What is Heaven Like?


Todd’s very interesting post below on music for funerals had me (Neil, of course) wondering about the theology of heaven. Obviously, conceptions and misconceptions about heaven might shape one’s musical choices for the funeral rites of deceased loved ones. One really must tread carefully here. Happily, the Anglican priest and theologian Samuel Wells, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, recently preached a helpful sermon detailing three things that heaven is not, and three things that heaven is. He promises us that “what the Bible promises us about heaven is so much greater than what is on offer from Halllmark greetings cards.”

First, let us look at what heaven is not. Reverend Wells begins by claiming that heaven is not the “continuation of a person’s eternal soul.” In saying this, he contradicts a famous Anglo-Catholic of the past century:

For the Bible, humans are one in life, body and soul, and one in death, body and soul. Death is real. When Canon Henry Scott Holland said in St Paul’s Cathedral on Whitsunday 1910 the words “Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room … Life … is the same as it ever was. There is absolutely unbroken continuity” he was certainly offering words of comfort but he wasn’t preaching orthodox Christian theology. Can anyone look at Jesus on the cross and say “death is nothing at all”? Can anyone look at the aftermath of a suicide bombing in a market square and imagine the words “I have only slipped away into the next room”? Our death is the end of us. Our hope lies not in pretending otherwise, but in knowing that our death is not the end of God

Wells’ insistence on the reality of death (including the death of Jesus Christ) here reminds me of an article by the Orthodox priest John Garvey in Commonweal (“Ashes to Ashes” 1/30/2004). There, Fr Garvey wrote:

It is easier, in a way, to think that something naturally immortal inheres in us, to be freed by death. It makes death seem less total, less thoroughly annihilating. This is precisely where we move away from the Bible. Ruah, in Hebrew, and pneuma, in Greek, are often translated “spirit” but both literally mean “breath.” “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help,” says Psalm 146. “When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish.” Another psalm is even starker: “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; / for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, / and its place knows it no more” (Psalm 103). Biblically, death is what it looks like. The corpse in front of you is not the husk of Fred, who has left a fleshly prison to go in some shining form to a better world. It is Fred, dead.

So, heaven is not mere continuation. Fred is dead. Reverend Wells then tells us that heaven is not “our reabsorption into the infinite.” He says:

Just as the champion of the eternal soul argument is Henry Scott Holland, so the great exemplar of the reabsorption argument is Mary Frye. I’m sure you’ll know the lines, “I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain.” Again, these are comforting words, but they seem to have come out of a world view that has stopped caring whether a belief is true so long as it’s comforting. Note that, like the Scott Holland piece, God is wholly absent from this understanding of heaven. Jesus seems to have achieved nothing of any significance in his cross and resurrection, at least as far as our death and life thereafter is concerned. Perhaps the reason that the verses usually entitled “Death is nothing at all” and “Do not stand by my grave and weep” have become so enormously popular in our contemporary culture is that they offer pictures of continuity beyond death that require no belief in God or reference to Jesus whatsoever. The trouble is, they do so by denying the reality of death, and the pictures they offer, of heaven as a waiting room or as a disembodied wind, are so bleak as to offer little or no real hope at all.

Finally, heaven is not the “reconstitution of our fleshly bodies”:

This is less of a mistake than the first two, and it may sound obvious in an age where cremation of dead bodies is relatively commonplace, but it’s still worth stating. The funeral sermon that says “I’m sure Peggy’s up there now watering and pruning her roses just as she did down here” seems to be assuming that heaven is basically a continuation of our present physical life in all it prosaic mundanity. To be sure, heaven is a physical existence, but the bodies of the saints are not simply embalmed versions of the ones we have here. The idea of the Rapture is one that likewise overstresses the physical continuity of heaven. It’s said in some circles that the Rapture is a good thing because it would whisk away all the fundamentalists and leave everyone else to get on with things, but that still distracts from the fact that the Rapture offers an impoverished picture of heaven.

The problem in common with these three views is that they “lose their credibility when they deny the overwhelming horror of death,” and, then, unsurprisingly, “they lose any sense of wonder when they ignore the overwhelming glory of God.” When we die, Reverend Wells says, we really do die, but we then face the “transformation of glorious resurrection.” But this “transformation” might still seem rather abstract. What are we transformed into? What is heaven?

First, heaven is worship. Wells writes:

The reason we put so much care and attention into the way we worship at Duke Chapel is because we believe that the way we worship is the most significant way we depict and anticipate the life of heaven. Every Sunday Christians gather together and depict and anticipate the life of heaven. That’s why worship matters so much – because in eternity, that’s all there’ll be. And worship isn’t just some abstract ideal. Everything depends on who we worship. And the book of Revelation makes it absolutely clear who we worship – we worship the Lamb who was slain, the Lamb on the throne, Jesus, the one who gave his life because God loved us too much to leave us to oblivion and obliteration, the one whose resurrection gave us the life of heaven for which we long and on which our hope depends.

Second, heaven is about friendship. During the Last Supper, Jesus said to his disciples, “I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have head from my Father” (Jn 15:15). Reverend Wells continues:

The heart of God is three persons in perfect communion. And yet at the table there is a fourth place – a place left for us to join the communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is heaven – the experience of being invited to the table of friendship to join the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At last we discover, not just what God can do when left to do it on his own, but what is possible when in perfect communion humanity and all creation join the everlasting dance of the Trinity.

Finally, heaven is a banquet:

This is maybe the most common picture of all in the New Testament – heaven as a great feast, a banquet celebrating the marriage of heaven and earth, the perfect union or communion of God and all God’s children. Just imagine a fabulous meal where there were no allergies, no eating disorders, no inequalities in world trade, no fatty goods, no gluttony, and no price tag. … We are made friends with God and one another when we eat together in worship. In eating together we recall the transforming meals Christ shared before, during and after his passion, and we anticipate the great banquet we shall share with him.

Perhaps these images – ones that, in place of claims about continuity, take into account the disturbing reality of death, but also of our “transformation into glorious resurrection” – can guide our prayers, and our music selections. Of course, we can expand on them (particularly the Eucharistic meaning of the heavenly banquet). But we should remember that these aren’t necessarily easier or more comforting images. They, however, serve to remind us that, as Reverend Wells says, “What matters is being overwhelmed by the power and love and glory of God, now and for ever.”

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to What is Heaven Like?

  1. John Heavrin says:

    Don’t be misled: natural death is no way an interruption of any kind in the soul’s existence. The body dies, to await the general resurrection of the saved and damned alike on the last day, but the soul never dies, not even for a nanosecond. Jesus’ didn’t, yours won’t, nobody’s does.

    I agree that Heaven is not mentioned or preached upon nearly enough. Striving for heaven and meditating on it is a great consolation. And I agree that earthly imaginings of it are often vapid and unappealing, and that assuming everybody is there, etc., is wrong.

    For an excellent and inspiring meditation on the nature of heaven, I recommend the following book. It would be absurd to think of it as the “last word” or definitive (as some of the some of the quoted preachers seem to the flirt with doing by “defining” what “heaven is not”), but as fruit for contemplation and a consolation it’s most rewarding.

    St. Paul tells us that “eye has not seen, ear has not heard,” etc. We can’t imagine it, it’s so great. To me that means: go ahead, imagine away…and it’s greater and happier still, no matter how great your imaginings. Limiting our aspirations is exactly wrong; so is ever clinging to our imaginings; no matter how sweet we imagine Heaven to be, it’s sweeter.

    For a rich meditation:


  2. Neil says:

    Dear John,

    Thanks, as always, for your comments. While it appears that we must say that the soul is immortal, heaven is simply not the “continuation of a person’s eternal soul.” As Fr Alexander Schmemann has pointed out, such a a belief would render the “bodiliness” of Jesus’ resurrection unnecessary, even meaningless. Fr Schmemann writes:

    “Thus that which in the Scriptures is called life, that life, which above all consists of the human body animated by the spirit and of the spirit made flesh, comes to an end — at death — in the separation of soul and body. No, man does not disappear in death, for creation may not destroy that which God has called from nothingness into being. But man is plunged into death, into the darkness of lifelessness and debility. He, as the Apostle Paul says, is given over to destruction and ruin.”

    So we do not hope for the continuation of the soul, but the reunion of soul and body in what Wells calls “transformation into glorious resurrection.”

    I completely agree with you about heaven that “no matter how sweet we imagine Heaven to be, it’s sweeter.” But – as Wells and Garvey do – we can, on the basis of Holy Scripture, suggest that there are some things that Heaven is not, and some things that Heaven is. This is to serve as a guide for our imaginations, not to end the need to imagine.



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