Is there a heaven? What is it like?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Monday 23, March 2015 | Category:   Doctrines & Beliefs
Correggio, Assumption of the Virgin, 1526-30
 

Most people define heaven as the place where God lives. They may add that it's where souls go after they die. None of that is exactly wrong. But there's more to say about heaven from a Christian perspective. Heaven is less a place than it is a condition of complete and final fulfillment for creation in relationship with its Creator. Heaven is "when" we get to be who we were destined to be all along.

We look up instinctively when talking about heaven. The vault of the sky is where we've biblically imagined God to dwell. The ancients put God at the highest point available to the eye: on mountain tops, above the clouds. When Jesus returns to his Father, he ascends. Glory to God in the (literal) highest!

The New Testament raises our expectations about heaven as more than the dwelling place of God, however. It's also the ultimate meaning of home and life for us. We hope to experience the maturity of our being in God's presence, as Franciscan theologian Zachary Hayes explains. When Christian believers are reunited with Jesus, our divine likeness will be revealed in our kinship with God's Son. So when we ask what heaven is like, we might well be asking: what will we be like when we reach spiritual maturity?

The religious imagination of the church through the centuries has created images of a celestial realm that have inspired many to lead holier lives. That realm is the place of final joy, eternal rest, the ultimate family reunion. Most of us hope that eternal transcendence won't mean a loss of our selves: we've rather grown to love and identify with our histories, societies, and relationships, and it would be a letdown to find ourselves in an eternal "oversoul" of un-individuated life. The Borg Collective of Star Trek fame is no one's idea of heaven!

Rather than interrupting our humanity, heaven is interpreted as the fulfillment of it. Theological insistence on the resurrection of both body and spirit is a way of saying this. You and I remain "you and I" in the life of the world to come. Heaven is also the attainment of direct and unmediated knowledge of God, AKA the Beatific Vision. Catherine of Genoa perceived heaven as the moment when everything standing between us and perfect love is finally purged away. Only endless joy with the One who is love remains.

Scripture: Genesis 1:1, 8; Isaiah 6:1-8; 65:17; 66:1; Pss 11:4; 19:1-7; 139:8; Mark 1:9-11; Matthew 3:2; 5:8; 10:32; Luke 24:50-51; 1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2

Books: And the Life of the World to Come: Reflections on the Biblical Notion of Heaven - John F. Craghan (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012)

C.S. Lewis on the Fullness of Life: Longing for Deep Heaven - Dennis J. Billy, C.Ss.R. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2009)

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