A few weeks ago, my wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and the answer was pretty easy: books. I love buying books, not that I ever get a chance to read them, but their mere presence on my numerous bookshelves at least allows me to imagine that I’ll get to them one day.
I decided to peruse Amazon.com in order see what the bestsellers were in the category of Christian books, and I quickly discovered that many of the top books were stories about afterlife experiences, including Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, and Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.
I have not read these books, but I find afterlife experiences reassuring, though they are not the basis of my belief in God and life after death. The popularity of these books speaks to the profound interest people have in what happens in the moments after we depart this world. What happens after we die? What is heaven like? Is there a hell? These are the fundamental questions of life.
In casual conversation and numerous jokes, heaven is depicted in simplistic terms. An image is sometimes drawn of living in a beautiful mansion, eating great food, and being surrounded by family and friends. If this is heaven, I apologize for being cynical, I’ll be sorely disappointed.
Heaven is not equivalent to winning the lottery and being able to purchase everything you want. This view betrays a false sense of what satisfies. Is a mansion and great food the path to true happiness? It also does not convey an understanding of eternity. A wonderful home might make one happy for a few years, but not a hundred years or a thousand years, let alone a million, billion or trillion, and a trillion years is a flash compared to eternity.
Heaven will be a physical place, and we will have physical bodies. It is useful to highlight some of the wonderful material things which we will experience in heaven, but these entities will not be the ultimate source of our happiness. The joy of heaven is being in the presence of God, who is infinite goodness, love, and beauty. As he slowly reveals himself to us, we will be eternally content, never growing tired or desiring more.
This union with God is harder to imagine than a physical heaven. I envision it will be a feeling similar to when I first saw my wife-to-be on our wedding day. As I was waiting for her at the altar, I did not know what to expect, but when she rounded the corner of the vestibule, I experienced a rush of love and joy that I never experienced before. I anticipate the moment after death to be a similar, but infinitely more powerful, feeling when I hopefully see God for the first time.
This differs from the excitement that we might experience when buying a new iPhone. Both events produce some joy, but the latest phone generates only a limited and short term satisfaction. An experience of pure love is deeply fulfilling, revealing the true end for humans. A union with God, not champagne and caviar, is the proper image of heaven. Furthermore, if we daydream about what our car or house might be like in heaven more than our love for God, it will become a distraction and distance ourselves from our ultimate goal.
Lastly, a false impressive of heaven is that everyone will ultimately be there, regardless of their actions of earth. Some modern theologians, including Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, have put forth the theory that all, or at the very least, the great majority of people will go to heaven. This theory has taken hold of the modern church, and it has almost become cliché to say after someone’s death that their suffering is over and that they are in a better place, eulogies resembling canonizations. The venerable tradition of praying for the dead is virtually extinct.
We hope and pray that everyone goes to heaven, and ultimately, only God knows the final place for each individual. The universalist argument of salvation, however, contradicts the words of Jesus. One of the many Gospel passages on the question of salvation and condemnation reads: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16: 15-16)
Furthermore, the position that everyone is going to heaven is one of the greatest obstacle to evangelization. If everyone goes to heaven, why go to church, why convert anyone, and why baptize your child? A worldview without hell leads directly to a world with no need for religion.
Some might counter that any emphasis on hell in evangelization should be avoided because people should not convert out of fear. For me, meditation of the last things – death, judgment, heaven, and hell – does not invoke anxiety or distress because I always end my reflection contemplating heaven. Without a doubt, hell is a terrifying concept, but we consider its existence in order to avoid it and to renew our focus on going to heaven.
What is truly frightening is to perpetuate the misconception that everyone is going to heaven in order to make people feel good, and then, for them to learn the truth after their time on earth has expired.
As seen, people have a profound interest in the nature of heaven. Beyond asking what heaven is like, we should also consider how we get to heaven, never assuming that we will get there without putting forth any effort.
Advent is an apt time to slow down and reflect. It is a time of waiting for Jesus to come on Christmas and also to prepare for his second coming. Our whole life is like Advent, a period of expectantly waiting to be with Jesus for all eternity in heaven, and rest assured that our union with God in heaven will be far greater and more joyful than anything we could ever imagine.
December 11, 2012 05:28
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
When we consider the theological virtues, love/charity first comes to mind, followed by faith, and lastly, almost as an afterthought, we consider hope. How many sermons have we heard on love and faith? Probably too many to count, but I cannot recall one homily on hope.
Added to its neglect, hope is also misunderstood and misrepresented in society. Ask someone what they are hoping for and they’ll likely respond: I’m hoping for a new job, a spouse, a great vacation, or a child. Some of these are noble things to hope for, but these worldly ends are not linked to hope as a theological virtue. Moreover, hope implies trusting in someone else, and in an age of self-determination, relying on a Being that is beyond us is unsettling and difficult.
Recently, I attended a lecture on hope, and the speaker began with a startling line. “One day we all are going to die, and we hope that it will be the greatest thing we ever experienced.” I sat in my chair, shocked by the declaration, imaging death as something horrible, not the “greatest thing” that we will experience. While less colloquial, the catechism reaffirms this other world perspective of hope. “Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness.”
Hope acknowledges we live in a fallen world with suffering and pain, but also reminds us that something exists beyond this world, a perfect existence in heaven. The virtue, however, is not escapist; rather, focusing on the afterlife mysteriously benefits us in this world. C. S. Lewis offers a wonderful elaboration of this point: “It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next … It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”
When I learn of a famous celebrity committing suicide, I often reflect on the virtue of hope and its opposite, despair. These individuals had everything – money, fame, success, – but it was not enough because they lacked hope.
The increasing number of people suffering from depression is our culture’s little dark secret which no one wants to talk about. The statistics are overwhelming. About 10 percent of Americans – or 27 million people – were taking antidepressants in 2005, which is the most recent data I could find, and that number was a 100 percent increase from 1996. I can only image the numbers have increased substantially since the economy has entered a recession and unemployment has risen to 8-10 percent. Even considering that antidepressants are used for many different reasons and doctors tend to overprescribe medicines, the numbers are awfully high.
Still, I am not surprised by the widespread level of depression. If you put your hope in a sport’s team, you’re going to be depressed. If you put your hope in politics, you’re going to be depressed. If you put your hope in a television show, you’re going to be depressed. They will not live up to your expectations. In the news, on the Internet, and in my personal contacts, I see a population that is discouraged. We blame everyone else for letting us down: the wealthy, corrupt politicians, or even Church leaders. We need, however, to look closer. We can only change ourselves, placing our hope in someone who can truly and completely satisfy – God.
Hope is strengthened by glimpses of the happiness of heaven that we experience here on earth. Our future bliss is foreshadowed in a beautiful piece of music, an impressive landscape, loving relationships, and most profoundly, in the Eucharist. These tastes of heaven are powerful proofs that God exists and that He has many great mysteries in store for us.
Hope is essential to a Christian worldview, and its absence can inflict profound pain. In many ways, the suffering of hell is due to the hopelessness of the situation. In Dante’s Inferno, the gate of hell is inscribed with the foreboding line, “Abandon all hope — Ye Who Enter Here.” Contrarily, hope provides the living with the ability to overcome any trial, no matter how difficult. By focusing on the eternal, we know that every suffering will end, and we hope to one day be in heaven with God experiencing perfect joy.
(I am not a psychologist, but I understand that many people suffer depression due to an experience of extreme trauma or biological factors. These individuals need to continue receiving professional attention and taking prescribed medicines. In addition to these treatments, NOT to replace them, I would suggest placing hope in God and trusting in His plan.)
June 04, 2012 01:16
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi