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Heavenly Thoughts

John Donnelly explores a whole tangle of difficulties with the concept of heaven.

Catholic funeral services are somber occasions. Not as sobering as the pre-Vatican II rituals, where the priests wore darkish purple or black vestments, and the strains of the ‘Dies Irae’ reminded us that we are indeed dust and to that we shall return unless the God of theism makes us whole again by the violation miracle of resurrection.

Today the vestments are of a different hue, and the service is often a celebration of life. But the religious message, despite what James Cameron has called the aesthetic ‘prettification of death’, remains the same. Death is terrible, and our only hope for our departed loved ones’ survival lies not in our fond but somewhat tenuous memories, but in God resuscitating us to be with Him in His kingdom.

I confess I’m always buoyed at a funeral by the stirring hope enunciated in the prayer: “May the angels lead you into paradise, may the martyrs receive you at your coming, and take you to Jerusalem, the holy city. May the choirs of the angels receive you, and may you with the once poor Lazarus, have rest everlasting.” However, I also confess that I find it rather disconcerting to discover that Christians who are traveling on what John Paul II calls “a great pilgrimage to the house of the Father” have given so little thoughtful reflection to the heaven they seek as their hoped-for destination. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of heaven as the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, yielding a state of affairs of supreme, definitive happiness. The catechism also cautions that heaven is “beyond all understanding and description.”

To be sure, the Christian concept of heaven – an article of faith – presents a number of metaphysical conundrums for the philosopher. Surprisingly, not that many contemporary Christian philosophers have written on the topic of heaven, and those that have, however cleverly, only seem to add to the buzzing confusion surrounding the whole notion.

Recently, the Pope has addressed some eschatological themes, in particular claiming that heaven is a ‘state of being’ and not a physical locale. Despite my considerable admiration for John Paul II, the philosopher in me is unsettled by his remark. Peter Geach once said that when a conflict arises between his philosophical beliefs and his religious beliefs, he would quash the former in favor of the latter, and that is also a mindset I am not adverse to holding. Nonetheless, I’m still troubled, finding the Pope’s remark lending itself more to imbroglio than to illumination. To be sure, literalist physical depictions of heaven (e.g., a city of beautiful gardens with jeweled edifices and streets of precious metals) always fall short descriptively, as eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has in store for those who truly love God. Nonetheless, the Pope’s maintaining that heaven is not a physical place seems to render the concept of heaven so abstract and mysterious, so impervious to human imagination and understanding, that it’s difficult to philosophically comprehend how heaven consists of a loving, personal relationship of union with God. Matters are further complicated by the Pope’s (somewhat Neo-Wittgensteinian) claim that we can get a foreshadowing of postmortem life in heaven by the joy, happiness and peace that follows from living an ethico-religious life in the premortem world, augmented by our reflection on heaven itself. (Indeed St Paul in Philippians 3:20 speaks of early Christians as presently “citizens of heaven”.) But if the latter notion is unclear, how will that bolster the former state of affairs?

My philosophical temperament wants to ask: If heaven, as the Pope alleges, is not a physical place, then how do we explain the Catholic (infallible) dogma of the assumption of Mary into heaven, both body and soul? Moreover, given that traditional Christian philosophical thought views a person as a psychophysical whole, and not as a Platonic disembodied mind, how is the Christian philosopher to understand St Paul’s (I Corinthians) talk of spiritual, glorified bodies? Additionally, there is a philosophical need to explore the meaning of the divine immediate judgment of each person at his or her biological death, versus the significance of the general judgment at the Second Coming of Christ. Surprisingly, most Christian thinkers seem to believe that all people who have biologically died exist now in an interregnum period of temporary disembodiment awaiting the Second Coming, at which time an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God will reassemble their very premortem micro-particles so that their newly recreated glorified bodies are numerically identical (and not simply qualitatively identical) to their premortem bodies, minus any natural evils. Apart from serious reassembly problems for divine omnipotence (for example the cannibalism issue) one wonders, for instance, how St Thomas Aquinas (who held this view) could consistently maintain both that “anima mea non est ego” (thereby seemingly disavowing the substance dualistic view of the person as a discarnate personality wherein the body is a mere accidental appendage for that spiritual self in the premortem world), and that the soul (or disembodied mind) is me in that interregnum world. In short, how can the soul be the guarantor of personal identity in the interregnum world, but not be such in the premortem world?

Moreover, it seems to follow on the traditional view that Abraham, Moses, Mary Magdalene, Augustine and Monica, et alia (fill in your favorite saint) are not fully resurrected yet, and arguably not full in heaven yet! And the dramatic, powerful divine promise to the good thief on Calvary was less the promise of being instantly in paradise but instead of a lengthy interregnum period of temporary disembodiment. One can’t help but philosophically wonder if the Second Coming (apart from the resurrected bodies) isn’t somewhat superfluous, at least for the blessed, since both Pope Benedict XII in the 14th century and John Paul II today claim that those people consigned to heaven by the particular judgment already enjoy the fruits of paradise, that they are perfectly incorporated into Christ. The Church traditionally teaches that in this interim period of temporary disembodiment the souls of the blessed share in the heavenly glory of the beatific vision. That is, their intellects and wills are attuned to the Trinity, fostering the lumen gloriae spoken of by the Council of Vienna in 1312. Indeed, the current Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of all persons (with newly-minted resurrected bodies) appearing before Christ’s tribunal at the general judgment to give an accounting of their lives. Since it seems the souls of the damned, now in resurrected bodies, also give an account before being consigned to hell (talk about jury nullification!), one wonders if the disembodied minds of the non-virtuous in the interregnum period of temporary disembodiment actually shared in heavenly life, as did the virtuous who were then said to fully share in the life and love of God.

And at the final denouement, it seems that the permanent heaven, the New Jerusalem, becomes this very earth-planet transformed (i.e. freed of physical evils, etc.). Indeed, in 2 Peter 3:13, there is talk of “new heavens and a new earth,” language that suggests (contra John Paul II) that heaven is more than a “state of being”; instead, possibly a multiplicity of physical locales. (Cf. John 14:2 “there are many dwelling places in my Father’s house.”)

Of course, faith dispels any philosophical anxiety here, for in God’s due time, all of these restless ruminations shall be put to rest.


John Donnelly is Professor of Philosophy and Coordinator of the Catholic Studies minor at the University of San Diego, California.

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