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The Promise of Heaven
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
It is important, even indispensable, that we reflect on the promise of heaven that lies ahead of us. First because happiness on earth, even at its best, is mixed with sorrow. We know that it is not fully satisfying, that it is exceedingly fragile and is very costly in sacrifice. We are constantly reminded by our faith and our conscience that it is highly conditional and above all transitory, for we must all soon die.
Moreover, we need to be periodically strongly motivated to persevere in virtue and overcome our tendency to self-indulgence, as did the Galatians who were asked by Saint Paul, "You stupid Galatians, who has bewitched you?" We are all creatures of desires, and we look forward to having our desires for perfect happiness perfectly satisfied.
For the context of our reflection we shall take Saint John's Apocalypse as our source, which is also called, from the Latin, the Book of Revelation. It is indeed a revelation of two futures, first of all of the Church's future from the end of the Apostolic Age when John was writing until the end of time; then of the Church's future beyond time into eternity. There is no more perfect synthesis of these two Churches, the meaning and relationship of the Church militant still in struggle until the last day, and of the Church triumphant in glory after the day of final judgment.
Throughout the Apocalypse, John sustains the two concurrent themes of conflict on earth between the Church of Christ and the forces of evil and then of the final victory of Christ's holy ones who overcome the world to join Christ in celestial glory. It is especially in his last two chapters that Johnrelates the glories of heaven. Some of his passages are among the most powerful in revelation.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. I saw the holy city, and the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, as beautiful as a bride all dressed for her husband. Then I heard a loud voice call from the throne, 'You see this city? Here God lives among men. He will make His home among them, they shall be His people, and He will be their God. His name is God-with-them. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning and sadness. The world of the past has gone.'
Then in the last chapter he writes:
The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in its place in the city; his servants will worship him, they will see him face to face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. It will never be night again and they will reign for ever and ever.
Out of this wealth of revelation, couched in mystery, certain features of the joys of heaven stand out. If there is some risk in choosing a few features while passing others by, it is worth the effort because God wants us to be inspired by what He has in store for us, so that we will want to join Him in the world to come.
There are two stages of heavenly happiness awaiting us. The first is after death; we hope to be in heaven immediately or soon after death, but we will be only in our souls, without the body. This will be for a time. The second stage will be after the last day of the world when our bodies will rise from the grave and we shall be in heaven in body and soul.
John's vision of heaven spans both stages, but concentrates on the second, after the last day, meaning the last day of the universe. You see, our own last day is really not far away. When we speak of the joys of heaven, we usually advert to the joys that await us immediately after death. Nevertheless, perfect happiness will come only after both elements of our nature, souls and bodies, will have reached their destiny and reaped their respective rewards. After all, we have been serving God not as angels, only in spirit, but also in body.
There will be a new heaven and a new earth. As Saint John had it revealed to him by Christ, there will be not only a final resurrection of the body, but also a universal renovation of the world. It is expressed in symbolic language, and as all eschatological mysteries, it beggars description. We are permitted to expect not precisely, in fact not really, an annihilation of this world, but its cosmic resuscitation.
So there will be a new heaven, new in some way by contrast with what heaven is now. Heaven after the last day will be peopled not only by human spirits, but by human risen bodies, joining the company of Christ and Mary, who faith tells us are already in heaven in flesh and spirit. In the strictest theological terms, we don't quite mean that there was a heaven before anyone else but God was there. Strictly speaking, heaven began when God, having existed from all eternity and having always been perfectly happy, first brought the glorified spirits to join Him in a sharing in His happiness. Heaven is sharing in the joys of God.
There will be in Heaven not only angels, who have been there for by now eons already, or human spirits. By the last day of the cosmos, which may be ten million centuries from now, there will also be a new earth. This is revelation, not speculation. In a way we cannot begin to explain, the present earth will be renewed, resurrected if you will. Why? Because we are human beings of flesh and blood, and we are going to have flesh and blood in heaven. No doubt the metabolism will be quite different, but we will need objects of sense perception to enjoy with the bodies restored to us. Heaven must be something besides empty space.
Heaven is Home. We are accustomed correctly to think of heaven as our home because we are only pilgrims here on our way to the home that Christ promised to prepare for us; we are only on a journey. But heaven is, as John says, also to be the home of God. Faith tells us that God is perfectly happy of and by Himself and would have been in perfect beatitude even though He had created no creatures and no one else but He existed. Nevertheless, insofar as humanly speaking we can say this; heaven is why God created us. That is the object or the purpose of His creating rational beings that we might find our perfect satisfaction in possessing Him and also that He might accomplish His designs in us.
Surely we want, because we need, to possess Him. And we must also say He wants, without needing, to possess us. That is a deep mystery, but the truth. That is the goal of all the divine designs; the purpose of all divine Providence. It is theambition God has, what He wants to achieve. So John writes that in heaven His name will not only be God, but God-with-them.
There will be no more death or pain. Heaven means the cessation of all sorrow, the end of all pain. It means thatwhatever has troubled us on earth will trouble us no more. We shall no longer have to struggle and what is the saddest part of struggling, never risk failing. We shall no longer wish or desire and not obtain; unfulfilled longing is ultimately the source of all pain. We shall no more have to endure the pains of the body or the usually worse sufferings of soul that are so much a part of our life, from our first cry at birth to our last spasm at death. All of this will be no more.
The Vision of God. An absence of pain is not all there is to heaven. Heaven is not the nirvana of Buddhism which means an extinction, a final deliverance from multi-thousands of reincarnations. Our faith it a great gift. We, contrary to hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings, look forward to not just something, but Someone as the goal of our existence.
So it is not only that there will not be any death or pain; a Buddhist looks forward to that. But we believe that heaven means before all else and for all eternity, the face to face vision of God. If this tends to leave us somewhat cold, let us reflect that this vision means seeing into the goodness and greatness and infinite beauty of God. It means elevating our most ecstatic moments ten-thousand times in intensity, and extending them beyond temporal duration everlastingly.
It also means multiplying all earthly joys of all human beings and raising these joys immeasurably. It means enjoying God as far as creatures can and as God enjoys Himself, which must be indescribable. Look at all the pleasures and enjoyments of the human race since the beginning of time; they are all as a drop of water compared to the ocean of God's beatitude.
The Holy City. Heaven will be a society in John's words, the holy city, the new Jerusalem. This means that in heaven we shall know our own families and there will be all sorts of newcomers whom we have never met before. There will be relatives and friends, fellow religious and students; those we have cared for and perhaps nursed; those we have counseled and confided in. In a word, heaven is a community, where love will unite everyone in the most affectionate harmony, where envy will have ceased and our joy will be increased to see the joys of the others.
It is sometimes hard to enter into the joys of others, but in so doing our joy is actually increased a thousand fold because we are so happy to see others happy. In heaven we will share literally in their beatitude. As we gradually master the tyrant of envy, we realize that not a small part of our not being as happy as we might be in this life is because we do not sufficiently enter into and share in the happiness of others. How do you explain that we can actually be saddened to see someone happy, as though that person's happiness somehow deprives us of what we should enjoy, when as a matter of fact it is just the opposite?
Heaven is a community where jealousy will have disappeared. There is a difference between envy and jealousy. Envy is sadness at what someone else has that we don't have. Jealousy is the fear of losing something that we have, so we don't want to share. Jealousy will also have disappeared in heaven, and we will want to share what we have and will find increased joy in giving. But heaven is not only something we are looking forward to; heaven should be something that even now we have a foretaste of, meaning that by the experience of overcoming our envy and jealousy, we shall learn that even in this life we can be very, very happy in the one case in joining in the joys of others, in the other by giving and giving and giving.
Heaven is also a cluster of families, because we have in the nature of things been involved in all manner of communitarian situations. In heaven, intimacy will be shared. Thosewe have loved on earth will be loved with a generosity not possible here, but also where many others will be found. There will be persons whom we shall come to know and love, whose lives have spanned the centuries: Abraham and David, Moses and Elijah, Mary and Joseph, the apostles, the Evangelists, Saints Augustine and Aquinas, Teresa and Catherine of Siena, the founders and foundresses of our respective communities and the great luminaries who have followed our way of life.
John the Evangelist, who was surely a mystic, was also a realist. Or better, Christ who revealed the Apocalypse bade him write this, in what are almost the last words of the Bible: "Happy are those who will have washed their robes clean, so that they will have a right to feed on the tree of life and can come through the gates into the city. Jesus was revealing heaven to John. Most people, I feel safe in saying, who reach heaven are repentant sinners. We will have had to wash our robes clean. We must have repented and the best repentance for the past is a new resolution for a new future. The prize, in Christ's words, is a right; it is the right to come through the gates into the city on high that awaits us, provided that we, anticipating the glory, have been willing to carry the cross.
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