we now experience it, but just a bit better.
Paul, however, insists that while we will remain the same individuals, the mode of our future will be utterly different. We will exchange what is weak for what is powerful. Earlier (in I Cor 2:9) he had told them of the rewards God had prepared for those who love, `the things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, beyond the mind of humankind..' Our efforts to imagine in a material way what lies before us ultimately are futile.
It may be more helpful to go to St John (I Jn 3:2) where he tells us that what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; all we know is that when it is revealed we shall be like him (God) because we shall see him as he really is. It is the same message in 1 Cor13:12: `Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror; but then we shall be seeing face to face.'
The law of love
I believe it might be helpful here to turn to Thomas Aquinas, the angelic doctor. Thomas reminds us that every spiritual being, including human beings, is endowed with the two faculties of mind and will. It helps to reflect that the greatest pleasures and joys we experience now come from the satisfaction of our minds and hearts.
Human beings have an insatiable hunger for knowledge. The hunger may range from the passion for science, which took men to the moon and unraveled the human genome, down to the curiosity of the magazine reader and the gossip swapped over the back fence. In this search, we are never fully satisfied. In heaven our minds are sated with the vision of God, source of all knowledge. They are stretched to their fullest capacity, but are ecstatic in the awareness there is always infinitely more to know than we can ever take in.
Likewise, the proper function of our will is to love. The more deeply, the more strongly we love, the more we hunger for it. Sadly, we often do not love wisely, and perversely turn it in on ourselves. Love that goes outwards gives us the deepest joy of which we are capable. God is love, love itself. These little hearts of ours will be stretched out to capacity, madly, head over heels in love all the time. Some lucky people have experienced how it is to love till it hurts. That will be nothing compared with the joy of love, which will envelope our total existence. Ours will be a state of being sustained only by love itself, even the love our favourite pet!
Paul of Tarsus may have dismissed curiosity about life in the risen, glorified body, but the curiosity remains. We are told that our risen bodies will be modeled on Jesus’ own risen body. Clearly, the Resurrection appearances show that he was recognizably human, the same as the mortal Jesus, but somehow different and hard to recognize. Mary Magdalene recognized his voice, his speech. He had hands and feet, which could be touched by mortals, and he could eat, something, which did down by the lakeside. He seems to have had the ability to appear or disappear at will, to pass unhindered through a locked door. It is possible, even likely that our risen bodies will reflect these characteristics.
What about our present human relationships, the ties of marriage, kinship and family, the bonds of friendship? These ties are so much part of what constitutes us as human beings that it is hard to conceive that God would not respect them in Heaven, though this is likely to be in ways we cannot imagine.
Meanwhile, as we journey through life on this earth we are sustained by `the hope and promise of an inheritance which will never be spoilt or soiled and never fade away.’
Heavens Above …See you there!...