Traditionally Christianity teaches that after death, the faithful will go to heaven. Heaven, because it is in a different dimension from this world, has to be described figuratively, with different metaphors and symbols to point the believer in the right direction while still recognising that the afterlife is a mystery. It is described as the ultimate state in which humans come to see God ‘face to face’ (1 Cor 13:12) and a state of pure knowledge when sin has been purged and the soul experiences the fullness of joy (John 15:11). The metaphor of God the Father is used in the context of heaven, where heaven is seen in terms of the family home. The Lord’s Prayer begins ‘Our Father, who art in heaven…’ In John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples: “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2). This metaphor conveys ideas of comfort, return and familiarity under the authority of unconditional love.
However, some important questions are raised: is ‘heaven’ a physical place in the life after death, or this world restored? If heaven is a physical place, how can we expect to experience it in time? Alternatively, perhaps it is not a place but a symbol of personal and inner peace, attainable in the here and now, continued as a spiritual state in the life to come.
In the gospel accounts, Jesus was resurrected as his physical self; the accounts make it clear that Jesus was physically present, after his death, in a way that could be experienced by the senses of those who were there. Jesus could be heard and touched, although even those who had been closest to him did not recognise him immediately, which could suggest that his appearance had changed in some way. Nonetheless, Jesus spent time on earth in a physical form before he ‘ascended into heaven’; it is not clear whether he discarded the resurrected physical body at this point and lived on in some kind of spiritual form, or whether he continued in the resurrected body for eternity. Subsequently, there are different beliefs amongst Christians about the nature of the afterlife. If we have physical resurrections, as Jesus did, then surely the afterlife must be a physical place for us to experience with the senses?
In trying to answer this question, St. Paul (who himself claimed to have seen the risen Christ) was quite clear that the resurrection of Christ was a promise for all Christians that they too would be resurrected: “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown perishable, it is raised imperishable… it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (1 Cor 15:42-44)
But what is a ‘spiritual body’? If it is made of material stuff, then we must presume the afterlife to be a physical place. If it is a disembodied spiritual experience, it would not make sense to talk of heaven as a place, but rather as a spiritual state of mind. But Paul is ambiguous, comparing the body now to a seed that will grow into something far different, suggesting that the body will be transformed and radically changed, although it is not clear how.
Protestants have tended to understand heaven as an everlasting existence, where people would live in the presence of God, reunited with their loved ones and able to worship God every day. As such it would be a physical existence that is within time.
However, regarding heaven as a place raises the issue of personal identity: It is difficult to see how we could still be the same person, in a life after death, if we were incapable of feeling pain and incapable of negative emotions and wrong doing, especially if we also had bodies which are very different from the physical, imperfect, changing bodies we have in this world. Furthermore, Bernard Williams questions whether eternity in a physical heaven would be an oxymoron – if we had an infinite amount of time to achieve all the goals we set ourselves, surely the excitement of anticipation and uncertainty would eventually disappear and only boredom would remain.
The Catholic tradition has usually expressed its understanding of heaven in terms of the beatific vision described by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas reasoned that in this life, although we have plenty of times when we are happy, it is never perfect happiness because we know that it is only temporary because it is often brought about by material circumstances, which change. Perfect happiness, he thought, could only be achieved after death, by living eternally, outside time and space, in a state of perfect bliss. This, for Aquinas, meant being in the presence of God, where faith in God would be replaced by knowledge of God. In the beatific vision, all doubt would be gone and the believer would see God face-to-face. Aquinas used the thinking of Paul to explain his understanding of the afterlife: “For now we only see a reflection as a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known”. (1 Cor 13:12)
The Catholic view of heaven as an ‘eternally timeless’ state overcomes some difficulties that arise when we regard heaven as a place, physical and within time. If the beatific vision is eternally timeless in the sense of being a single ‘simultaneity’ rather than a timeline within a physical place, there is no need to wonder what the people in heaven would be doing to occupy their time, and what they would be doing to fill their endless days without getting bored. There would just be one eternal moment of being in the presence of God.
However, this concept of heaven as a state of mind does have other issues. If the soul is timeless in the presence of God, it is difficult to understand how this could be ‘the same person’ as the one who had the physical body while on earth and went about with a physical daily life. The difference between a person living in time, and a timeless soul, is perhaps so great that it is impossible to assert that this person experiencing the beatific vision is really the same person as before death.
Another interpretation of heaven is the transformation and perfection of creation. The Book of Revelation describes visions of the end of time that the writer, John the Divine, claims were revealed to him by God. He writes; “Then I saw a new heaven and earth, for the first heaven and earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea”. (Revelation 21:1). This implies a physical heaven here on earth, and other passages also leave open the possibility that heaven might refer to a ‘new earth’, transformed back to the state of perfection God intended when he made the Garden of Eden. The Messiah would return and people would willingly live under God’s rule in his Kingdom on earth.
Others prefer to understand teachings about heaven as a spiritual state rather than places in a physical sense. Someone might ‘go to heaven’ after death in the sense of becoming fully aware of having shed the physical body and being eternally in the presence of God. This idea relies on the view that people will have conscious thoughts and wishes after death; this depends on a view of the relationship between the mind and the body in which the mind is capable of surviving the death of the body.
It could also be argued that heaven, and similarly purgatory and hell, are all symbols of a person’s moral and spiritual life as experienced on this earth, rather than after death. People sometimes talk in terms of heaven when they are blissfully happy. This interpretation of heaven does not assume the existence of an afterlife, and so in many ways it avoids the philosophical problems that these ideas raise. However, in order to make this interpretation, many biblical teachings about heaven have to be discarded as they often refer to heaven in the context of life after the death of the physical body. Alternatively, it could be that such experiences in our earthly moral and spiritual lives are glimpses of states which will be more fully understood after death.
Author: A Meredith