As human beings, we seem hard wired toward sharing news when it’s great news. We enthusiastically communicate with others all the time when we have really good news to share. It doesn’t take any special training or programmatic preparation. So why isn’t talking about heaven something exciting and great to share?
A lot of Christians just aren’t sure about what eternal life includes. We believe in eternal life in the abstract sense, but deep inside, we’re not sure if a heaven that includes the worst sinners makes sense, we’re not sure if we want this eternal life if it’s just some manipulative reward for our own good behavior, we’re not sure if we want an endless continuity of a “better” earthly existence (i.e. a pop culture image of heaven as a place with endless luxury cars or something along those lines).
On this very day, nine years ago, Pope Benedict XVI opened the season of Advent by teaching on this ultimate hope in an encyclical letter called Spe Salvi [“in hope we were saved”]. Now, I wasn’t the type of person to be reading encyclicals when Spe Salvi first came out (truth be told, I think I was busy on a deployment in Iraq at the time)…however, since then I’ve come to love this encyclical. I find myself quoting it all the time to help offer language that resonates when it comes to talking about eternal life and the purification for those rooted in Christ that makes perfect communion with God possible!
So how does Pope Benedict describe eternal life with God?
the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality…like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. 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. (Spe Salvi, 12)
This way of thinking about heaven isn’t just about me as an individual. We believe that God’s final judgement “appears at the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers” (Spe Salvi, 14). Heaven “presupposes that we escape from the prison of our ‘I'” (Spe Salvi, 14). We are not saved to be alone, but saved to be in perfect loving relationship.
As Pope Benedict goes on to explain:
Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life (Spe Salvi, 28).
But who can confidently look forward to eternal life knowing what Jesus teaches? i.e. we must be perfect as God the Father is perfect (Mt 5:48). The key is that what God calls us to is not a condition for eternal life with God; not a simple human quid pro quo. Yet it’s still the objective reality of who God is. Perfect. Complete. Love. Life. And logically, though we can be forgiven from any sin (except deliberately refusing to accept God’s mercy by repenting), we can’t be in perfect communion with the objective reality of God, if we ourselves can’t let go of all that holds us back, what’s not holy, our sinful tendencies. This is where purification, cleansing, or (as it’s commonly called) the process of purgatory comes in. As the Church believes, this spiritual purgation isn’t about cartoon skulls, bones, hard labor, and a time clock–but true salvation.
Here’s Benedict summarizing a way we can speak about this:
The encounter with him [Christ] is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation.
His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God…At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his [Christ’s] love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.
It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. (Spe Salvi, 47)
If that’s not the most beautiful explanation of how encountering Christ in judgement isn’t a moment of terror, but instead a moment of hope, I don’t know what is!
How good is this news for those burdened with the idea that they need to earn salvation?
Or those living without the freedom of knowing how forgiveness and judgement can be possible?
It’s great news, that our earthly lives aren’t meaningless (and many people regardless of religious labels feel this, almost instinctively), that we can draw close to God now in preparation for eternity!
And, though as disciples of Jesus Christ we’re shouldn’t aspire to have lots of baggage that holds us back from perfect Love with God in eternity, it’s a blessing to know God is ready to make us “like Him” (1 Jn 3:2).
Finally, our belief in heaven does not exclude justice every human being yearns for. This is the comfort and hope of a final judgment, when all is revealed–the farthest consequences of all actions and in-actions (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1039). This great and final judgment does not reverse each of our individual judgments at the end of our earthly lives, but brings to completion God’s justice and grace. As Benedict observed, “a world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering” (Spe Salvi, 42). Eternal life includes this great and final judgment, where God’s power reveals all. In in this revealing, comes God’s justice–the suffering we cause or alleviate matters, not above or against God’s mercy, forgiveness, and purification, but within God’s ultimate plan to bring all things into perfect Divine Love and Life.
How’s that for a robust description of “heaven”? These Church teachings are great news.
Ask people about spirituality beyond this world, about the afterlife, about cosmic judgement…you’ll be surprised how many people (regardless of labels like atheist, agnostic, non-practicing Catholic, etc.) have a sense of a supreme moment of satisfaction, of contact with perfect Love that impacts both themselves and relationships with others, of a supernatural justice. You’ll be surprised how many Christians have always believed in heaven, but never thought deeply about how Christ purifies them, or have a way to speak about how our actions matter, without resorting to a [false!] works-based salvation.
We indeed have good news to share that can change a person’s life, bring them freedom from having their hopes constrained by the physical world we see each day, and open them up to the Truth that comes with this Love and Life.