November 30, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: What we believe about heaven

John F. FinkIn my discussion of the four last things this month, I have so far discussed death, hell and purgatory. This week, the topic is heaven.

Heaven is the state of being in which all are united in love with one another and with God, where those who, having attained salvation, are in glory with God and enjoy the beatific vision—knowledge of God as he is. It is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.

In heaven, St. John tells us, we shall become like God himself because we shall see him face to face. Or as St. Athanasius wrote, “God became man so that man might become God.”

That is what we pray for in the Offertory when the priest prays, “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” How often do we realize that when we actually pray that we will share God’s divinity and become like God?

The bliss of heaven will consist of what the Church calls two dimensions—the vertical dimension that is the vision and love of God, and the horizontal dimension that is the knowledge and love of all others in God.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ” (#1026). We will, therefore, be reunited with our family and friends as well as with the saints from past and future generations. I often consider which saints I’ll want to come to know.

Philosophers and theologians have thought about heaven at least since the time of the Jewish prophet Ezekiel in the sixth century B.C. The Christian heaven is Jewish in idea, but heavily influenced by Greco-Roman culture and philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, and their understanding of the body and soul.

The first extended Christian description of heaven was in the Book of Revelation. After that, among those who speculated about heaven were Sts. Augustine, Gregory the Great, Anselm, Bernard, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure.

As I said, the Church teaches that we will experience perfect happiness in heaven. All of our deepest human longings will be fulfilled. Yet, some people, because of their lives on Earth, will experience greater happiness than others will. This will happen because some people will be given a greater capacity for happiness than others, depending upon their lives on Earth.

Just as both a large glass and a small glass can be filled to capacity, but one will hold more than the other, so will some people have a greater capacity for happiness than others will. This is why we shouldn’t just try to get into heaven by doing the bare minimum here on Earth.

When it gets right down to it, we humans cannot understand heaven. What we know, though, is that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). †

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