An eternal encounter with God, Heaven can be anticipated by our earthly experiences of God’s love
Is Heaven going to be better than the best travel destination, with tropical beaches and amazing food? Or will it be like a two-dimensional painting in a museum, faded and somber, with saints in draped garments looking angelic, their faces aglow? As we hope for Heaven, perhaps it is best to check expectations of ‘places’ at the door. When we die, we are separated from our bodies, and, as St. Thomas Aquinas argues, incorporeal beings cannot exist in a place the same way that physical beings do. In fact, Bl. John Henry Newman suggests that Heaven is not really a physical place at all, but rather a state of being in the presence of God.
The Psalmist tells us that “[t]he Lord has set up his throne in heaven, rules with universal sway” (Ps 103:109). The book of Maccabees even goes as far as to use Heaven as another name for God Himself (1Macc 3:18). Bl. John Paul II said that Heaven “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.”
Newman preached that if we think of Heaven as the great achievement at the end of all earthly achievements or as a place where we can finally enjoy whatever we want, we are approaching the pursuit of eternal bliss in the wrong way. Heaven, Newman explains, “may be best described as an endless and uninterrupted worship of the Eternal Father, Son, and Spirit.”
If endless worship of God doesn’t sound like your picture of eternal happiness, Newman suggests that you would “soon get weary of the place.” The unholy man would not find Heaven to be 'heavenly' at all, Newman says, because he did not desire God above any earthly thing. Holiness is a prerequisite to enter Heaven, precisely because holiness draws us closer to God – and Heaven is God’s dwelling-place.
We can gain some inkling of what Heaven is like through the foretaste afforded to us in the sacraments as well as through making a true “gift of self” to others in charity. Additionally, Bl. John Paul II concludes an audience by teaching, “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.”
So, while Heaven is like no place we’ve ever experienced, it is something we can glimpse at through the sacramental life and our earthly experiences of God’s love. Dante captures the reality that Heaven is the fulfillment of all of our deepest longings in the end of the Divine Comedy, writing: “then my mind was struck by lightning … through which my longing was at last fulfilled. Here powers failed my high imagination: But by now my desire and will were turned, Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly, By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”