This is part two of a three-part series on the afterlife. Last week, we started with Hell in order to get it out of the way so we can focus on more hopeful topics. Although we can never fully know what Heaven is like until we get there, there are things that we can know: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him,” (1 Cor 2:9).
Let’s first see how the Catholic Church defines the basics of Heaven.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that those who die in a state of grace will go to Heaven and live “perfectly purified” with God for ever and that they will “see Him as He is, face to face,” (CCC #1023). Living with God and seeing Him as He is means joining the communion of life and love that exists within the Holy Trinity along with Mary, the saints, and the angels. We will be allowed to fully partake in this loving relationship and community of divine persons with perfect clarity. We will exist in a state of perfect fulfillment and absolute happiness as we gaze upon God. (See CCC #1024.) Sounds positively heavenly!
In Heaven, each soul will live in union with the Triune God, but it may be surprising for you to hear that they do so in a way that is particular to the individual soul. In other words, there are degrees of Heaven. Let me paint an analogy for you to further explain.
Imagine Heaven is like the inside of your home church. Just as it occurs during Mass when Jesus is present in the Eucharist, God is at the very front of the Church on the altar in all His beautiful, radiant glory. When you enter the Church after passing through the front doors and the vestibule and finding your seat, you end up in a particular location with varying degrees of proximity to God in the Eucharist in the midst of all the other people inside the Church. Some people will be in the back rows, some will be in the middle, and some will be in the front row. Some will be sitting directly in the center looking straight on, while others are more towards the side with a different perspective. This is how Heaven is. Through our efforts, our prayers, our redemptive suffering, and our openness to grace, we can merit for ourselves a place closer to or further away from God, where we will spend eternity gazing upon Him.
How do we know there are varying degrees of proximity to God in Heaven? First, we’ll look at some scriptural sources:
- “In my father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” – John 14:2
- “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.” – Matthew 16:27
- “He who plants and he who waters are equal and each shall receive his wages according to his labor.” – 1 Corinthians 3:8
You can see in Scripture that God’s house has many rooms and that there will be a place prepared specifically for you while another place has been prepared specifically for your neighbor. You can also see that each man will be repaid for what he himself has done, which may be different from a neighbor’s repayment for what he has done, but that everyone will be paid according to his labor.
Next, let’s look at what the Magisterium, or the teaching office of the Church, says on the issue:
- Council of Florence (1438-1445): They will “see clearly the one and Triune God Himself, just as He is, yet according to the diversity of merits, one more perfectly than another.”
- Council of Trent (1545-1563): Affirmed that the faithful will experience Heaven differently, based on the merit of their good works, and anathematized those who taught differently. (Decree on Justification, canon 32)
- “Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ…Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ.” CCC #1021-22
While the seeds of the Church’s understanding of Heaven existed from her inception – particularly due to the scriptural sources – she started to work to expand and define her understanding, beginning with the Council of Florence and continued from there. Now, in our current time, we have the Catechism which tells us that we each receive a particular judgement. “Particular” in that it applies to each person individually according to his or her own merits and deficiencies.
Now that we have reviewed all of this, a very important clarification needs to be made. Regardless of one’s proximity to God, each person will be perfectly fulfilled and happy wherever they find themselves regardless of where any of their neighbors end up. There are a few reasons for this. First, when you are in Heaven, you are gazing on and adoring God and there is no room for any negative thought or feeling as you are gazing on pure love. Second, you have a perfect understanding and clarity of God’s justice and mercy and are perfectly able to accept what you have merited because you understand it was the appropriate and just outcome for you. Finally, you are so completely fulfilled and happy to just be in Heaven adoring God that as long as you are gazing on His face and seeing Him as He is, it will be more beautiful than anything you could have ever hoped for.
So, we have clarified that no matter where we end up in proximity to God, we will be completely happy. Does that mean that we should just strive for the bare minimum to get there? No! Why would you want to barely squeeze in or be stuck in the back row when you can merit a seat front and center? We should always desire to grow in holiness. Once we’ve died, though, there is nothing more we can do to merit anything for our eternal souls. This is precisely why we put in all the work on earth to strive for holiness. Some of our favorite saints are very, very close to God in Heaven and we want to join them. Spend the time you have on earth now cultivating virtue and nourishing your relationship with God and neighbor, so that you might be as close to Him as possible in the Kingdom of Heaven. Perhaps you’ll even have a place next to your favorite saint!
Last week, I mentioned that upon the Final Judgement, our bodies will be resurrected, so the souls in Hell will experience physical manifestations of their suffering. The same is true for those in Heaven. When each soul in Heaven is reunited with its body, the body will experience all the same ecstasy as the soul. What’s more, your body will be perfected. You will be the perfect age and the perfect physical fitness. All of your bodily imperfections and ailments will be gone and all of your brokenness and woundedness will be healed or glorified as God sees fit. Recall how after Jesus was resurrected, His body had healed from all the lashings and abuse, but His nail marks and the wound in His side were glorified to show the power of God. Now, this is something to look forward to, indeed!
This week, ask yourself if you really want to go to Heaven. If so, to what degree? Contemplate some changes you need to make to help you get there. Does your prayer life need work? Do you need to root out sin by finding opportunities to cultivate virtue in your life? Can you increase your reception of the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist to receive more of the sanctifying grace God has to offer you? Whatever it is, let those ideas help you take a small step forward in your relationship with God, motivated by the thought of being closer to Him in Heaven.
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