In Christian theology heaven is the dwelling place of God and angels, and ultimately of all the redeemed wherein they will receive their eternal reward.
In the Old Testament the word “heaven” denoted the visible sky and also the mansion of God. The Bible says Jacob saw him in a dream (Gn 28:12). It is also from where God would “come down” to the top of Mount Sinai to speak to Moses. In the New Testament, “heaven” is still conceived as as God’s dwelling-place high above the earth. Thus Christ raised his eyes “to heaven” in prayer (Mk 6:41; Jn 17:1) and at his ascension seemed to the disciples to pass away from them upwards to heaven.
The early Christians accepted the contemporary Jews’ conception of a series of heavens (Cor 12:2-4), and of angelic and demonic powers existing in the heavens (Rom 8:38), over whom Christ, following his resurrection and ascension, reigns supreme with the Father “far above all heavens” (Eph 4:10).
But “heaven” is not a fantastic paradise full of delightful pleasures or, as the Sadducees questioned Jesus, a place where a man may have many wives, to which Jesus answered: “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven” (Mt 22:23-30).
The nature and condition of heaven was a subject of much dispute in the later Middle Ages. Benedict XII (1336) formally defined that the Divine Essence would be seen by direct intuition and face to face.
Yes, in the glorious place of heaven, our body and soul together will enjoy the beatific vision, the vision of the Divine Being. However, only the redeemed who die in a “state of grace” will, after the purification of purgatory and their resurrection, be given the gift of enjoying the beatific vision.
St. Paul proclaimed the effects of resurrection in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:12).
St. Paul concludes on a joyful note, saying: “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory,’ ‘O death, where is thy victory? Oh death, where is thy sting?’” (1 Cor 15:54-55).
Resurrection was the fervent belief of the early Church. The idea that after the last judgment the body would be reunited with the soul into a self that far transcends the self in mortal life animated the faith of the Church Fathers.
In several places in the Gospel, Jesus speaks very directly of eternal life and the Kingdom of God. He even describes his celestial position: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Mt 25:31-33).
The death of Lazarus reminds us that we will know eternal life as a perfect union of soul and body, of perfect spirit and transformed body. Jesus speaks to Martha, who is distraught at the death of her brother: “Your brother will rise again.” She replied: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” and Jesus said to her: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he die, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Jn 11:23-27).
The words of Jesus and Martha are part of my fervent preparation for the encounter of my entry into eternal life. My old age admonishes me that my earthly life is in its final steps, and to make mine the words of Jesus: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify thy Son, that the Son may glorify thee” (Jn 17:1). Knowing the time was near, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane where he began to experience sorrow and distress and he asked his disciples to stay awake with him while he prayed to the Father (Mt 26:36-39).
Yes, I want to remain with him and I pray that angels will lead me into paradise and the martyrs will receive me and lead me to the holy city of Jerusalem (liturgical hymn In Paradisum).
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