How Heaven Transforms Our Lives
Open Wide the Doors
issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
by Peter Kreeft
13th-century traveler came upon two men dragging heavy stones down
a muddy road. One was singing, the other was cursing. The traveler
asked the cursing man, "What are you doing?" He answered, I"m trying
to get this ___ rock to move through this ___ mud!" He then asked
the singing man the same question. He answered, "Iím building a cathedral!"
Destination makes all the difference. Or, as the philosopher Aristotle
put it, a thingís end, or purpose, is what determines everything else
most fundamental questions we need to answer if we are truly to know
ourselves are: Where did I come from? What am I? Where am I going?
Medieval Christian civilization gave men and women the answers to
these questions: I came from the hand of my all-wise, all-powerful
and all-loving Creator. I am his child, made in his image, and I am
destined for a spiritual marriage-union with God, "the beatific vision."
Even as late as the first six decades of this century, all American
Catholics knew these answers as instinctively as they knew how to
breathe. The old Baltimore Catechism began with them. "Q: Who
made you? A. God made me. Q: Why did God make you? A: God made me
to know him, to love him and to serve him in this world, and to be
happy with him forever in the next."
our present culture teach us? What are its answers to our origin,
our nature and our destiny? That we are made in the image of King
Kong, not God; that we are bodies that compute, not souls that sin;
that our destiny is earth, not heaven. The road map of life is to
be dropped from a womb to a tomb, not to rise from a sinner to a saint.
The modern human is a dog in a cage at a railroad station who has
chewed off his tag. He does not know his owner, his name or his home.
a practical and operative faith in heaven would go very far toward
restoring vigor, joy and spiritual health to our society. But we canít
give what we donít have. We must be sure we are living this central
article of our faith first. If the salt has lost its saltiness, it
is good for nothing but to be trampled underfoot on icy sidewalks.
reason heaven is so life-transforming is not what is there
but Who is there. Heaven does not contain God. God contains
heaven. Heaven is relative to God, God is not relative to heaven.
Heaven is heaven only because it is the full presence of God. Without
God, whatever else heaven may have becomes completely worthless. So
does earth. (St. Paulís word for it, in Philippians 3, was skubala,
which the old Douay and King James Bibles translated "dung.") And
with God, nothing else is needed.
says, "Those who have you alone have everything; those who have everything
but you have nothing; and those who have you plus everything do not
have any more than those who have you alone." In one of his sermons,
he asks us to imagine God asking us whether we would like to accept
the following "deal." Suppose God said, "I will give you whatever
you want. You can have anything in the world, anything you can imagine.
Nothing will be forbidden, nothing will be impossible, nothing will
be a sin, nothing will be punished. Thereís only one catch: Never,
never in all eternity will you ever see my face." Would you accept
that "deal"? If not, you have obeyed the first and greatest commandment,
to love God with all your heart and not put other gods before him,
not even the whole world.
belief in and hope for Godís promise of heaven thus transforms lives.
It puts hymns on the lips of martyrs, enables them even to make jokes
of their death. (St. Lawrence, roasted alive on a barbecue spit, said,
"Please turn me over. Iím not quite done on the other side yet." St.
Thomas More, on the block, said, "Axeman, please spare my beard; it
is surely not guilty of treason against the king.") For even as we
fall out of this world into the abyss of the unknown, we are "safe
in the arms of Jesus."
expect that we would love to study, contemplate and talk about this
stellar gem in the necklace of our faith; that we would often revel
in imbibing this bloom on the rose of being a Christian. But not so.
We hardly ever talk about it, except at funerals. We hardly ever hear
homilies about it, though the gospel promises are bursting with it.
It is the point of each of Jesusí famous beatitudes that begin his
Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. St. Paul says that "if for this
life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people
of all" (1 Corinthians 15:19). Why are there so many pitiable Christians
today? What holds us back from the bold, strong, confident, joyful
attitude of the faith of our fathers?
today is the wholly unfounded fear that heaven is "escapist." If we
take heaven seriously enough so that it transforms our lives, not
just our thoughts, we worry that this transformation might exact too
high a price, that heaven will distract us from earth, that in light
of heavenís infinite light all earthly lights will be simply out-dazzled
and blotted out. If our lifeís work is a pilgrimage to heaven, how
can we possibly take seriously the little mortal toys by the wayside?
Once you taste wine, how can you love water again?
Loving earth, too
answer to this question is not an abstract argument but a concrete
observation: The fact is that belief in heaven has exactly the opposite
effect. It makes us take this world much more seriously. We love it
more, not less. Why? Because it is now seen as the colony of the beloved
homeland. Love of the heavenly homeland makes us love its earthly
colony more, not less. For heaven is the model for earth: "Thy kingdom
come...on earth as in heaven."
light does not blot out earthly lights because Godís grace perfects
created nature rather than suppressing it. White light transcends
all colors, as heaven transcends the things of earth; but white light
brings out the unique colors of each thing rather than rivaling or
who have had a strong love of heaven have always worked the hardest
for a better world. It was Christians, not atheists, who built cathedrals,
wrote Summas and Divine Comedies, abolished slavery and built hospitals.
says, "All the way to heaven is heaven." The atheist Samuel Beckett
says, "They give birth astride a grave." If heaven is our destination,
it works retroactively to make our whole journey heavenly. If death
is our destination, it too works retroactively to make our whole journey
deathly. Both life and death work backwards.
the way to heaven is heaven" does not mean that this earth is heaven,
that "it doesnít get any better than this." (What a gloomy, hopeless
saying that is!) We donít get to heaven just by living a full life
on earth, though this is a popular opinion today. If we are to listen
to Jesus Christ, his Church and its Bible as our authorities on how
to get to heaven instead of popular fashionable opinion, the way to
heaven is not natural birth but spiritual rebirth. It is not being
born but being "born again of water (Baptism) and the Spirit" (John
ticket to heaven is not the natural immortality of our soul but the
death and resurrection of Christ. It is not our natural connection
with Adam, who gives us our earthly ancestry, but our faith-connection
with Christ, who gives us our heavenly ancestry by making us children
of God. Shocking as this sounds to modern nonbelievers, without Christ
there is no hope of heaven. This does not mean that non-Christians
do not go to heaven, but that Christ is in fact the only way there.
Read John 14:6.
to Christ, St. Paul, the New Testament and the dogmas of Christís
Church, the way to heaven is not just being nice enough or good enough.
(How good do you have to be? Whatís the cutoff point?) The way is
Christ ("I am the way"). The way is the death and resurrection of
Christ. Christ came to earth not just to take away our ignorance by
preaching, but to take away our sin by dying and to take away our
death by rising.
Reasons to believe
commanded by the authority of Christís apostle and first pope to be
ready to give a reason for our hope (1 Peter 3:15). What kind of reason?
There is one and only one honest reason to believe thisóand for that
matter, anything else at all: because it is true. If it is a fiction,
then even if it makes us happy and good and hopeful and productive,
no honest person will want to believe it. (Do you still believe in
Santa Claus? Remember how happy and how good that myth made you every
addition to being true, it is also good, and it makes us good. In
fact, if we do not believe in heaven, if we do not believe we will
ever meet God face-to-face, then it is hard for most of us to see
why it is so absolutely necessary to be good, especially when it doesnít
"pay" here on earth. Whatís the point of being a saint or a martyr
if weíre just firewood anyway? Dostoyevsky put it very simply: "There
is no virtue if there is no immortality."
being true and good, it is also beautiful, wonderful, joyful, hopeful,
inspiring and energizing. It is the thing all our longings are ultimately
about, what they all point to. It is why our hearts are restless,
what they are restless for. Heaven is the joy we secretly sense and
seek behind all the greatest earthly joys that ever move our souls,
the echoes of Eden we hear in our greatest music, the total intimacy
that the fullest earthly loves always promise and never quite deliver,
the beauty only remotely suggested by starlight at sea, by cathedrals,
by stories that break your heart and let the inner sea of tears leak
out. We are made for nothing less than an eternal sharing in the infinite
and incomprehensible ecstasy that is the very inner life of God himself.
And we will never be really happy or whole until we have it.
until we do it. For "it"óthe life of God himself, the life of heavenóis
charity (1 John 4:7). And that is something we can do right now. More
urgently, it is something we must do right now. For if we do not do
it now, we will not do it ever. Every choice we make is a step towards
heaven or towards hell, for ourselves and for all those whose lives
J. Kreeft is professor of philosophy at Boston College and author
of many books, including Heaven, the Heartís Deepest Longing (Ignatius
Pope John Paul II
seeking to describe heaven, the Scriptures often draw on images
of light and peace or speak of a paradise or a heavenly Jerusalem.
But, in fact, heaven remains a mystery that defies description
and human understanding: "What eye has not seen, and ear has
not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God
has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9).
who of us has not longed to comprehend one of the deepest mysteries
of our faith?
response to that age-old yearning and in his role as the most
recognized spiritual leader in the world, Pope John Paul II
has sketched out his own picture of heaven over the past two
decades. In the 1994 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope,
he shared his thoughts about major theological questions, including
eternal life and the meaning of salvation. This past summer,
only months before the world crosses the threshold of a new
millennium, the Holy Father offered his reflections on the afterlife
in a series of summer audiences on heaven, hell and purgatory.
terrain he describes has been surprising and new to some, reassuring
to others. And, the pope acknowledges, heaven is perhaps of
only passing interest to many persons today who focus "on enjoyment
of earthly goods" rather than "the Last Things."
as Pope John Paul has described it, is "neither an abstraction
nor a place in the clouds." Rather, it is "a living, personal
relationship with the Trinity." Similarly, hell is "more than
a place." It is "the situation in which one finds himself after
freely and definitively withdrawing from God, the source of
life and joy," the Holy Father has said.
John Paul II is saying more than meets the eye: Heaven and hell
are not physical locations; rather, they are states of being.
It is Godís desire that everyone be saved and that all his creatures
experience the untold happiness that comes from union with him
in heaven, but it is our choice to embrace or reject the reward
of heaven. Finally, the blessings that God showers upon us each
day are a foretaste of the joy that can be ours when our earthly
life has come to an end.*
by Judy Ball
Wide the Doors
am the door of life. I entreat all, ĎEnter!í"
those words Pope John Paul II will unlock the gigantic bronze
Holy Door at St. Peterís Basilica on December 24 and usher in
Jubilee 2000. A few hours later on Christmas Day local churches
in Rome, Bethlehem and Jerusalem as well as the rest of the
world will mark the year 2000 with the unsealing of specially
designated church doors at blessing services. With joy and hope
the Church universal will celebrate the crossing of the threshold
of the third millennium.
doors of our own homesóthose doors which bless our comings and
goings, which offer hospitality to all who live and who visit
thereócan likewise play a role in the Holy Year. Families are
invited to designate their own Holy Year Door to mark their
home as a holy place where the spirit of Christ prevails. Simple
decorations can be made by hand. As a service, St. Anthony Messenger
Press, in cooperation with the U.S. Catholic Conference and
the Family Life Office of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, has
developed a simple Jubilee