Why Heaven?

Thoughts on the Gospel
for the Sixth Sunday in The Octave of Easter 2023

I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. 

In a little while the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live you will live also. On that day you will  know that I am in the Father and you in me and I in you.

John 14:18-20

Why Heaven?

That the departed are not dead is a presupposition  of the Mediterranean civilization from which the West is descended. Although their ideas of life after death were vague and inconsistent, not Egyptians, not Greeks, not Romans believed that the dead were dead.  They were somewhere, in Hades, in the elysian fields, on a star, haunting their burial places.   

Christians had a clearer picture. Going to heaven, heaven being the metaphorical description of the real place in which God is—Our Father who art in heaven–has been a presumed goal of Christians from the time of Christ. In the early Church their death day was their birthday. It took the twenty-first century to produce a people many of whom had no use for heaven, which raises the question, Why must there be anything after death; can we not be satisfied with the gifts God gives in this life, or, if we do not believe in God, with the good life available to many who live in the culture of comfort and plenty?  

To this the believer may offer several answers. One may look forward to heaven as a reward, for justice requires that the moral frame of the universe be undergirded by rewards and punishments.  One may look forward to heaven without much fervent desire to be  there but because it is the alternative to hell.  Or one may look forward to heaven because it means reunion with those we love who have gone before us.  Or one may see life as the gift supreme, not to be foregone without the loss of that which is most precious.  Each of these four reasons is true, in its way compelling, and each is also insufficient.   

Heaven exists because God’s expressed intention to create a race of free, rational men and women, beloved and loving in return, is indefeasible; because the love of God which fills all time and all ages will not let us go. It is important from the human point of view that for those who have lived “in Christ” there be a relationship  with the eternal, ever living God in Jesus that is not a product of time, not temporary but eternal,  maintained by and on behalf of those for whom life would be meaningless without the Lord. It is important as a theological fact that Christ’s love is personal and eternal.   Jesus has no temporary  loves.  Thus Jesus in the Fourth Gospel promises that He will not abandon those who live and believe in Him. After His death there will be days when He is not seen, but then comes His resurrection in glory, His followers see Him again, and we are told why this must be.  Because He lives those who live in Him will be with Christ forever, joined to God in eternal participation in His divine life.   Christ in His incarnate life lived for three decades in Roman Judea and Galilee; because He is the Word, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, there is no time when He does not share in the very being of the eternal Father. To live in Christ is more than being influenced by Him; it is the very claim that His existence is my existence.

Who and what lives in Christ? The short answer is everyone who loves Jesus and everything that was created good in the beginning. “In Him all things were created , in heaven and in earth, visible and invisible, . . . all things were created in and through Him,  He is before all things and in him all things subsist” (Colossians 1:16); “Through Him all things were made, and without Him nothing was made” (John 1:3).   Even the language of Scripture, being human language, cannot do full justice to the glory that will be revealed in us. Of that glory we have anticipation in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but when we enter the realm of light through the door marked death that every fallen creature must traverse, there will be for the believer the sharing in His fullness that is heaven.   

Of this there are different images, none complete, all revelatory; the banquet feast (Luke 22:30; Revelation 19:9), the transforming vision of  God:  the marriage feast of the soul with Christ (Revelation 19:7),  life in the New Jerusalem in which Jesus is the light (Revelation 22:1–5), the holy agnosticism of John:  “It does not yet appear what we  shall be, but we know that when He appears we shall be like him “ (I John 3:2–3). 

What we do know is that at the center of the glory that is heaven is Jesus, ever living, ever bearing the marks of his sacrifice (Revelation 5:6), and we know that the qualification for heaven is the desire to know Christ, to live in Him, evinced by a desire to obey Him, for obedience we are repeatedly told is the sign of love. “If you love me. Keep my commandments.” In the long run we will achieve what and whom we have desired,  with a heaven-sent love that inspires out actions.  The oft-cited words of Saint Thomas More on the scaffold are a sure guide. When Saint Thomas told his executioner to do his work quickly; you send me to heaven, the cleric standing by said, “Are you so sure, Sir Thomas?”  To which Thomas replied, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to come to him.” The desire for God, to know him in perfect love, is the price of admission to the presence.  And by the same token God in his mercy has prepared a place for those who do not want to believe Jesus;  he describes this place as outer darkness, the burning garbage heap, eternal fire.    There may dwell those who have no spark of love or fear of their creator capable of being fanned into the flame of love. It is a sign of God’s will that freedom exist that He will not bring into His presence those who do not long to see his face; He will not cause belief in the face of a settled neglect or a chosen rebellion.

So having loved us in this life, and we Him, heaven is the promise that we will be with Him in eternity. Among the greatest temptations to unbelief is the goodness and beauty that God has put into this world, so that the idols of false affection are often good things, some pleasure, some gift, some human love, good in itself but perhaps misused, loved more than Love Himself. Our lives themselves, so difficult to give up that we may enjoy eternal life. So why must there be heaven? Because the love of Jesus will not let us go, that where He is we may be also. Because we not only believe in Him but because we live in Him; our lives are His life, His life ours; where He is we must be.

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