by John Wijngaards, Mission Today, Autumn 1995

IN THE past few months I have been asked by a number of people about the reality of heaven. How much do we know about it? Does it really exist? To the repentant thief who was crucified with Jesus, Our Lord said, “Today you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Did that promise have any substance?

Uneasiness among many people is partly caused by the fact that preachers seem much less confident than they used to be, when speaking about heaven. Formerly we took the biblical images of heaven at their face value. Now we have come to realise that they are only images, not exact descriptions, and this makes heaven seem less real.

The book of Revelation, for instance, portrays heaven as a magnificent city, constructed of gold and crystal and jewels. There is no sun, nor moon, for God himself is the light. God makes everyone and everything sparkle with life. People all live happily together as one loving and caring family, God’s own family. God says. “I will make everything new!” (Rev. 21:1-27).

Now this is truly a beautiful image, and the text rightly fills us with consolation when it is read at funeral masses. However, we know that heaven cannot be a physical setting like that. After death we will be transformed. Our bodies will be part of a much more spiritual reality, as Paul explains (1 Corinthians 15:35-50). The point of the image is that we will be ecstatically happy because we will “live with God in his love” (Wisdom 3:9).

The essence of heaven, according to our Christian belief, lies in our union with God. After this life, God will embrace us with unspeakable love. He will put his seal on everything that is part of our unique personality. This will include all our human experiences – our search, our struggles, our pain, our failings, no less than our successes and joys. God will kiss everything that is truly “me” and, somehow, affirm it in his everlasting embrace of love.

This is why re-incarnation makes no sense to our Christian respect for the person. According to Hindu ideas, each human soul travels from one identity to another, shedding each as it passes along. Finally, the soul reaches God in nirvana, sacred annihilation, as a drop of water that dissolves in the ocean.

Personally I like the image of the drop of water merging into the ocean, but with one correction. Yes, we will be assumed into the ocean of God’s love, but God will do this without obliterating our full identity. God will keep, as it were, the imprint of our individuality and treasure it in his memory of love, thereby preserving us and allowing us to find our fullest fulfilment in him.

Is heaven a place?, I am asked at times. The answer is, no – not in our earthly sense. For God is beyond place. And what about time in heaven? Again, not in our earthly sense. In our world, time implies succession and change. God lives beyond time, Christ’s Death and Resurrection opens the way to Heaven, and by sharing God’s life we will enjoy an ecstasy that is not subject to time.

These are some of the implications of the words of Jesus, “Today you will be with me in paradise”. “Today” was the day of crucifixion, but it also points to God’s eternal Today. We die in different years and months, and yet, when we enter God’s world, we all arrive on the same day and join God’s unlimited NOW. It is a sobering thought, but also very consoling.

Believing in heaven demands confidence from us, because its reality transcends our imagination. In much the same way that a child in the womb must trust its mother when the time for its birth draws near. It cannot know what lies ahead. It is traumatic for the child to leave its warm shelter and to be cut free from its mother. But what an exciting new life and freedom are in store!

The same applies to our death. It is a lonely and, sometimes, traumatic, journey. But it is worth the trouble. “For the small and temporary pain we suffer will bring tremendous and eternal glory, much greater than anything we might suffer. And that is why we fix our sight, not on things that are seen, but on realities that are unseen. What can be seen lasts only for a time. What cannot be seen lasts for ever” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).