A theologian responds: Our relationship with God prevails over bonds of affection.
For an answer to this question, we turn to Giacomo Canobbio, a professor of systematic theology at the Theology School of Northern Italy. “The question,” Canobbio told Aleteia, “presupposes that relationships after death are like those in our present life. It’s inevitable that we think that way: it’s the only way we know, because we have no experience at all of life after death, and the accounts of those who claim to have arrived at the threshold of Heaven and to have returned then to this world are totally unfounded. Affective relationships are pillars of human existence and bring with them joy or suffering, according to how the people we love rejoice or suffer.”
Full or empty?
The question, Canobbio continues, “also presupposes that there are people in Hell. In past years, some people have disseminated the idea that Hell is empty because God, who loves His children, could not bear to see them suffer forever. We need to clarify that no one can say if Hell is empty or full. It’s worth remembering that the Church can proclaim someone to be a saint, but cannot declare whether anyone is damned. Therefore, we cannot state with certainty that Hell is purely imaginary. What is in play is the seriousness of our relationship with God, which entails responsibility, the twin sister of freedom.”
Like when a sick person isn’t at a wedding
Therefore, that being said, supposing that someone I love were in Hell and I were in Heaven, how could I be happy, knowing that the person is in a situation of terrible suffering? “The question brings another along with it: How can God be in the fullness of beatitude if some of His children, for whom Jesus Christ gave His life, do not come to participate in the beatitude for which He destined them? To use an example: Could we imagine a wedding banquet made joyless because someone connected to the spouses by ties of affection is sick in the hospital? This is just an example that helps us to understand that, as important as affective relationships are, they are not the source of beatitude; rather, our relationship with God is.”
Moreover, the theologian continues, “any description of Hell must specify that those who are damned are cut off from any and every affective relationship: their decision to build their life without accepting a loving relationship with God deprives them of every other relationship, and therefore also of that with their loved ones who are in heaven.”
In fact, if such relationships were to remain, “they would not be deprived of all consolation, and therefore, they would not be in Hell.”
Relationship with God
“What I have said,” Canobbio warns, “are merely a few hesitant words regarding hypothetical situations. What it would seem could be said with fair plausibility is that the source of beatitude in Heaven does not depend on the relationships we had during our earthly life; rather, it arises from our relationship with God.”
Just one, all-satisfying emotion
Consequently, are the souls that are in Heaven able to perceive and to experience emotions in response to what happens to them? Here, the theologian is clear: “In the description of beatitude, we must include all aspects of human existence. Regarding emotions, we most certainly cannot deny their existence. Still, a clarification is needed: there is only one emotion in Heaven, namely that of fullness and satisfaction, because [people in Heaven] have reached the goal for which human persons are destined.”
“We will see and we will love”
Lastly, in the scholastic tradition, Canobbio concludes, “the accent was placed on ‘vision’ and therefore the satisfaction of the intellect. However, there was also a line of thought—of Augustinian origin—that placed the accent on the affective aspect, joining it to the intellectual dimension: we will see, and we will love. And, there is no satisfaction that does not include emotion, even if that emotion isn’t conceived of as an alternation of moods.”
This article is translated from Aleteia’s Italian edition.
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