Common Ground? – Heaven

Two of my cousins are Methodist pastors, and one of them (she was actually my cousin-in-law) went to be with the Lord recently. It has been a comfort to me to know that the doctrine of eternal life is one that Protestants and Catholics share, since there have been other doctrinal issues upon which my cousins and I could not agree (not too many – Methodist theology tends to be a lot more similar to Catholic teaching than the theology of some other Protestant denominations). At Protestant funerals there is always talk of how the deceased is now in Heaven, something that I as a Catholic generally find doubtful, not in a snarky way (my cousin, for example, was a loving and faithful servant of God all her life), but simply because most of us are not yet perfected in love and will therefore still need purification before entering Heaven. Purgatory, it goes without saying, is not a doctrine on which Protestants and Catholics agree – Protestants claim that it is “unbiblical” (they had to remove the book of 2 Maccabees from their Bibles to try to make that claim stick), while Catholics cite 2 Maccabees 12:46, Hebrews 12:14, 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, and Hebrews 12:29 in the doctrine’s favor:

It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

Our God is a consuming fire.

Purgatory is in no way a “second chance” at Heaven – one’s eternal destiny is set at death. But as a soul enters into the presence of God, Who is unfathomably holy, any remaining imperfections will be – must be – burnt off, so to speak, before we can dwell with Him. Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God – the vast majority of us are going to need a little sand-blasting before we can see God. Of course, a Protestant funeral is no place to have this discussion, but the irony is that all those Protestants who deny the doctrine of purgatory and who insist that no one should waste his time praying for “the poor souls” will themselves be helped through Purgatory and hastened on their way to Heaven on the wings of Catholic prayers. Pity the poor souls who have no Catholics to pray for them.

Though divided on the doctrine of Purgatory, on the subject of eternal life Protestants and Catholics concur heartily – our citizenship is in Heaven!  We believe in You, Lord – the Resurrection and the Life! As the Catechism puts it:

By his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has “opened” heaven to us. The life of the blessed consists in the full and perfect possession of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ. He makes partners in his heavenly glorification those who have believed in him and remained faithful to his will. Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ. CCC 1026

Can I get an “amen!”, brothers and sisters? It’s hard to disagree with that good news!

Our Catholic concept of what the souls in Heaven actually experience, though, tends to be pretty different from the way Evangelicals envision that experience. All cultures and religions have tried to imagine what Heaven might be like. For Muslims, the idea of Heaven conjures up visions of palaces, fine clothes, delicious food, and sex – a celestial “upgrade” from life here on earth for those who have been faithful. The Jehovah’s Witness concept of Heaven is more complicated: based on the text of Revelation 14:1-4, they believe that there will be only 144,000 people in Heaven. Those special individuals will serve a priestly function, while the rest of the faithful will enjoy life in an earthly Paradise. Protestants, of course, believe that all Christians, not just a select few, will go to Heaven when they die. Back when I was a Baptist, I used to sing songs like “When We All Get to Heaven,” and other hymns about “pearly gates” and “streets of gold.” We took St. John’s descriptions of Heaven quite literally. I knew individuals who, realizing that cell phone reception might be iffy in the Heavenly Jerusalem, arranged to meet their spouse in front of the Tree of Life when they got to Heaven.

Yet not all Evangelicals get too terribly enthusiastic about the afterlife. The less excited ones are usually younger Christians who are enjoying their lives in the here-and-now, and who have an image of Heaven a lot like Huckleberry Finn’s worst nightmare: “…all a body would have to do was go around all day long with a harp and sing forever and ever.” You see, the Book of Revelation describes the unceasing worship that goes on in Heaven, and of course those people envision it as if it were one everlasting, unending, eternal megachurch service.

Woo hoo.

In an effort to whip up Evangelical enthusiasm for the hereafter, Evangelical pastor Randy Alcorn’s book, Heaven, purported to answer questions about the afterlife from a “biblical perspective.” Alcorn took as many biblical references to Heaven as literally as possible for two reasons, first of all, because taking Bible verses at face value is the Evangelical definition of being “firmly rooted in Scripture” (and he would have lost a good half of his Evangelical readership if he hadn’t quoted several verses per page), and secondly, because otherwise he really wouldn’t have had much to write about. The Bible just doesn’t give us all that many details about Heaven, so verses like “In My Father’s house there are many mansions” or “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God” were used as springboards for all sorts of wild conjecture (to his credit, he admitted that much of the book was conjecture). “Will there be coffee in Heaven?” – his answer is yes; since there will be, according to Alcorn, work, rest and sleep in Heaven, I guess the coffee would be a given. Homes, hospitality, meat substitutes (no death in Heaven, so no burgers), sports, libraries, even disagreements and misunderstandings about God (denominationalism lives on even in Heaven!) – Eternity will be just like our lives here on earth, only shinier. Alcorn’s Heaven swims in speculation. He even gets into the possibility of visiting other planets in the afterlife. It seems the more science fiction an Evangelical author incorporates into his “Bible-based” speculations, the faster his books will sell, à la Left Behind.

The Catholic take on Heaven is decidedly less over-the-top, or as Blessed John Paul II put it, “It is always necessary to maintain a certain restraint in describing these ‘ultimate realities’ since their depiction is always unsatisfactory.” You got that right, Holy Father! The Catechism exhibits admirable restraint:

This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise: “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
CCC 1027

That’s one thing I really, really like about the Catholic Church – when we don’t know something – we say so! Heaven is understandably beyond all description; all we know is that when we reach Heaven, we will see God, as promised in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” I remember when I first heard the Catholic term “beatific vision” – it was in a Philosophy of Education class at the local Baptist university. We were learning about Thomas Aquinas. I was enraptured. Of course that was what Heaven would be like, I thought to myself. The Catechism tells us:

Because of his transcendence, God cannot be seen as he is, unless he himself opens up his mystery to man’s immediate contemplation and gives him the capacity for it. The Church calls this contemplation of God in his heavenly glory “the beatific vision” CCC 1028

So basically all the Church claims to know about Heaven is that those there will be absolutely pure in heart, and they will see God and worship Him eternally. Sound stultifying? Well, did you think holding hands with your beloved and gazing deep into each other’s eyes was stultifying? (If so, I’m glad I wasn’t engaged to you!) This is LOVE – this is RELATIONSHIP!

In the context of Revelation, we know that the “heaven” or “happiness” in which we will find ourselves is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. It is our meeting with the Father which takes place in the risen Christ through the communion of the Holy Spirit. Bl. John Paul II

Heaven, in other words, is what we’ve been looking for all our lives, that one thing, that one relationship that would complete us. And while the Church keeps speculation on the specifics of Heaven to a minimum, she does make an assertion that would have floored me back when I was an Evangelical. Whereas Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that only 144,000 believers will make it to Heaven, the Catholic Church teaches that in Heaven there will only be three Persons.

That’s right – three. Read the above quote again. John Paul II says that Heaven is “our meeting with the Father.” Okay – so we know that when we become perfectly pure of heart we’ll meet the Father in Heaven – what’s this “only three Persons” business?

Our meeting with the Father takes place in the risen Christ through the communion of the Holy Spirit. There will be only three Persons in Heaven – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. If you’re there, then you’re there as a member of the body of the risen Christ. We will be in Heaven in Christ Jesus, or we won’t be there at all.

After the course of our earthly life, participation in complete intimacy with the Father thus comes through our insertion into Christ’s paschal mystery. Bl. John Paul II

As we said above:

By his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has ‘opened’ heaven to us. The life of the blessed consists in the full and perfect possession of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ. He makes partners in his heavenly glorification those who have believed in him and remained faithful to his will. Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ. CCC 1026

Really not much a Protestant could argue with – just an expression of humility recognizing that the details of Heaven are not known to us, coupled with the assurance that we will fully possess the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ. The glories of Heaven are literally “beyond all understanding and description.”

And yet, even more good news!

This final state, however, can be anticipated in some way today in sacramental life, whose center is the Eucharist, and in the gift of self through fraternal charity. If we are able to enjoy properly the good things that the Lord showers upon us every day, we will already have begun to experience that joy and peace which one day will be completely ours. We know that on this earth everything is subject to limits, but the thought of the “ultimate” realities helps us to live better the “penultimate” realities. We know that as we pass through this world we are called to seek “the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1), in order to be with him in the eschatological fulfillment, when the Spirit will fully reconcile with the Father “all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col 1:20). Bl. John Paul II

Blessed John Paul II is simply rephrasing what his predecessor, Venerable Paul VI, wrote three decades earlier: those who assist at Mass participate in what could be called “Heaven on earth”:

In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Savior, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory. Pope Paul VI, Sacrosanctum Concilium

Catholics both anticipate and participate in the glories of Heaven as Jesus gives Himself to us in the Holy Eucharist, and as we then give ourselves to others in imitation of our Lord. We experience a foretaste of Heaven at every Mass – and the Heaven we are anticipating is indescribably more incredible than our wildest dreams.

Coffee or no coffee – I can hardly wait!


On the memorial of St. Hilary of Poitiers

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. Gina Nakagawa said:

    I pray for those souls who have no one to pray for them. Purgatory is not a place anyone would like to spend a great deal of time in, even though it leads right to heaven. Beautiful and well-thought-out comments and considerations spoken by a thoughtful woman. God bless you.

    • I can’t imagine what a shock it must be to people who have been convinced that when they die they’ll go “straight to Heaven” (as Tammy Faye Baker used to say), and then find themselves in Purgatory. It’s a blessing to know that something like that awaits us and to be able to ask others to pray for the repose of our souls!

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