Heaven: the highest expression of the divine and the human

Paul O'Callaghan-May 13, 2016-Reading time: 4 minutes

We call it skybecause it evokes transcendence, infinity, the overcoming of the limit. We also say "vision of God", beatific visionbecause God, whom we see, is infinitely blessed, happy. The expression communion It is also valid to speak of man's immortal destiny, because it is a close union with God that does not eliminate the human subject, a union between two who love each other: the Creator and the creature. One could also say happiness perfectbecause with God man finds a definitive satisfaction. The term paradiseThe "sealed garden" expresses well the material and corporeal delight that awaits men who have been faithful to God. We also call it glorybecause it denotes honor, wealth, power, influence, light. And finally, the Johannine expression eternal lifelife that God instills in man when he creates and saves him, but in this case the life of Godand therefore eternal, permanent as God is.

Eternal life and faith in Jesus Christ

According to the New Testament the gift of eternal life depends on faith in Jesus Christ. "Everyone who sees the Son and believes in him has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day." (Jn 6:40). "Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me possesses eternal life." (Jn 5:24). In other words, for those who believe in Jesus Christ, eternal life, the life of God, already begins in this life. Perhaps for this reason we can speak, as does a document from the seventh century, the "Bangor Antiphonary", of "eternal life in the glory of Christ.".

In his encyclical Spe salviBenedict XVI wonders whether the promise of eternal life is really capable of moving man's heart and motivating his life. "Do we really want this: to live forever? Perhaps many people today reject faith simply because eternal life does not seem desirable to them. They do not want eternal life at all, but the present life, and for this, faith in eternal life seems to them rather an obstacle. To go on living forever - without end - seems more like a condemnation than a gift... But to live forever, without an end, would only be ultimately boring and in the end unbearable." (n. 10). For many, in fact, heaven leads to the thought of perpetual boredom. Is the promise of perpetual emptiness worth risking one's life for? "I am not afraid of death." writer Jorge Luis Borges once said. "I have seen many people die. But I'm afraid of immortality. I'm tired of being Borges." (The immortal). This feeling touches the hearts of many men when they hear of the hereafter.


And at the same time, the response of faith is not complex. On the contrary. Eternal life, heaven, is the fruit of the infusion of divine life in man, which opens in faith and is consummated in glory. Man, said the Fathers of the Church, is "divinized," made divine (2 Pt 1:4). Man shares fully in the divine life, without ever reaching the point of be God, without being confused with the divine nature. In this sense, the happiness of heaven is not something that results from being in the "company" of God, from being present in the divine environment, because it is a participation in the very life by which God is happy. God is, the First Vatican Council teaches us, "in itself and from itself perfectly happy.". Therefore, if man were not perfectly happy forever in heaven, God would be to blame. Like lovers, God does not say to us: "You will be happy with me", but: "I will make you happy". This is a holy and divine determination. Jesus himself says to the righteous at the final judgment: "Well done, good and faithful servant; since you have been faithful in a little, I will give you an important position: enter into the joy of your lord"(Mt 25:21,23). Man participates in the life and joy of God; this is why he becomes happy forever, without fail. Man praises God, certainly, but he is also praised by God, and he remains enchanted by the eternal affection of his Father God. And so on forever.

But another difficulty remains. If man is united with God to the point of experiencing the divine life as his own, should it not be said that he has been absorbed by God, fused in Him, without his own personality? Is man not like a grain of salt that falls into the divine ocean and dissolves without leaving a trace of his individuality? This is an important question for Christian anthropology: if man loses his personality in God in heaven, then what value will his personhood have in this world? It is interesting what the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "To live in heaven is 'to be with Christ'. The elect live 'in Him,' even more, they have there, or better, find their true identity thereits own name". (n. 1025).

Fullness for man

Where the idea that the divinized finds himself fully realized in God is best expressed is the doctrine that the righteous come to to God, they enjoy the beatific vision. The vision expresses not only union, but also separation, distinction. One does not see that which is too close to the eyes. Sight requires objectivity, otherness, distance. Thus, St. Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians: "Now we see as in a mirror, confusedly; then we will see eye to eye. My knowing is now limited; then I shall know as I have been known by God." (1 Cor 13:12). And also in the first letter of St. John: "We are now the children of God, and it is not yet manifest what we shall be. We know that when he shall appear, we shall be like him, because we will see you as you are" (1 Jn 3:2).

Thus, when man sees God with a light that God himself infuses him with (the lumen gloriae), fully enjoys the divine life, without the mediation of anything seen, that is to say, face to face. He enjoys forever. And he does not want to, nor can he, cease to contemplate the eternal feast of divine life. He will remain freely with God forever.

The authorPaul O'Callaghan

Ordinary Professor of Theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.

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