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Retreat on the Credo
Faith in Everlasting Life
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
It is most appropriate that the Apostles' Creed which begins with God should also end with God, for we come from God and we were made for Him; that's what our destiny is all about. Our final act of faith declares, "I believe in life everlasting."
How do we know there is a life everlasting after death? Why is it called life everlasting? Will everyone reach everlasting life? Are we all to be equally happy in the life to come? How is God the essential joy of heaven? How will creatures add to our heavenly happiness?
The fact that we are destined to live an everlasting life after death is the single most prominent and emphatic mystery of the Christian religion. From the words of the Angel at the Annunciation .telling Mary that her Son would establish a kingdom that will never end to Christ's own prophecy of the last day when the just will enter, as He said, into eternal life, all through the New Testament this stands out as the beacon and the focus of the gospel. This is the good news, this is the gospel. What's the good news? That through all the vicissitudes of time we are to enjoy a blessed eternity. It is in fact the best possible news,because without this goal as the object of our destiny, nothing in this mortal life would be rational. But given this goal everything in our life on earth has a purpose. Every creature in our lives is intended as a means to our final, joyful end.
Why everlasting life? The expression everlasting life or vita eterna in Christ's own vocabulary means two things. He first meant that having brought us out of nothing into living existence this life of ours will never fall back into nothing. He secondly meant that this life of ours is destined to go on and on everlastingly. But that is not all. The life we are to enjoy for all eternity is no ordinary life: it is not merely the life of the body that we have in common with the animals; it is not even merely the life of our souls, with minds that think and wills that love. It is to be God's own life; it is to be a share in the Trinitarian life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In the gospel of John when Christ told us that He came that we might have life and have it more abundantly, the inspired Greek word - the language in which John wrote the gospel- for life in that passage is zoe. There are at least two other words in Greek for life both applicable to human beings: bios and psuche. But zoe is never used in the New Testament except for the life of God. Christ therefore told us, "I came that they might have zoe, might have the life of God and have it more abundantly." What then God possesses by nature we are to enjoy by grace, and what makes God perfectly happy because He is infinitely alive, we will share in and become as perfectly happy as creatures can be without becoming God.
We know from experience and observation the difference among different kinds of pleasure: the sensual pleasure in the body, for which wars have been fought and kingdoms have been lost; the intellectual pleasure in the mind; the emotional pleasure in the feelings; the volitional pleasure in the will; but then, even on earth, the intense joy of the mystics who do not yet possess God as we will in heaven yet their happiness is intense beyond description because it partakes by anticipation in the beatitude of the blessed on high.
Everlasting life for everyone? It is worth mentioning again and cannot be repeated too often that yes everlasting life is for everyone, but not everyone's life in eternity will be happy. As Christians we do not believe, we reject as heresy that everyone will reach heaven. We further reject the idea that the wicked who die estranged from God will simply cease to exist. Not so. They too will continue living, but instead of living in happiness, they will experience an eternity of misery.
Equal happiness in heaven? St. Paul has the perfect answer to this question. Writing in his first letter to the Corinthians he says, "Each will be duly paid according to his share in the work." What a perfect definition of our mortal life on earth! Work. "Man is made to labor as the bird is born to fly." Fancy a bird who can't fly.
No one will be unhappy in heaven. Unhappiness and heaven are a contradiction in terms. But not everyone will be equally happy in heaven. Why not? The first reason why not is the fact that the merits we gain on earth mean something. The Latin word meritum from which our English merit is derived is the same root from which merchant, market and merchandise are derived. Life on earth is serious business. We are earning something. Those who suffer more, make greater sacrifices, give more of themselves to the service of God and generosity towards others, those who love more we believe will be rewarded accordingly. This is the just God. The second reason why not everyone will be equally happy in heaven is because God is Master of His gifts. It is up to Him how much He will give and to whom, and it is not ours to question God's justice or accuse the Almighty of inequity.
How will those who possess less in heaven look upon those who have more? It will make them more happy. Unlike this life, where we are tempted to be saddened when others have what we lack - the perfect definition of envy - where on earth envy is almost a besetting tendency of our mortal existence, in heaven all envy and jealousy will end. Oh JOY!! We will no longer be pained to see others with more than we have, and we will no longer keep to ourselves what we have. Nothing will give us greater joy than to share whatever we possess. No wonder in the Lord's Prayer we pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
God the Essential JOY. When St. Augustine wrote fifteen hundred years ago, speaking to God, "Lord You have made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee," he was speaking for all mankind of all times. What do we mean when we say we were made for God? Does God need us? Emphatically, no! Will we profit God? No! Does God need us? No! When then we say we were made for God it is not as though God made us to add to His happiness, but He made us to possess Him and in the possession find the consummation of our desires.
Suppose we look at it this way. What is the final and fundamental source of all unhappiness? Why is anyone unhappy? Is not all unhappiness the frustration of what we want? Is not all sadness desire not satisfied? In heaven we shall discover what we only dimly realize now. We are creatures, indeed, but we were not made for creatures, we were made for the Creator. The longer I live the more convinced I am that the main reason God sends us suffering and trial is that we might become detached from creatures. And the main reason He has one loving creature after another disappoint us, from the noblest and the highest down, is to get through our thick mortal skulls that no creature can satisfy the spirit created by God and Embracing the Creator with the two arms of our mind and will is what the Church means when she describes heaven as the beatific vision. How so? It is vision because our minds will behold the all-beautiful God face to face, intuitively, directly, with no creature standing between our intellect and the Holy Trinity. We will not even have the intermediary of our thoughts. It is a vision that is beatific, which means joy producing, because seeing God with our minds will flood our wills with such love as no creature, no myriad of angels can evoke. And happiness, as we know, is the result of the union of the will with the Object Creatures in eternity. Will creatures add to our stock of happiness in eternity? Most certainly. In heaven we shall possess mainly and primarily the beatific vision of the Blessed Trinity. But even as on earth our love of God does not exclude the love of creatures; that would be a mistake; in fact, creatures rightly loved are an expression of our love for God; so too in heaven. In heaven we shall know and love Jesus Christ Who as Man is a creature; we will hear His voice and He will sit down and listen to us. In heaven we shall be in the company of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Remember the descriptions of St. Bernadette Soubirous during her ecstatic seeing of the Blessed Virgin at Lourdes? During the time that she beheld the face of Our Lady she was completely transformed, and more than once afterwards said, "A thousand lifetimes of suffering are worth a moment seeing her." And she is not God.
In heaven we shall converse with the angels and saints. St. Thomas in his Summa has long theological descriptions of how the angels carry on conversation. I'm afraid he would revise certain parts of that Summa now. This on earth, as I never tire telling people, is great joy: created spirit sharing its own sentiments and desires with another spirit. I have yet to see anywhere on any hospital grounds or in any convent a big blazing sign: TALK. I must have seen a thousand signs: SILENCE. Conversation even on earth is very satisfying. There will be no silent signs in heaven.
In heaven we shall have our bodies perfected with senses that are meant for joy. In heaven we shall have, as the apostle tells us, not only a new heaven filled after the last day with glorified bodies - that's what's going to make it new - but also a new earth. There are no grounds whatever on faith for believing that the sun, moon and stars will disappear, that God will snuff out the constellations, or wipe out the mountains and the seas. I speak as one who hasn't been there either. All I know on faith is that part of what we believe when we believe in life everlasting is a new earth, that the world will not be destroyed but in its own way remade. After all, we are going to have eyes to see, we'd better have something to look at; we're going to have ears to hear, there had better be something to listen to. All of this to add to the everlasting joy of the City of God.
Lord Jesus, You told us You came to give us joy and You want our joy to be filled. Grant us already in this world a foretaste of the happiness You have in store for those who love You. Preserve us, dear Lord, from ever becoming so enamored of creatures as to forget You our Creator. Aid us by Your grace so that we will persevere to the end. Grant that with Your chosen ones we may one day be told, "Come, you blessed of My Father, possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world." We believe, Jesus, we believe that heaven is worth all the struggles and sufferings of this life, and we are confident that with Your help we will reach heaven where You live and reign, the infinitely happy God, world without end. Amen.
Conference transcription from a retreat
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
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