“Will Spotty be in heaven too?” asks wide-eyed Stevie, petting the family dog.

“Is there ice cream in heaven?” asks little Rosie, eating a sundae.

“What I want to know,” pipes in pre-teen Teresa, “is whether or not we’ll all be together as a family.”

Every parent struggles to rise to the challenge when a child asks an innocent yet theologically thorny question. It’s all the harder when there’s no personal experience to draw from. But there’s something about kids’ natural curiosity over heaven that can leave grownups especially tongue-tied. After all, how are we to teach our kids about something we know so little about — something we, ourselves, are hungry for information on?

Simply put: How can we offer satisfying and rightly formative answers to questions from our children about heaven?

As with so many faith-related questions, the best place to start is often the Catechism. 

“This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise: ‘no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.’ (1# Corinthians 2:9)” (No. 1027).

And then there are the experts. They may not have been there yet to report back firsthand, but they have prayed, studied and thought much about the state of being in heaven.

“We cannot tell children exactly what heaven is, since we do not know that,” says Peter Kreeft, philosophy professor at Boston College and author of nearly 50 books, including Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven But Never Dreamed of Asking (Ignatius). “But we can tell them what heaven is like, since that is what we know.”

First of all, the experts agree, that means being honest and only telling the un-stretched truth. Then, since kids can’t think about abstractions as easily as adults do, use analogies they can understand.

“When I speak about heaven to children I start with something they identify with,” says Msgr. Michael Woster, pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Winner, S.D., and two other nearby parishes. “I focus on God the heavenly Father and creation experiences that are joy-filled for them, and I try to awaken their imaginations to something greater for them — the special place God has in store for us.”

The priest has children close their eyes and imagine the most wonderful, fun-filled, exciting day they’ve had, like on a family vacation in Black Hills, or the experiences with beautiful animals they find across their state. Heaven is like that and so much more, he explains. “Every day is filled with new and wonderful things, continually and forever,” he says, “in the place God has prepared for those who love and serve him.”

Heavenly Hints

This is one approach Bill and Bridgett Mihalski of Krakow, Wis., use with their four youngsters, ages 3 to 11, when talking about heaven.

Bill describes a recent evening when the setting sun excited the kids’ imagination. “We all ran to the window as the clouds were just starting to cross the bright orange sun,” he recalls. “It was so gorgeous. I said, ‘Look how good God is to us. Just imagine what gifts, what visions, we’ll see of God and the peace we’re going to feel being blessed by what was accomplished here through his grace.’”

The Mihalskis don’t always wait for questions to talk about heaven. “One thing I really stress is showing children pictures,” explains Bill. “Looking at visualizations, and pointing out beautiful artwork, is a way of getting their imaginations going and seeing beauty.”

Pictures of Mary’s assumption with angels carrying her to heaven and Jesus’ transfiguration and his ascension always capture the children’s imaginations and lead to conversations on heaven, he says.

So do the angels in the pictures. “In their minds, that’s a concrete example of what’s in store for us in spiritual life,” says Bill. “The kids seem attracted to” those kinds of images.

Mihalski has also discovered that imagination is a powerful tool when joined to prayer. He and Bridgett have the children close their eyes and lead them to picture Jesus in all his glory, using the biblical images of Christ’s throne, for instance, and how beautiful the Blessed Mother will be.

Each brings the opportunity to talk to the children about getting to heaven. “Following God’s commandments and fulfilling our obligations on earth — through the mercy of God — we get to heaven,” says Bill. “We talk a lot about Christ dying on the cross and how much he loves us and how we try to give that love to others in our daily lives.”

God’s Campaign Promises

In Green Bay, Wis., Dan and Cindy Miller try to impress on their four youngsters, ages 7 to 15, that in heaven there is no suffering, sickness or pain.

“Best of all,” says Cindy, “we’ll finally get to see God face to face. That will be the best thing that will ever happen to us.”

The older children, she points out, seem to have an innate understanding of why that prospect should be so exciting.  The younger ones are intrigued with the promise of no bad things happening, such as scraping knees, losing toys or getting sick.

Drawing on familiar people, places and events, parents can easily formulate kid-friendly analogies on heaven.

Msgr. Woster focuses on parents’ love for kids — and vice versa — to explain how we will relate to God in heaven. After all, our families are already mirror images of the Holy Trinity. How much more bonded we’ll be with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit when we’re with them so closely all the time.

And what about that perennial question: Will our pets be with us in heaven?

“None of us really knows,” says Msgr. Woster, pointing out about the only thing the Church says is that animals don’t have human souls and so cannot enjoy the beatific vision. 

“We know they won’t share life with God in the same way we will,” he says. “Your pets don’t know God like we do; they can’t pray to God. But they are part of God’s creation. How God will restore the heavens and the earth, we don’t know. But we know that all that’s important and loved in this world will be far surpassed in heaven.”

Best Is Yet to Come

Michael and Jill Rudolph in Lafayette, Ind., have answered that question more than once for their six children, ages 5 months to 13.

“Some people tell their children No,” says Jill. “I can’t bring myself to say, ‘Your kitty will not be in heaven.’ My answer is, ‘We know people have souls, and all people who love and die in God’s love go to heaven. God can do all things. If he wants to have puppies and little ponies and kittens in heaven for us, he can do all things.’”

Kreeft sees these children’s requests for information as an act of love. Would God refuse such a request — or respect it? And did he make heaven for complete human beings or for pure spirits?

“If there is a resurrected body, there is a material world, and it’s not dead,” Kreeft says. ”God always has more in store for us than we think,” he adds, quoting 1 Corinthians again and noting that, in both the Old and New Testaments, from Isaiah through Revelation, “we read that the final state of the universe will involve a new earth …”

Maybe best of all, the pet question always leads Msgr. Woster to talk with the kids about how caring for their pets teaches them something more important: caring for their parents, brothers, sisters, friends and the whole world. That’s a way they’ll better their chances of someday seeing heaven for themselves.

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen

 writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.