Four last things (4) Heaven

Michael A. Hayes

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
living for today
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
living life in peace
You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not
the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Here John Lennon?s vision from his classic 1970s song Imagine is, in many ways, an admirable one. The vision of living in harmony and peace and not seeking advantage and power, but living in unity, is attractive indeed. But it could be regarded as na?ve and simplistic because it ignores a basic human reality ? the teleological one ? the purpose of human existence and its ultimate goal. The traditional Christian meditation on the four last things ? death, judgment, hell, and heaven or the eschatological dimension of theology ? is an attempt to address the ultimate destiny of humanity, collectively and individually. All human cultures and societies have included significant reference to the purpose of human life in terms of religion, myth, magic, ideals and utopias. For Christians, Revelation has given us some of the raw material to work with in this task of exploration. That is what we are trying to do when we consider the idea of heaven.

It is because of the limitations of human language that we so often talk about heaven as if we were primarily talking about a place, when in truth we are talking about a state of being. Human beings are bound by time and space and can have no concepts that do not include them, hence the poverty of human language when seeking to talk about a notion such as heaven. That is why it is helpful to remember that even when we are talking of time and space and their origins ? of the extent of the galaxies or the cosmos, our language is reduced to a series of zeroes or other words which are ultimately meaningless to the vast majority of people ? our language actually fails us.

The language of the scriptures, of course, has given us the idea of a heaven ?up there? ? with its images of Jesus ?coming down? and the descriptions of his return with the Ascension. And artists of all kinds have used their insights and their genius to offer us all sorts of images that are attractive and delightful. But inevitably they can only be human representations ? just as the language we use to talk of heaven can only be human language ? we have no other. But that means that we have to acknowledge that human beings may understand that heaven is not a place we go to ? as we might go to some other place on earth ? in truth it is rather something totally other. And while the idea of the resurrection of the dead and the Ascension ? and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary ? encourages us to hang on to our human language ? in the end it will not do ? for no human body can in any way do what Jesus? resurrection body did ? pass through doors and appear and disappear ? or like Mary?s pass without corruption. We are forced to accept that we are beyond human knowing ? this is indeed Mystery. So it is wise to remember the words of the first letter of John:

?What we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed, all we know is, that when it is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he really is.? (1Jn 3.2)

The human urge ? indeed need ? nonetheless is to use language; we have to talk about things that matter deeply to us. The hyperbolic excesses of lovers and poets through the millennia, whether the sublime writings of Shakespeare and Donne, or the banality of greeting cards, witness to a reality. We cannot define or even describe ?heaven? but, just as poets and musicians and painters have managed to convey hints and whispers of deeper dimensions of human existence, so mystics and saints have offered us hints and rumours of heaven. And very often it is the same language as lovers use ? to read John of the Cross and other mystics is to discover a language that we already know ? the language of love. And our human experience of love, adopted by scripture and theological reflection, offers us perhaps more than just hints and rumours, for it confirms our instinctive knowledge, that living in love is our ultimate goal.

The pictures of the Lamb on the throne surrounded by millions of angels in the Book of Revelation (Ch.4 ff.) is just that ? a picture; it stretches language and imagery to breaking point, but it is an invitation to move beyond the merely here-and-now. In fact it?s an exercise in imagination such as John Lennon invites us to undertake, and it might even help, in a similar way to the countless zeroes in the figures associated with the galaxies of the cosmos. In a simpler sense pondering on ?heaven? is an exercise in preparing ourselves to recognize our final end, and perhaps, to be prepared for it:

?I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now...Come further up, come further in!? ???
C.S.Lewis ? The Last Battle ???