Heavens above!

April 26, 2022 in Bill Toner SJ

BILL TONER SJ :: Following a medical procedure last year, I awoke after a general anaesthetic. I found myself experiencing wonderful peace and tranquillity. The surgeon and a couple of nursing staff were there, establishing that everything was fine. They asked me a few questions and ran a few checks, but all I wanted was for them to go away so that I could sink back into the deep sleep I had been enjoying. I cannot recall ever being so comfortable and happy. I never wanted to wake up. In popular parlance, I felt I was in heaven.

I was reminded of this recently while listening to a sportswoman talking on the Late Late Show about her experience of an anaesthetic drug that was given to her during surgery. She became so hooked by it that when she was told that she needed further surgery her first reaction was delight that this drug would be administered to her again!

It is difficult to describe the comfort of sleep, since it seems to be, as it were, a different “you” that experiences it, not the ordinary fully conscious “you” of daylight activity. Sometimes dreams are remembered as parts of sleep. In my own case I cannot remember having any dreams during my happy post-surgical sleep, and certainly not any nightmares.

It is interesting to note how, when people die, the most usual outcome wished for them by friends and relatives is that they “rest in peace”. It is rare to find the gravestone of a Catholic which does not have the letters ‘R.I.P’ on it. “Peace, perfect peace” and “Asleep in Jesus” are two fairly common Christian epitaphs. In some ways this is strange, because the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church on heaven is not that it is a state of eternal peace or sleep, but that it is state of bliss, presumably conscious bliss, with the ‘beatific vision’ at the heart if it, whereby those in heaven see God’s face for ever. It is also a strong Christian belief that in heaven we will be reunited with our loved ones who have gone there before us. This too seems to presume that we are in a conscious state. We are reminded of the words of Jesus to the good thief on the Cross “This day you will be with me in Paradise”.

Another strong image of heaven that is presented to us in Christian theology is that in heaven we will be praising God for ever. This is a major theme in the Book of Revelation. When I was a boy, I was fond of Benediction, which is a short Catholic service given over purely to the praise of God, particularly God as present in the Blessed Sacrament. We sang hymns like ‘Adoremus in Aeternum’, meaning, ‘Let us adore (God) eternally’. I wondered occasionally if heaven consisted of eternal Benediction ceremonies, and I have to admit that the prospect did not appeal to me. Once a week was fine. But whatever it means, praising God seems to demand a conscious waking state, not a state of sleep.

Heaven – an image problem

In the 14th century, the Italian poet Dante wrote the long and much-celebrated poem, The Divine Comedy, in three parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio, and Paradiso (Paradise or Heaven). Inferno is the most popular book of The Divine Comedy, whereas Paradiso is the least read and least admired book. Robert Baird comments »:

Our problem with heaven is less a problem of belief than it is a problem of imagination… heaven presents itself as little more than a blank screen of beatific blandness, eternal sunshine of the spotless mind… At first glance, Dante’s nine spheres of heaven look to be exactly the kind of bright, boring place we’d expect.

On the other hand, images of Hell are usually drawn in graphic detail, not only in Dante’s Inferno, but in many other works of literature and art, such as in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. People have always been fascinated by these images. Nowadays, while there are ready audiences for horror films, few people would be interested in going to a film which merely depicts people being happy, with no tension, no problems, and no villains around. So, while Christians and other religious believers have put a great deal of effort into avoiding the punishments of hell, this is not matched by an equivalent longing for the “beatific blandness” of heaven, as Baird describes it above. Because of the difficulty of describing heaven in a way that people can relate to, the emphasis in pastoral theology through the centuries has been in persuading people to avoid the flames of hell, with relatively little attention being paid to attracting them to the bliss of heaven. It is interesting to Google “Is heaven a boring place” (28,000,000 hits) and see the kind of questions that are being asked by people online, such as “What will we do in heaven for eternity” and “If heaven is perfect, won’t it be perfectly boring”?

In modern times there has been a decline of belief not only in Hell or Heaven, but in the afterlife in general. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that many people are happier to deny the existence of an afterlife than admit the possibility that there could be a hell of fire awaiting sinners. Also, in recent centuries, people (at least in their better moments) have turned away from ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ such as the burning of witches, the rack, blinding, and so on, to the extent that many people, including many Christians, no longer believe that a loving and merciful God could inflict on even the greatest sinner the kinds of punishments described in the classical image of hell. And if Hell is unbelievable to people, can Heaven suffer the same fate?

Another factor is that, especially in the affluent West, many are now quite happy to accept that this life is not too bad, and even that one life is enough. They are not that interested in an afterlife. We have moved a long way from the era in which Thomas Hobbes (born 1588) described life as “nasty, brutish and short”. It was certainly short. In Hobbes’s time (when conditions were not that much different from the time of Jesus), if a person survived childhood (only a 50/50 chance) they were likely to live till about 55 years of age. They were also liable to be afflicted along the way by a variety of chronic diseases such as dysentery, leprosy, and tuberculosis, with no antibiotics available. Food shortages, local wars, and famines were also more common. So it was not surprising that people longed for another, happier, kind of life, a life after death, where they would not be torn away prematurely from family and friends.

Jesus sometimes spoke about hell, but the main message he brought was a positive one, – that there was a wonderful experience awaiting humans when they died, but one that they could miss out on if they made the wrong choices in life.

What do we know about Heaven?

We must admit that we know very little about heaven, though the hints we get from scripture suggest rather extraordinary things.

In reading scripture, the first thing that may strike us, though perhaps it is not the most remarkable thing, is that heaven is ‘eternal life’. That is to say, it does not come to an end. The presumption is that in heaven we are living in God’s time, not time as we know it on earth. But does God live in time at all? Theologians and ‘theistic’ philosophers are remarkably divided on this question.

Many of them believe that God is everlasting and temporal. He never began to exist and will never go out of existence. But he does experience some kind of temporal succession.

A second view is that God exists, but does not exist in any temporal location. He is beyond time altogether. God does not experience one thing before or after another, but lives in a timeless now and experiences all things that happen or have happened in that timeless now.

Yet another view is that God is not within our time, but he is within his own time. His time is completely distinct from ours. This view may remind us of the saying in 2 Peter 3:8: “A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day”.

Probably the most that can be assumed is that the negative aspects of our time are not found in heaven. In heaven we would never again have to say, “All good things come to an end” because in heaven they don’t. On earth we are faced with the death of loved ones, and eventually with our own. Holidays come to an end; wonderful moments of intimacy fade away. But it seems that that cannot happen in heaven. On the other hand, here on earth we can get bored. We can get fed up with even the nicest experiences – parties, Christmas, scenic views, even the company of loved ones. Hence the question: will we not get bored with, for instance, praising God, or whatever the other experiences of heaven are? All we can say, even though we are taking it on faith, is that, whether it is due to the nature of ‘eternal’ time, or the capacity of our own transfigured bodies, or the nature of the experiences that are given to us, we cannot suffer in heaven the boredom that is an inescapable aspect of the human experience of time. We are told that heaven is a place of delight and joy, beyond our experience. As the famous quotation from the King James Bible goes: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” So ‘time’ in heaven, never moves either too quickly or too slowly.

But what is the nature of the experiences that will be given to us? It seems unlikely that most of the things that give us delight on earth will be on offer in heaven. All the things we like to do to occupy our time are limited and finite, with moments of frustration, boredom and disappointment – whether this be reading a good book, surfing the internet, doing an interesting job, playing a competitive game of golf, watching a football match on TV, shopping for a new outfit, going on holidays, accumulating wealth – none of these seems to fit in with eternal union with God. Even the image of a ‘heavenly banquet’ that is mentioned in scripture, seems unreal. We cannot imagine that this is just a once-off meal, nor would we look forward to a meal that goes on for ever. Taking Scripture as a whole, heaven is not presented as a kind of holiday camp that goes on and on for ever and ever. Indeed, for most people that would not be an attractive prospect.

There are also a few puzzles concerning our relationships in heaven with other people, especially those we love who have gone before us. Again, it does not seem likely that we would be meeting with them in the way we did in the old days, – for instance sitting down with them over a cup of tea. Such meetings would have all the same kind of limitations (eventual boredom, parting) as they have on earth. And what would we talk about? The dead people in the graveyard in Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille, spend all the time talking to one another about hidden scandals and gossip of the past. But we would run out of material quickly enough, and there would be no fresh material to talk about. More likely we would be in an eternal relationship of love and presence to one another, rather than of meeting and parting and chatting.

And what age would we all be? People sometimes say they look forward to meeting their mother in heaven. Perhaps they are thinking of a time when they were 25 and their mother was 50. The age difference is somehow a constitutive part of a relationship. We relate to our mothers quite differently than we do to our siblings. And we also have a special kind of relationship to our grandparents. But we can’t expect our parents and grandparents to be ‘old’ in heaven just to please us, no more than we would want to be ‘old’ in order to relate in the same way to our own children or grandchildren as we did in our lifetime. So, it seems that it would have to be a new relationship of our transfigured natures to one another, outside the limitations of time and change. These are all great mysteries, so much beyond our experience and imagination that it is an effort for us difficult to have a firm belief in heaven. One of the problems we face is our inability to think outside the limitations of the space and time in which we live, or to accept the distinction between the material world (which can be studied by natural science) and the spiritual word (which is inaccessible to it).

Undoubtedly, many people believe in heaven because they are conscious of having a personal relationship with a loving God, a relationship sustained by faith and prayer. They could not imagine that this God would let them vanish into oblivion when they die. But that kind of faith is not given to everyone.

Seeing God

The most consistent feature of heaven in the scriptures, in the main Christian churches, and among many Muslims, is what is called the ‘Beatific Vision’ which means seeing God, ‘face to face’. This contrasts with this life where, for us, “God dwells in unapproachable light”. This ‘sight’ of God is not just ‘seeing’ in the sense in which we normally use it but involves rather a direct communication of God to the human person. And this also must include a continuous experience of the essential elements of every enjoyment and happiness that God has gifted us on earth.

St. Thomas Aquinas said that we cannot be perfectly happy as long as there is something more that we desire. St. Augustine’s saying is well known: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee”. Perfect happiness cannot be found in any physical pleasure, or by attaining power and prestige, or in any amount of fame or honour or achievement, or even in any great work of our intellect or our creative gifts. All of these may give great pleasure for a time, but inevitably it fades. It is said that Alexander the Great wept because he had no more worlds to conquer. The only perfect ‘good’ is God himself, and a direct experience of God includes every other good experience that we could have. The pleasures of life are like the different colours in a prism, but as in nature, each of these colours is only part of the light. This image of light runs right through the Bible, which, in Peter’s words, tells us of God calling us out of darkness into his own wonderful light. As we say in the prayers for the dead: ‘May perpetual light shine upon them’.

Being ‘in perpetual light’ seems, once again, to assume that we will be in a state of wakefulness. As discussed above, despite its widespread use since the 5th century, the expression ‘rest in peace’ does not sit well with the hope we should have for our loved ones who have died – the hope that they are enjoying the beatific vision and life with God. God has worked hard to bring the human race into being. The bible tells us that on the seventh day God rested from all his work which he had done in creation. Having brought humans into being, God had to educate his people through the help of prophets and apostles, and then had to rescue them from oblivion by sending his son to live and die for them. Somehow it seems inappropriate that the best we can hope for all those whom God has saved is that they spend eternity in a comatose state, however peaceful.