What we can know about heaven from Scripture and the Church

What we can know about heaven from Scripture and the Church

John Young

Some people say we know practically nothing about heaven, and they quote St Paul as affirming that no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love him. They overlook the verse immediately following: "God has revealed it to us through the Spirit, for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God" (I Cor 2:10).

In other words, we can't know this by natural means, but we do know it through Revelation: God has told us. We don't know the details, but we do know the essentials.

Seeing God face-to-face

Life in heaven is, above all, the direct vision of God. St Paul tells us that while we now see in a dark manner, then we shall see face to face (I Cor 13:12). St John says we shall see God as he is (I John 3:2). In the Apocalypse we are told that God's servants "shall see his face" (Rev 22:4). Jesus says that the children's angels always see his Father's face (Matt 18:10).

In the fourth century BC the great Greek philosopher Plato spoke of the Supreme Beauty, and put this question from the lips of a wise woman named Diotima: "…if it were given to man to see the heavenly beauty face to face, would you call his an unenviable life, whose eyes had been opened to the vision, and who had gazed upon it in true contemplation until it had become his own forever?" (Plato: Symposium, 211 E).

In seeing this possibility Plato was expressing a deep longing in the human soul, for we are made for the knowledge and love of God, and a wish to see him face to face is natural to us. But it is impossible for reason alone to know even whether that vision is possible: reason alone could only hope that it is possible and that it is our true destiny. But by Revelation we know it for certain.

As well as Scripture there is the infallible teaching of the Church. Pope Benedict XII expressed it clearly and definitively in the constitution Benedictus Deus in 1336. He declared that the just "see the divine essence intuitively and face to face … the divine essence shows itself to them plainly, clearly and openly. In this vision they are filled with the enjoyment of the divine essence" (DS 1000). He goes on to say that this vision and enjoyment will continue for all eternity.

We will not see God with our eyes, for eyes are only capable of sensing bodily things and God is a spirit. To see God face to face means to have him present to our intellect. But it will not be the kind of presence we have in this life when we think about God. Here we have extremely imperfect ideas of him in our mind, and we know him through those ideas, whereas in heaven he will be immediately present to our intellect, without the intervention of ideas.

Compare this to the way we know things by our five senses. External realities are directly present to the senses in their physical action on those senses, and in this they differ from things as known in the imagination or memory, or by the mind when it abstracts ideas from sense data. There is an immediacy about things as sensed, an immediacy not found in our other ways of knowing. In heaven God will be as directly present to the mind as sensed things are to sight and the other senses in the present life.

Suppose we were able to gain an intellectual intuition of, say, a blade of grass. That is, suppose the very essence, the inmost being, of a blade of grass were in direct contact with the intellect. That never happens, because the human intellect has to abstract its knowledge of the grass from what the senses of sight, touch, etc, show us — and they show us only superficial aspects of things.

So our understanding of a blade of grass has a remoteness about it. But were we able to intuit it directly by intellectual vision, we would be entranced; it would be an awesome sight that we would find captivating.

Contemplation

Our destiny is not the contemplation of a blade of grass, entrancing though that would be. It is the direct contemplation of the infinite God. We will experience, without any intermediary, infinite truth, goodness and beauty: uncreated, limitless, eternal, dependent on nothing else and the cause from which all else comes. We will experience the three divine Persons: the Father generating the Son, Father and Son giving rise to the Holy Spirit. We will experience God's love for each of us.

In that vision we will know not only God but also his creation, for in seeing him we will see something of his knowledge of the world he made (cf. Ludwig Ott: Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 21). In particular, the people and events with which we have been especially associated will be seen in the Divine Vision.

From the Beatific Vision will flow a love of God and a joy in his presence incomparably greater than any love or joy we could possibly have otherwise. And it will never cease or diminish for all eternity.

Other things known

What other kinds of knowledge do the souls in heaven have? (On the knowledge had by the separated soul, see St Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae, I, 89.) When the soul leaves the body at death it sees itself clearly, for the body no longer stands between the soul and its self-understanding. So it knows itself clearly and completely, including the memory the mind has of what it knew on earth.

Also, as we are social beings and members of Christ's Mystical Body, intended to associate with others, there will be communication of souls with one another and with the angels. We will know our Saviour; we will know the Blessed Virgin. We will meet again those friends and relatives who have entered heaven before us. The delight we experience in the present world through friendships will seem a pale shadow compared with the society of the Blessed.

Our bodies will rise

When the present world ends there will be a resurrection of the dead. The bodies of the just, reunited to their souls, will participate in the heavenly life. What can we know about the resurrected body? There is much mystery here, but some things are known. The glorified body of Jesus Christ reveals something of what our bodies will be like, for his resurrection is the exemplar of ours, as St Paul makes clear (cf. I Cor 15:20-23; Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 999).

His risen body was the same one that existed before his death, for it rose from the tomb, leaving the tomb empty. And it still had flesh and bones: he said to the apostles: "Handle me and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones, as you see that I have" (Luke 24:39). It was tangible, for the women clung to him (Matt 28:9), and he invited Thomas to put a finger into the holes in his hands and a hand into his side (John 20:27). But it was glorified, having powers it had lacked before, such as the ability to enter a closed room (John 20:19, 26).

Our bodies, when they rise at the end of the world, will be identified with the bodies we have now. This is the constant teaching of the Church, as clearly expressed in the Profession of Faith of the Fourth Lateran Ecumenical Council, which teaches that all will rise "with their own bodies which they have now" (DS 801; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1016, 1017). Exactly what this involves is uncertain, but the real identity of each human body before and after the resurrection is de fide (see L. Ott: Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 490).

They will no longer be able to suffer or die and will exist forever. We will, therefore, be complete again, for the separated soul between death and the general resurrection is incomplete: a human being is naturally a compound of body and soul, not just a soul. Unlike the present life, however, in the glorified state the body will be completely subject to the soul.

Will we see and hear? The answer must be yes, because these powers are integral to human nature. We will exercise them in the new heavens and the new earth of which Scripture speaks in Rev 21:1.

Looking forward to heaven

We should think often about the wonderful destiny God has chosen to offer us. If people look forward to their retirement and the things they will do then, how much the more should they yearn for that eternal happiness which exceeds anything even remotely possible in the natural order.

But that destiny can only be attained through the possession of sanctifying grace, which elevates the soul to a new level of being, making us children of God by a supernatural sharing in his divine life. Only by such an elevation above our natural life is it possible to be apt for seeing God face-to-face (cf. St Thomas: Summa Theologiae, I, 12, 4).

Grace is increased by good works, and thus we share more deeply in the divine life and become capable of a deeper participation in the life of the three divine Persons in heaven. Each of the blessed souls is fully satisfied, but some, while on earth, gained a greater capacity than others, just as two cups are equally full even though one, being larger, contains more water than the other.

So the holier we are at death the more intense will be our happiness forever, and the more we will love and glorify God.

Destiny

Awareness of the heaven that awaits us should bring a new appreciation of other people, for all are called to the same destiny. All will exist forever, whether in heaven or in hell. All right now either have a soul beautified by grace or deprived of grace. All deserve respect; all deserve concern for their salvation.

No matter how badly things are going, joy and optimism must be leading characteristics of one who has a genuine realisation of "the things God has prepared for those who love him" (I Cor 2:9). Even sufferings (sometimes especially sufferings) are an aid to heavenly glory. The only real enemy is sin.

Viewing the present world in the light of our future destiny leads simultaneously to an awareness of its transience and its colossal importance. It is like the blink of an eye when compared to eternity; but it has its own grandeur as God's creation and as the basis, as it were, of an everlasting world. For matter won't be annihilated at the end of the present world: it will be transformed, becoming the new heavens and the new earth (Rev 21:1; Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1047).

It is during our sojourn in the earthly city that we merit a place in the everlasting city.

John Young is a Melbourne-based writer and lecturer. He is a regular contributor to Australian and overseas journals and is the author of The Scope of Philosophy (Warrane College: University of NSW), which is available from Freedom Publishing ($20.00).

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