Editor’s note: Jimmy Akin’s new book A Daily Defense comprises 365 one-page defenses (plus one for leap year) of typical challenges to the Catholic Faith. These daily doses of apologetics are designed to arm the reader with short-form answers and tips for delving deeper into any particular subject. Through the end of the year, the Catholic Answers blog will run occasional excerpts.
“I can’t imagine being happy for all eternity in heaven. Sitting on a cloud playing a harp sounds boring.”
The reality of heaven transcends human imagination, and popular images of it are only pointers.
The depiction of robed saints sittting on clouds and playing harps is a modern one. It is found in art and on greeting cards, but it mashes images together in a way not found in the Bible.
Scripture uses many images for heaven. The most fundamental is the sky. John Paul II explained: “In biblical language ‘heaven,’ when it is joined to the ‘earth,’ indicates part of the universe. Scripture says about creation: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Gen. 1:1)” (General Audience, July 21, 1999).
The sky, in turn, was used as an image of where God dwells: “Metaphorically speaking, heaven is understood as the dwelling-place of God, who is thus distinguished from human beings (see Ps. 104:2–3; 115:16; Isa. 66:1). He sees and judges from the heights of heaven (see Ps. 113:4–9) and comes down when he is called upon (see Ps. 18:9, 10; 144:5). However, the biblical metaphor makes it clear that God does not identify himself with heaven, nor can he be contained in it (see 1 Kings 8:27)” (ibid.).
Scripture uses other images of heaven, though we need to be sensitive to their limitations too. The Catechism explains: “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’ (1 Cor. 2:9)” (CCC 1027).
We thus shouldn’t be confused by modern images depicting saints sitting on clouds with harps. “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” ( John Paul II, op. cit.).