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5 Ways to think of Heaven

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Heaven is not an annihilation of the cosmos and of all that surrounds us ...

What will heaven be like? The question is crucial because everything depends on it: Heaven is the hope we suffer on earth to achieve.

But it is hard to answer because heaven is impossible to describe. St. Paul saw it and declared it “ineffable.” St. Thomas Aquinas saw it, and considered his immense life’s work nothing but “straw.”

However, several answers to the question have been given that I find comforting. Here are five.  

1: Heaven is an “ocean of infinite love.”

Pope Benedict XVI took a poetic turn in his encyclical on hope, 2007’s Spe Salvi.

First, he acknowledged that to many people heaven sounds tedious, because “eternal life” sounds like it will “imprison us” in “an unending succession of days in the calendar.”

Not so, he says.

Heaven is “a supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality,” he wrote. Eternal life is “like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time — the before and after — no longer exists.”

He concludes, in a passage that makes me think of the song “I Can Only Imagine”: “We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.”

2: Heaven is our Dream House.

That can still sound a little odd, however. My favorite image of heaven is one I tell my children: In heaven we finally get to live in our “dream house.”

Other translations say “dwelling places” in place of “mansions” but I like that word. I have always wanted to live in a mansion!

Paul followed Jesus in describing heaven this way: “We have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven.”

The Fathers of the Church concurred. Heaven “contains abundance of mansions, which are ever ready to receive you,” said St. John Chrysostom.  “He means evidently that there are already many mansions,” wrote St. Augustine.

So heaven is in some sense a wondrous “building form God.” But we should beware of thinking of a heavenly dwelling house in materialistic terms. The pleasures of heaven will not be a wrap-around swimming pool and outdoor couches.

3: In fact, the real joy of heaven will be truly arriving “home” at last.

I love how Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer writes about this. An earthly “dream house” won’t fulfill us because our desires point to something beyond the material world, he says.

We long for Unconditional Love, Unconditional Goodness, Unconditional Truth and Unconditional Beauty, none of which can be found on earth.

We also long for “Unconditional Being,” which he nicknames “Home.”

“Human beings also seek a perfect harmony with all that is,” he wrote. “They not only want to be at home in a particular environment, they want to be at home with the totality, at home in the cosmos.”

“Have you ever felt, either as a child or an adult, a sense of alienation or discord, a deep sense of not belonging?” he asks. But you have also felt “at home,” he says. “When the desire for perfect Home is even partially fulfilled, philosophers, theologians and mystics variously refer to it as joy-love-awe-unity-holiness-quiet.”

There is only one place this “at-home-ness” is more than temporary.

“Heaven, the Father’s house, is the true homeland toward which we are heading and to which, already, we belong,” says the Catechism.

St. Paul puts it succinctly: “Our citizenship is in heaven.”

4: Eternal life will bring “a new heaven and a new earth.”

Another lesson I like to teach my children is that heaven will not be entirely unlike the things we love now — in fact it will be the fullest expression of them.

Pope Francis recently made this point, citing St. Peter and the Book of Revelation, which describe a “new heavens” and a “new earth.”

“The whole universe will be renewed and liberated, once and for all, from every trace of evil and from death itself,” said Francis. Heaven “is not an annihilation of the cosmos and of all that surrounds us, but a bringing of all things to their fullness of being, truth, and beauty.”

5: Above all, heaven will be an encounter with Jesus Christ.

But heaven in the end is not primarily an ocean of joy, dream house, homeland, or new earth. We won’t need any of those things to keep us from being bored in heaven, said Pope Francis, because “Heaven is the encounter with Jesus.”

I love the way Meg Hunter-Kilmer describes how truly thrilling that will be.

But make no mistake about it — meeting Jesus will only be thrilling to those who know and love him.

Blessed John Henry Newman once described how heaven will most be like a church — a place to contemplate Jesus with his angels and saints.

“Heaven would be hell to an irreligious man,” says Newman. If someone who disliked Jesus and his angels and saints were to enter there, “How forlorn would he wander through the courts of heaven!”

Get to know him now, and you will have nothing to fear.

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