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Questions Catholics Ask

What is heaven?

When our loved ones die, faith prompts us to speak of them as being in a better place. This pinnacle of betterment is theologically described as perfect union with God.

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WHEN OUR loved ones die, faith prompts us to speak of them as being in a better place. This pinnacle of betterment is theologically described as perfect union with God. What could be better, truly, than to be finally and completely overtaken by the love that made us in the first place? We also speak of heaven as being God's home as well as our ultimate destination. Those whom we love and lose are therefore not lost at all in death. They've simply "gone home."

However, Christian salvation is even more comprehensive than we sometimes imagine. The world God created is not made in vain, but is even now groaning for its own version of rescue in a new heaven and new earth identified as the "new creation." Just as our beloved and beautiful world was never destined for the scrap heap, so our mortal bodies aren't intended to end as "ashes to ashes, and dust to dust." All is to be renewed, restored, revitalized in a "world without end" confirmed in our every doxology. Cosmically speaking, in eternity the material world matters—pun very much intended.

So the kingdom of heaven Jesus repeatedly teaches in Matthew's gospel isn't a spiritual land elsewhere. It's an immediate reality that has ramifications both now and forever. This makes it imperative that we do our "inner work," since our internal condition (traditionally called our state of grace) is represented in that now-and-everlasting realm. We also have to be mindful stewards of our social relationships, as well as the direction history is taking as a whole. I like Jesuit Paul Crowley's phrase here: "Heaven is thus not a radical interruption of these dimensions of human personhood; rather, the entirety of human personhood is taken up into God in the glory of risen life which bears the name heaven." Simply put, heaven isn't "where" we meet God face to face. It's "when." And it's not an interruption of all we presently know and love. It's a glorification of it all. How wonderful is that?

Another Jesuit, theologian Karl Rahner, has something else to say about heaven that's equally fascinating. He suggests that Jesus didn't return to a pre-existing place called heaven at his Ascension. Rather, Jesus established the possibility of heaven–that is, perfect and eternal union with God—by entering into his glory. Heaven is possible for those prepared to be overwhelmed by love.

Scriptures: Genesis 1:1; Pss 2:4; 11:4; 139:8; Isaiah 66:1; Wisdom 3:1-9; Matthew 3:16-17; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34; Romans 8:18-23; Revelation 21:1-5

Books: And the Life of the World to Come: Reflections on the Biblical Notion of Heaven, by John F. Craghan (Liturgical Press, 2012)

The Unmoored God: Believing in a Time of Dislocation, by Paul G. Crowley (Orbis Books, 2017)

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