For most of us, heaven is, as C.S. Lewis remarked, an acquired appetite. Much of the work of the Holy Spirit in this world appears to consist of getting us to the point that we will be happy in the next one. That’s because blessedness is, in the Christian tradition, not so much a matter of our circumstances as of what sort of creature we are. That’s why St. Francis could be blissful in rags while some millionaire who has every creature comfort often blows his brains out.
What we need are not so much new circumstances as new selves.
That’s what purgatory is all about. It is, says Peter Kreeft, heaven’s bathroom: the place we go to be finally and completely cleansed of the sticky clinging sins that we have begun to be freed of in this life so that we will have nothing hindering us from full participation in the ecstasies of heaven.
It’s a final mercy of God where our eyes go to get adjusted to looking directly into the Sun of Divine Love.
This sheer unfathomable brilliance of heaven means that “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).
So the first thing to know about heaven is that it is literally too good to imagine.
So good, in fact, that many are afraid to hope that it is real — afraid of wasting their lives on a fool’s errand.
That would be a reasonable fear if heaven were simply a myth like Shangri-La. But it’s not. Our hope of heaven lies not in warm feelings or myths, but in the promise of Christ.
If he is reliable, then there is a heaven or, as he put it, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3).
That said, we are paradoxically called to “Set our minds on things that are above” (Colossians 3:2). That does not mean, “Imagine yourself frolicking in a woodland glade with fluffy bunnies and saints.” It means, “Focus on Jesus Christ, ponder him as the image of the invisible God, imitate his virtues, and seek to obey his commandments.”
There’s no harm in having a vivid imagination that cooks up pictures of what the afterlife might be like. Scripture gives us quite a number of such images, what with the Book of Revelation and all. Christian art gives us more.
But do remember that such images are just that: images. All the gold, incense, jewels and so forth depicted in the Bible are pictures that point to the reality, not things that replace the reality, which is vastly greater.
And remember, as well, that just as the goal of the Christian life is not to work ourselves into feeling something about God, but to obey God and receive his divine life through the sacraments, so the point about heaven is not to construct a perfect imaginary picture of it, but to go there by having faith in Christ, obeying his commands, and receiving his grace in the sacraments.
One mistake that many people make about heaven is to suppose that, because the work of the Gospel is so strongly focused on our spiritual renewal, heaven must merely be a “state of mind.”
On the contrary, heaven will involve not merely what we call our “spirit,” but every part of us — including the body. That is the point of Christ’s resurrection. Humans are not disembodied spirits. We exist in perfection only as a union of body, soul and spirit.
So the perfect happiness of heaven necessarily entails our resurrection in a glorified body like Christ’s. And a glorified body must, in turn, exist in some sort of place, not simply float around in the ether.
That place is called “the New Heaven and the New Earth” in Scripture: a renewed creation where we will experience not only the ecstasy and glory of perfect communion with God and one another in perfect love, but also the pleasures of sense that are ours as physical beings.
A universe in which we are at peace and ecstasy with God and one another in body, soul and spirit, where nature itself is no longer the war of all against all, but a vast and glorious sacramental expression of God’s love — it’s more than we can really take in. But it is the ultimate goal of all Christ came to do. And it’s ours for the asking.
Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!
Mark Shea is senior content editor