Now that we’re at the end of Lent and have reflected on sin, virtue, suffering, and prayer, we may ask ourselves, “What is the ultimate point of all of this?” Certainly, we are all aware that our goal is to get to Heaven. But did you know that there are different degrees of Heaven and that we can actually merit a higher degree of heaven by increasing our holiness through our virtuous nature?
Before we get into that, let’s first see how the Catholic Church actually 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.” 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. (CCC #1023-1024) Sounds positively heavenly!
So what is this about degrees of Heaven? Let me paint an analogy for you to explain.
Imagine Heaven is like the inside of your home church. Just like how it occurs during Mass, God is at the very front of the Church on the altar in all of His beautiful radiant glory. When you enter the Church after passing through the front doors and the vestibule, you end up in a particular location with varying degrees of proximity to God from all of the other people inside of 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, we’ll 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. (Degree 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 on 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 only to each individual according to his or her own merits and deficiencies.
Now that we understand all of this, and before anyone gets too upset, a very important clarification needs to be made. Regardless of one’s proximity to God, each person will be perfectly fulfilled and happy wherever he finds himself regardless of where any of his 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 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 Him 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? Once we’ve died, there is nothing more we can do to merit anything for our eternal souls. This is precisely the reason why we put in all the work on our path to holiness on earth. Some of our favorite Saints are very, very close to God in Heaven and we want to join them. In order to do this, we must work hard to replace our tendency to sin with habitual virtuous behavior, aided by an openness to God’s grace working within us. Why be good when you can be better? Why be better when you can be great? The reward is eternal!!