National Catholic Register


John Paul II, Heaven, and Hell

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 1/4/13 at 12:59 AM


A reader writes:

I'd like your take on something, if you please.  I've heard many Christians (John Paul II among them, if memory serves) state that heaven and hell are states of being rather than actual geographic locations up in the sky and under the earth, and that everyone is in God's presence after death, but that the unsaved experience His presence as torment, while the saved experience it as joy. This seems to make sense since spiritual realities exist outside of space and time. Talk of "places" seems, well, misplaced. ;-)

On the other hand, we are taught that Jesus "ascended into heaven," indicating a place somewhere up in the sky, and that He "descended into hell," which indicates a place under the earth. We also read Him saying things like this: "Woe to you, Capernaum! Did you want to be lifted *up* to heaven? You will be thrown *down* to hell!"

So, is this somehow a case of both/and rather than either/or? Just something that I've been unable to resolve (Or is it even possible for our puny minds to resolve it?). Your input would be most appreciated.

Here is the relevant text of JPII’s remarks:

More than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy. This is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the truths of faith on this subject: "To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'".

The note on the translation of the Pope’s remarks says, “This suggests correctly that although hell is not essentially "a place," rather the definitive loss of God, confinement is included. Thus, after the general resurrection the bodies of the damned, being bodies not spirits, must be in "some place," in which they will receive the punishment of fire.”

What JPII is trying to get at is that the main punishment of hell is the loss of God (which includes the loss of the communion of saints), rather than the punishments of sense that hell also traditionally is understood to include.  Our age—among both those who believe in hell and those who reject it—tends to think of hell primarily in terms of pains of sense and crude picture of people in a burning cave somewhere, not as the loss of God.  (The proof of this is that JPII’s remarks were confusing to many believers and unbelievers instead of a humdrum restatement of what most people knew.) JPII aims to correct that wrong emphasis on the pains of hell by emphasizing that the main agony of hell is that the mortal sinner gets what he chooses: the loss of God forever.  It’s the same thing that terrifies Dante: “Abandon hope all ye who enter”.  John Paul does not aim to deny the resurrection of the body.

The reason it may seem to many post-moderns that he does aim to do this is that we tend to assume “spiritual” and “bodily” are opposites.  It’s the same reason we are baffled by St. Paul when he speaks of the resurrection body as a “spiritual body”, which sounds to our ears like an “unmarried husband” or some other contradiction in terms.  But when we think sacramentally, we find the contradiction disappears.  The Word has been made flesh, so that we now encounter spiritual realities through earthly things.  So earth has its place the economy of salvation.  But because earthly realities are always secondary to spiritual realities they remain what JPII calls “penultimate” in relation to heaven:

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.

It is always necessary to maintain a certain restraint in describing these "ultimate realities" since their depiction is always unsatisfactory. Today, personalist language is better suited to describing the state of happiness and peace we will enjoy in our definitive communion with God.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the Church's teaching on this truth: "By his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has "opened' heaven to us. The life of the blessed consists in the full and perfect possession of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ. He makes partners in his heavenly glorification those who have believed in him and remained faithful to his will. Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ" (n. 1026).

5. This final state, however, can be anticipated in some way today in sacramental life, whose centre is the Eucharist, and in the gift of self through fraternal charity. If we are able to enjoy properly the good things that the Lord showers upon us every day, we will already have begun to experience that joy and peace which one day will be completely ours. We know that on this earth everything is subject to limits, but the thought of the "ultimate" realities helps us to live better the "penultimate" realities. We know that as we pass through this world we are called to seek "the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God" (Col 3:1), in order to be with him in the eschatological fulfilment, when the Spirit will fully reconcile with the Father "all things, whether on earth or in heaven" (Col 1:20).

Bottom line: the Incarnation and Resurrection make it impossible for the Church to “spiritualize” the gospel into something utterly non-corporeal, which is why JPII doesn’t attempt to do that.  Rather, like a typical Catholic, JPII points us to visible, physical sacramental realities such as the Eucharist to remind us that the most important things about heaven and hell are union with God or rejection thereof.  The most important facts do not, in the slightest, entail reject of the less important facts of the general resurrection when, as Jesus said, “all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29).  Nor does the existence of a new heaven jam packed with the redeemed entail in the slightest the rejection of a New Earth jam packed with the redeemed, nor a hell that does not include the pains of sense as well as the pain of the loss of God.  How that will all play out, I don’t know, of course, and I pray that nobody wind up in hell as Our Lady instructed at Fatima and as the Church prays at every Mass for the salvation of all the world.  But that, of course, is up to God and the free choices of human beings.