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Dear Catholic.com visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Heaven

What do we really know about heaven—and what does the Church teach?

In the final part of the Divine Comedy—Paradiso or “Paradise”—Dante is guided by his courtly love, Beatrice, who takes him through the heavens to the ultimate abode of God.

Dante’s depiction of heaven is imaginative and influential, but it is not the only one. People have been trying to imagine heaven for thousands of years, and countless variations on what it’s like have been proposed. Some of these ideas—like St. Peter at the “pearly gates”—have passed into the popular imagination.

But which of these ideas are solid and which are merely imaginative suggestions? What do we really know about heaven—and what does the Church teach?

I ain’t got no body?

One of the most common misconceptions about heaven today is that it is a place of happiness where souls go when people die and leave their bodies behind forever. It’s truly startling how many people, even Christians, think of heaven in this way, as if we will spend eternity away from our bodies.

This is not the teaching of the Christian faith.

While it is true that we leave our bodies at death, we do not leave them forever. At the end of the world, at the general resurrection, we will be reunited with them.  That’s why we profess in the Nicene Creed, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come,” and, in the Apostles Creed, we profess our belief in “the resurrection of the body.”

This means that life in heaven cannot be thought of as perpetual bodiless existence. In fact, some in heaven (at least Jesus and Mary) have their bodies with them.

But if this understanding of heaven is false, what about some of the other popular ways of envisioning it?

Clouds and harps

Cartoonists often depict the saints in heaven playing harps while sitting on clouds. Is there any basis for this?

There are two passages in Revelation that depict the saints—or some of them—playing harps. The first is 5:8, where the twenty-four elders are depicted playing harps; the second is 15:2, where “those who had conquered the beast” play harps. Both groups play their harps as part of the heavenly liturgy, but they are not depicted sitting on clouds.

Instead, the twenty-four elders are shown sitting on thrones in the heavenly temple and those who overcame the beast are depicted standing on a “sea of glass mixed with fire,” again in the heavenly temple. (This image is based on “the molten sea”—a large, metal basin filled with water that was used for ritual washing by the priests in Solomon’s temple; cf. 1 Kings 7:23-26).

So where does the idea of sitting on clouds come from?

Although Revelation does depict Jesus as sitting on a cloud at one point (Rev. 14:14-16), it does not depict the saints doing so, and this image is likely derived from the idea that heaven is somewhere up in the sky, where the clouds are.

St. Peter and the Pearly Gates

Another popular image is St. Peter standing outside “the pearly gates,” deciding whether or not a particular person is to be allowed into heaven.

This image of St. Peter is derived from Matthew 16:19, where Jesus tells him: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

In its original context, this has to do with Peter being the leader of the earthly Church (the kingdom of heaven on earth) in Jesus’ absence. It does not indicate that he will literally be heaven’s gatekeeper, but that is an understandable extension of the idea.

In popular depictions, the gates of heavens may be described as “pearly,” but they are commonly shown looking like ordinary, metal gates, often sitting atop a cloud.

In Scripture, they are depicted differently. In describing the city New Jerusalem, Revelation 21:21 states: “And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl.”

What’s “pearly” about them is that each gate is set in a single gigantic pearl.

How many heavens?

One of the characteristics of Dante’s heaven is that it is multilayered, with different kinds or degrees of glory ascribed to the different levels.

This is not a concept that originated with Dante. Various ancient sources, including passages in the Bible and other early Jewish writings, speak of multiple heavens.

In fact, the Hebrew word for heaven—shamayim—is dual in number, suggesting two heavens, but other passages suggest more. In particular, St. Paul at one point speaks of being taken up to “the third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2). Other ancient sources speak of even more heavens—up to ten of them.

It is, of course, from this tendency to speak of multiple heavens that we have the expression “in seventh heaven,” meaning a supremely happy state.

At first glance, St. Paul’s reference to “third heaven” might seem to provide proof that there are multiple spiritual realms, but this is not as certain as it seems. In the biblical languages, the words for heaven are also the words for sky, and it may be that Paul is including the physical heavens in his count.

It has been suggested that he may be envisioning the first heaven as the “atmospheric” heaven, inhabited by the birds and the second heaven as the “celestial” heaven inhabited by the stars. The third heaven would then be the “empyrean” heaven, or dwelling place of God.

If so, when he speaks of being caught up to the third heaven, Paul means simply being caught up to the presence of God, and the passage does not indicate that there are multiple spiritual realms in heaven.

Heaven is not egalitarian

The core insight behind the depictions of multilayered heavens is that heaven is not a single state in which all saints and angels are equal and all people receive the same reward. It’s more complex than that.

The same insight is behind the way that the rewards of the saints have been depicted historically.

In his book Eschatology, the future Pope Benedict XVI wrote:

“The Scholastics took these insights further and gave them systematic form. Drawing, in part, on extremely venerable traditions, they spoke of the special ‘crowns’ of martyrs, virgins, and doctors. Today, we are rather more circumspect where such assertions are concerned. It is sufficient to know that God gives each and every person his fulfillment in a way peculiar to this or that individual, and that in this way each and all receive to the uttermost” (Eschatology, 236).

In the same place, he linked the individual’s unique experience of heaven to the passage in Revelation where Jesus promises to those who remain faithful to the end, “I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone, which no one knows except him who receives it” (Rev. 2:17; see Eschatology, 235).

Despite its presence in a good deal of Judeo-Christian literature, the idea that there is a specific and fairly small number of spiritual heavens is not something that the Church teaches. Instead, it teaches the core idea that this represents—that heaven is experienced differently by individuals, based on what they did in life and how much they have opened themselves to God’s love.

The idea of multiple different heavens leads to another common question . . .

Where is heaven?

It is common to picture heaven as being up in the sky. That is suggested by the word itself, which can refer both to the sky and the dwelling place of God.

This is a fairly common phenomenon, even in non-Christian cultures. Since we don’t ordinarily have powerful supernatural beings walking among us, people in different cultures frequently envision such beings dwelling in inaccessible locations, such as up on mountains, or in the sky, or deep below the earth, or in the ocean.

It’s a natural form of symbolism suggested by the way we, as land-dwelling creatures, experience the world, and the Judeo-Christian tradition has consistently depicted God as if he dwells in the sky.

But this is not meant to be taken literally. In 2010, Pope Benedict commented: “All of us today are well aware that by the term ‘heaven’ we are not referring to somewhere in the universe, to a star or such like; no. We mean something far greater and far more difficult to define with our limited human conceptions” (General Audience, Aug. 15, 2010).

Similarly, in 1999, John Paul II commented: “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” (General Audience, July 21, 1999).

Time and eternity

Connected with the question of whether heaven is a particular place is the issue of whether time exists in it.

A popular conception is that it does not. The logic is fairly simple: God exists outside of time. God dwells in heaven. Therefore, there is no time in heaven.

That’s true enough when heaven is conceived of exclusively as the dwelling place of God, but it is not true when it is conceived of as a place that is occupied by angels and by humans after their deaths. In that case, a different sense of the word time is involved.

The First Vatican Council taught that God “from the beginning of time brought into being from nothing the twofold created order, that is the spiritual and the bodily, the angelic and the earthly, and thereafter the human which is, in a way, common to both since it is composed of spirit and body” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith 1:3).

This indicates that the spiritual realm is created and subject to time. Thus John Paul II taught that eternity, in the sense of being beyond time, “is here the element which essentially distinguishes God from the world. While the latter is subject to change and passes away, God remains beyond the passing of the world” (General Audience, Sept. 4, 1985).

He also taught that God “is Eternity, as the preceding catechesis explained, while all that is created is contingent and subject to time” (General Audience, Sept. 11, 1985).

New heavens and a new earth

The book of Isaiah predicts a time in which God will make “new heavens and a new earth” (Is. 65:17, 66:12). This theme is picked up in the New Testament in 2 Peter (3:13) and in the book of Revelation (21:1-2).

Speaking of the present world, Peter states, “[T]he heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire” (2 Pet. 3:12). John states that, upon the coming of the new heavens and the new earth, “the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev. 21:1). He also says that “from [God’s] presence earth and sky [or heaven] fled away, and no place was found for them” (Rev. 20:11).

What does all this mean?

It might be taken to refer to the complete annihilation of the current heavens and earth, followed by a new creation ex nihilo. However, it could also mean refer to a renovation, a reshaping and reordering of the present heavens and earth.

And, indeed, there are passages that seem to speak this way. St. Paul states that “the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31), and elsewhere he says that “the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20-21).

For its part, the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this as a renewal and transformation of the world:

“At the end of time, the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. After the universal judgment, the righteous will reign for ever with Christ, glorified in body and soul. The universe itself will be renewed” (CCC 1042).

“Sacred Scripture calls this mysterious renewal, which will transform humanity and the world, ‘new heavens and a new earth’” (CCC 1043).

“The visible universe, then, is itself destined to be transformed, so that the world itself, restored to its original state, facing no further obstacles, should be at the service of the just, sharing their glorification in the risen Jesus Christ” (CCC 1047).

“We know neither the moment of the consummation of the earth and of man, nor the way in which the universe will be transformed” (CCC 1048).

The New Jerusalem

The book of Revelation offers a vivid depiction of the final destiny of the blessed in the New Jerusalem (see 21:1-22:5). This depiction includes the gates made out of giant pearls, streets made out of transparent gold, and foundations made out of precious stones.

The city itself is described as a giant cube that is 12,000 stadia (1,400 miles) wide and tall (Rev. 21:16). Despite its prodigious height, the walls protecting the city are only 144 cubits (216 feet) tall.

Both numbers are symbolic, with 12,000 echoing the 12 patriarchs and the 12 apostles, and with 144 being equal to 12 times 12.

This—plus the fact that there would seem to be no need for the city to even have defensive walls and gates given the complete overthrow of evil—suggests that these images are not meant to be taken literally and instead convey an impression of the glory of our final destiny.

The Catechism states:

“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, citing 1 Cor. 2:9).

“The dwelling of God Is with men”

When John is shown the New Jerusalem, he states: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men’” (Rev. 21:2-3).

This indicates that, after the general resurrection, our existence will be embodied and earthly. Earth is not taken up into heaven, but the city of God descends to earth so that God dwells among men.

He still, of course, dwells outside of space and time, in eternity, but now the separation between God and man has been overcome, so that the community of the blessed fully corresponds to God’s will, and we experience his presence in a new manner, united with our bodies on the new earth.

How we will experience his presence is the essence of heaven.

The essence of heaven

The Catechism defines the essence of heaven this way:

“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” (CCC 1024).

This state involves a transformation that exceeds our present ability to understand and is linked to the vision of God: “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

The Catechism explains the beatific vision this way:

“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).

The beatific vision does not mean that we simply perceive God and lose sight of our fellow human beings:

“In the glory of heaven the blessed continue joyfully to fulfill God’s will in relation to other men and to all creation. Already they reign with Christ; with him ‘they shall reign for ever and ever’” (CCC 1029).

Because our ultimate destiny is to live an embodied, earthly, and glorified existence, performance artist Laurie Anderson may not be far from the mark when she says, “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much—much—better.”

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