Readings: 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-18
I’m sure we’ve all seen and enjoyed those cartoons depicting various scenes of heaven, with winged folks reclining on puffy clouds, strumming their harps or anxiously standing before Saint Peter at the so-called “pearly gates” seeking entry. Interestingly, some of the apocalyptic writings of the Bible seem to offer equally physical images of heaven describing, for example, myriads of people before the throne of the Lamb–as in the Book of Revelation. And so we can’t help getting the impression that heaven is more similar than dissimilar to our present world and existence. However, when we think of heaven (and eternal life) in time-space terms all kinds of problems and questions can arise–some less profound than others. Questions like how will I be able to find my loved ones in all that multitude and how will heaven accommodate all the trillions of the redeemed, etc.?
We thus shouldn’t be too surprised that similar, perplexing questions arising from too literal and physical an understanding of heaven and eternal life kept the Sadducees from believing in the resurrection. However, the question they posed to Jesus about the woman married seven times, seems to have been more in the service of disproving the resurrection than a sincere question searching for the truth and desiring deeper insight. In this they were not unlike some skeptics of our own times who resist belief and demand physical proof and rationality. The existence of heaven and eternal life, lacking physical proof and seeming to defy rationality, are thus summarily dismissed as religious superstition or nothing more than exercises in wish fulfillment.
And for some of us there are phases of the spiritual journey–those dark times–when these skeptical voices gnaw at our faith and threaten to undermine our hope in heaven and eternal life. However, we should not be discouraged because, in undergoing these trials, we are in good company with saints like Therese, who underwent such a trial. She tells us of those same inner voices taunting her, saying: You dream of light, of a country of sweet perfumes…You think you will one day leave behind the surrounding fog…Go ahead, rejoice in a death that will give you only darker night, the night of nothingness.
Entering into dialogue or debate with these inner voices only strengthens their power over us, since we are dealing with spiritual realities beyond what our senses can perceive and infinitely exceeding what our limited minds can grasp or understand. Accordingly the more prudent response in such moments is to draw upon those perhaps all too rare moments when we’ve momentarily experienced something of heaven–be this in prayer or in what Maslow might have called “peak experiences”–those moments when time seems suspended and we wish we could prolong the experience indefinitely. These moments are reminders that, as Pope Benedict insisted, eternal life is not simply what comes afterward, that is after death, but can already be present in the midst of this earthly life, albeit in an imperfect and fragmentary fashion. Eternal life is here, in the midst of time, wherever we come face to face with God; through the contemplation of living the living God. In this sense, heaven and eternal life become not so much objects of belief but knowledge of what we have actually experienced–however incompletely and inadequately.
Describing or truly understanding these experiences, however, leaves us tongue-tied and fumbling for words. Even the great Saint Paul , who was taken up to the third heaven and being caught up into Paradise heard ineffable things, felt unable and constrained to describe his experience. However, our failure to understand or describe these fleeting experiences of eternal life should not undermine our faith in their authenticity or tempt us to dismiss then as hallucinations or our mind playing tricks on us. To this end it is less about asking the kinds of questions about heaven and eternal life that have no satisfactory answer this side of the grave, and more about trusting God’s promise that the deepest desire of our hearts will finally be realized and, in the words of Jesus, that we will be blessed with an eternal and unchanging joy that no one and nothing can ever take from us again.