The greatest longing for any believer is to get to heaven. Those of us who believe in an afterlife usually believe in two possibly destinations—one more desirable than the other, to say the least. But why do we want to go to heaven? Is it just to avoid the alternative? Do we want to go to heaven simply so that we are not suffering the torments of hell? What is so great about heaven?
After all, won’t heaven just be a bunch of sitting around on clouds, strumming harps all day, and being on our best behavior? Isn’t that a little . . . boring?
Images of clouds and harps may sometimes be a depiction of heaven, like in certain pieces of art, but they’re not intended to be taken literally. The trouble is, we need to get ourselves out of the default mindset for the terms life and in in this context.
First, we cannot expect life after death to be the same as life before death. We mustn’t try to picture ourselves as spending time in a particular place—on a cloud, in a church, floating around somewhere with wings sprouting out of our backs. The in presents another problem: heaven is not just another place, another physical location where we will or will not have the same creature comforts that we are familiar with on earth, somewhere we will be either close to or far away from our loved ones. Before we can explore what heaven is, we have to prepare ourselves by acknowledging that it is not like anything we are familiar with.
It’s fairly common for some people to speculate about what will happen after they’ve died, including things like “If you throw away that heirloom after I die, I’ll be really upset” or “If you don’t come to visit my grave once in a while, I’ll be heartbroken.” In response, I often find myself saying, with as much charity as I can muster, “Trust me, you won’t care.” And that’s the truth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines heaven thus: “Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” (1024) If this is heaven, how could we possibly care about anything else?
The same point can be made about heaven being boring. Anything but! “Our hearts were made for thee, and they are restless until they find their rest in thee,” St. Augustine so famously wrote in his Confessions. If we are in heaven, we will not be distracted by any earthly concerns—like boredom.
But if we really want to see why heaven is not boring, we’ll have to take a closer look at what the Church teaches about heaven. The Catechism tells us, “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live for ever with Christ. They are like God for ever, for they ‘see him as he is,’ face to face” (1023). Seeing God face to face forever—this is that beatific vision of which heaven consists.
Further: “This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity—this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed—is called ‘heaven.’ Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (1024).
Pope Benedict XII explored this same point in Benedictus Deus, in 1336: “These souls have seen and do see the divine essence with an intuitive vision, and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature.” This is incredible! Remember when Moses, such a singularly important figure in salvation history, could not behold the face of God:
And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live” (Exod. 33:19-20).
God revealing himself in this way is necessary for such an intimate experience. “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.” (CCC 1028).
Our Lord, during his earthly ministry, gave us an evocative image of God’s relationship with us in heaven, during his farewell discourse on the night before he was betrayed: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:2-3) The rooms in the Father’s house are prepared for us, and Jesus will take us there to dwell with the Father. What a beautiful, comforting image.
All the same, you might be excused for thinking that many things that are important, or even wonderful, are still boring. Sure, heaven is wonderful, but so is air travel—and hurtling through the air at hundreds of miles an hour has become one of the most mundane experiences many of us have. Sure, calculus is important, but to most people, it is also exceedingly boring.
Although we don’t know exactly what heaven will be like, we can surmise a lot about it. We know a lot about God, because he has revealed himself to us. We know he is our father, for example, and that he loves us perfectly and completely (more perfectly and completely than we can ever hope to comprehend).
So what is it like to spend eternity face to face with God? Let’s try an analogy, to bring this out of the realm of the abstract and into a more familiar, lived experience.
Imagine you’re with your dearest friend, talking long into the night. As the hours go on, there is a voice in the back of your head, nagging at you: “It’s getting late. You have to get home. You’ve got your responsibilities, your obligations, and you can’t just be here with your friend for the rest of your life.” Heaven is a little like that sublime visit with your friend . . . but without the nagging voice.
Don’t forget that an analogy can do only so much, especially with something as incomprehensible as heaven. “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, [that is] what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). So ultimately, we cannot know just what heaven will be like, apart from knowing that it will be eternally living with God. And it definitely won’t be boring.