To Christians, the most important debate of the day—of the week, year, and our entire lifetime—is the question of how to get to heaven.
Perhaps the second-most important question is what heaven is like—for our own elucidation as we seek God’s mercy in order to attain eternity with him as well as for our efforts to evangelize those around us.
In the eschatological research I have done, I have found four popular theories on heaven. All of these visions of the home of the Almighty have varying levels of validity; but perhaps most importantly in terms of evangelization, I have also come to believe that rather than an entirely new realm, heaven may be surprisingly familiar to all who are graced to spend eternity there.
So what would heaven be like? There appear to be four popular models, all of which have one overwhelming problem that we’ll get to later.
Models of heaven
The first theory I’ve come across is that we spend eternity in unending praise of God—basically, we’re floating in atomic Jell-O, singing the Lord’s praises for all time.
However, this theory runs into some scriptural problems. For example, in the Our Father we say, “Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” If we’re “doing,” then we’re not just singing praises while floating. Likewise, Matthew 4:10 suggests that we will serve God rather than praise and serve.
The second heavenly model is the ultimate family reunion with God as an honored guest. This one runs into a relational difficulty—after all, the family ties you have on Earth will be redefined by a far longer heavenly existence. After enough time, your earthly family might begin to seem like the memories of your seventh grade class that seemed to drag on—but decades later, it was just a drop in the proverbial bucket.
During our time on Earth, our families are often our whole world. But while we might spend fifty, sixty, even seventy years with our family, we might spend 500 years with other people in purgatory—and, of course, eternity is even longer.
In other words, the family members that seem so critical now may not be the ones you are closest to by the time you attain heaven.
A greater concern is what this theory means for victims of abortion and miscarriages. I suspect that they will attain heaven in a judgment akin to that of the angels; a onetime decision for or against God. Whether I’m right or wrong, in heaven they might well have no family or at least no family members who made it. This would create sadness or other deficits we don’t attribute to those in heaven. Corinthians 13:12 suggests that we will “fully know” each other, adding to the idea that connections will be rebuilt in heaven based upon a better understanding of each other than was possible on Earth.
A new Garden
A third version of heaven describes our Lord’s home as an improved version of the Garden of Eden. The Garden is clearly what God had planned for us in the first place, and numerous passages suggest that God is inviting us to paradise, which also translates to a common human understanding of a garden. Genesis 2:9-12 describes the Garden of Eden and is strikingly similar to the description of heaven in Revelation chapters 21 and 22. It’s possible that man’s failure was worse than we realize—not only did it separate us from God, but it also erased an otherwise perfect start that God had designed for us in Eden.
In other words: Perhaps Adam and Eve’s past is our future.
It seems reasonable that this version of heaven is a likely candidate, populated by our newly defined family of the elect. The Bible also says something interesting about our senses, depending on how you interpret it. 1 Corinthians 2:9 reads: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,” perhaps because even though we have eyes and ears, we won’t need to use them in heaven. So we’d be reunited with our bodies, and remain very much people, but in an environment where we are all joined in a way not requiring speech or sight in a perfected Garden of Eden.
The last theory on heaven I have found is the theory of cooperation in eternity. Many will recall the allegory of the Long Spoons, where persons in hell have long spoons attached to their arms. When they attempt to feed themselves, it results in failure because the spoons are so long they can’t reach their own mouths. The same phenomenon occurs in heaven in the next vision, but rather than starving as do those in hell, these heavenly people cooperate and feed each other.
This idea points to a difference in the selective criterion between the two destinations: selfishness. There is no selfishness in heaven, whereas selfishness defines membership in hell. We can see evidence of this in the cooperation of the angels in the battle against Satan; how Raphael cooperated with men in the book of Tobit; and in Daniel 10, which likewise shows Michael and Gabriel cooperating against the prince of Persia.
Now for that problem I mentioned before. Evidence about heaven comes from Scripture, yes, but it also comes from Sacred Tradition, personal testimonies, books, and movies. Most of these descriptions are based upon a brief vision of heaven—but only brief. They are typically from people who were dead for less than a minute, or from saints or other visionaries. In all probability, they are static shots of the moment that, although they may be factually correct, shortchange the entire affair of heaven.
Perhaps the static views above are all like being at the 4 p.m. fantail party on a cruise liner before the ship pulls out on a weeklong cruise in the Bahamas. They see the deck party, with no real foretelling of the time they’ll enjoy in a far warmer and more exotic place once the cruise moves out of familiar waters.
Each of these four versions of heaven likely carries some truth. But I believe that the last two are the most credible, when merged with the idea that the heavenly experience is the start of a voyage into eternity with God. What is perhaps most fascinating with the limits of these theories is not the idea that they are at least in part wrong—it’s where they can lead us.
Before heaven, purgatory
Your existence, mine, and everyone’s begin in the larger sense after we are with God, not before. This life is important, but it’s also just a test of virtue. It’s like that dockside processing line of cruise-ship travelers who either do or don’t have tickets to board the ship, or who may or may not have the right passports. Some will be rejected; some don’t even apply to go and just stay on shore. But after the ship pulls out, there is no shore. You begin an eternity with God on a ship that has everything and goes everywhere.
A question, then: to what extent will indelible mistakes and injuries from this life influence our experience in heaven?
The books of Matthew and Mark both foretell a heavenly experience where we “neither marry nor are given in marriage,” and that “we will be like the angels.” The suggestion is that our power to do as God commands in Genesis—“be fruitful and multiply”—ends here on Earth. We therefore please God by expanding the footprint of souls over which he can spread his great generosity. This requires a level of cooperation that is not entirely under any one person’s control. There are many times in life when people who should have worked with you to do God’s will didn’t, only to find out after death how much you both lost as a result.
For instance, let’s say you meet the person God intended for you to marry after you arrive in heaven, according to his perfect antecedent plan for your life. You’ll both know at that time what God preferred, but then there’s what actually happened on Earth. If the person said, “I should have chosen you. That choice would have put my whole life on a better trajectory and I would have received a higher place here in heaven, but then . . . there was [cheerleader, quarterback, whatever—pick your poison] I actually married and later divorced.” Would you carry eternal resentment over the earthly life and children you didn’t have due to the choice of your would-be mate?
There can be no animosity in heaven—that would defeat the purpose of eternal happiness with God. Perhaps exchanges like the example above could take place in purgatory, where accounts are squared, but not in heaven, where accounts no longer matter. Perhaps this is the reason Catholics expect long journeys in purgatory: we will finally understand and come to terms with the debts created by our earthly lives.
Heavenly hints from earthly realities
This raises the overarching question as to exactly what can be expected from the process immediately following death.
When we go to heaven, we will still be very much human, though glorified as Christ was in his forty days on Earth after his Resurrection. This suggests that our experience of eternity will be somewhat similar to our earthly experiences, rather than a completely alien conversion of our concepts of love, relationships, fun and all the other things we hold dear.
It might be oddly familiar.
Many accounts describe the newly dead moving toward light. This imagery has its roots in some of the world’s great Christian inspirations—such as Padre Pio, who made comparisons between the light of the sun’s rays and the grace of God. Likewise, St. Bonaventure suggested that creation reflects back on the Creator.
Perhaps what we see around us is no accident. What if the physical reality that we see is a reflection of the spiritual reality that begat it?
What if purgatory exists around heaven just as a corona surrounds the sun? What if the relationship between energy and matter is a reflection of the relationship between the Son and the Spirit in the Trinity? Perhaps our world was built as a staging area bent on reaching out to man in ways even beyond those we see in God’s incarnation and death. What if God was even more invested in saving us than we readily appreciate, even down to the content of some of our dreams, as we saw in the message to Joseph about Mary, and the Magi being told to return home by a different route?
This reasoning also might work in reverse, such that we could look at what God made here, expectant of a spiritual reflection. For example, if the corona around the sun was akin to the purgative layer surrounding heaven, we could speculate about it using what we know about the sun’s future. The sun is sure to become a red giant, and the huge coronal layer that surrounds it today will expand and engulf much of the solar system in a fiery end. If this parallels the purgative layer surrounding heaven itself, then as creation nears its end, the purgative fire of God might expand to encompass all of creation. In the process it would utterly vanquish all evil from the domain. What could remain in such redefinition of the created order?
The answer may already be in front of us as we consider the abyss that will be the repository of the devil and all of his followers. It is a dark place from which there is no exit, ever. We have such a place in this universe also, at the very center of our galaxy, called a super massive black hole. It also is an abyss that promises destruction to all who enter.
Obviously, one can push these analogies only so far. But in guessing what God will do, perhaps it’s safer to look at what he has already done.
What about Satan?
At heart of the question about lifetime injuries and indelible mistakes is the influence and mission of Satan. God planned to become a man and die for us, but the angels had no need for such a sacrifice. Perhaps seeing all of this unfold, seeing man possibly rise above even the most powerful angel, was the thing that caused Satan to be the first to oppose God—essentially, the first to fall to the sin of envy.
Looking at the design of the world and the fact that Satan led the angelic choir, it’s possible that Satan was God’s chief builder. If so, his duty might have been to lead the choirs of angels to assemble what God alone could create, which would make Satan the closest angel to God—and possibly give him the greatest insights into God’s plan for man. So he’d be the first to see the profound extent to which God was making our world a reflection of heaven, bent on reaching out to man even before the Incarnation.
As a result of angelic hierarchy, it is likely Satan had the responsibility to disseminate to lower tiers of angels whatever came from God. Seeing man’s potential flaws, he may have calculated (rightly) that man would disappoint God, never foreseeing that the Incarnation would be where God himself would bridge the gap created by man’s flaws. 1 Peter 1:12 suggests that there are “things into which angels long to look.” This would seem to make the currency in heaven knowledge of God, and, before the fall, Satan might well have had the most of any angel.
This oddly parallels the experience of Adam and Eve, whereupon the apple conveyed knowledge. Perhaps man’s fall originated from something far older. Did Satan offer the angels an apple that a third of them took? Did he suggest that they spare God the disappointment that inevitably would arise from mankind, who would surely fail? What we do know is that after Christ’s Resurrection, the part that was hidden from him about God’s greatness became known to all.
Regardless of his reasons for rejecting God, even Satan must work within God’s permissive plan. The influence that Satan has will end in the final judgment, when the bottomless pit becomes a place where the power of evil is nullified for eternity. Revelations 21:4 tells us that “the former things have passed away.” This offers a basis to believe that Satan’s influence will come to an end, as the elect will be all that are left after creation has served its purpose, and the good will be impervious to his influence—if he has any left.
No matter which heavenly model you favor, you will be perfectly happy once you are in heaven, because Satan’s power and influence will be eliminated from your life. People on Earth understandably worry about loved ones who are separated from the family by death, but the only conclusion we can reach is that a place of eternal happiness and renewed understanding would remove any concern you might have for those who didn’t choose God.
God may be reaching out to us in ways we aren’t used to hearing in church. Our dreams, the design of our world, and perhaps even our physics may be purpose-built as part of God’s plan of salvation. More importantly is that while we are still here, simultaneously trying to find God in this life and share his glory with others, it should comfort us to consider the possibility that God is reaching out to us in ways that exceed our awareness—and yet are more familiar than we have otherwise imagined.