Some religions have at least some idea of heavenly rapture — seventy-two virgins, for example in Islam. I suppose a heavenly orgy might be more enjoyable for the men but certainly not for the virgins. And I have often wondered where they were going to find all those virgins! For an institution that is in the business of eternal salvation, I think the Catholic Church has done such a dreadful job in attracting people to strive hard for the Pearly Gates.
The way the Church describes our eternal home is usually so vague and nebulous that people imagine all kinds of strange and weird visions of Heaven. Conversely the Church, at least the old Church, had done a formidable job in frightening us of the other place. But Heaven seems so ethereal and otherworldly that we cannot fathom a state of complete happiness and joy. It is an abstraction that does not seem to have any comparable earthly counterpart. The trouble with Theologians is that just when you need one, you can’t find any!
While Heaven is ostensibly about God and how there He loves us, the particulars of that Love in Heaven are so abstract so as to not carry a great deal of earthly gravitas. The Book of Revelation is an extremely surrealistic look at Heaven that does not seem to have a whole lot in it to interest us forever. It is very difficult for human beings, most of whom have lived their lives by the alarm clock or the cell phone to relate to the pageantry and glorious surroundings described, especially if there are no championship athletic contests involved.
There needs to be a more practical way of selling Heaven that will resonate with the billions of people in this world. Why not say that the joys of the blessed exceed, say, the pleasure of a banana split or eating a whole box of chocolates? That is at least an innocent image, better than the sugary-sounding happiness we usually hear about in hymns and sermons. The way I hear it is that Heaven sounds preferable to Hell if only because of the air-conditioning.
Or perhaps we could say that Heaven is like a joyous, hilarious reunion with all the dearest friends and family members we thought we could never see again. That is at least a more edifying idea than a gratification of lust that goes on forever. Hell is easy to envision because the capacity for physical agony is universal, whereas the greatest joys we can conceive, as of meeting loved ones in the afterlife — are particular and personal.
St. Paul assured the Corinthian Christians that no earthly felicity could approach the joy that God has prepared for them in heaven. St. Paul almost makes Heaven sound unimaginable and so it is far easier to focus on avoiding Hell than seeking Heaven. For a long time, I fell into the habit of concentrating on my own sins and the danger of damnation. It took me a long time to realize my faith was negative and joyless — whereas the New Testament constantly tells us to rejoice, be of good cheer, be not afraid, and proclaim the Good News. As St. John the Apostle says, God is love. Hell is not what Jesus is all about.
One prominent atheist, a former Marxist, says the Christian conception of God is a celestial dictator. But this dictator, Jesus taught us, is our loving Father, who made us in His own image, gave us free will, and sacrificed His only child for us. This may be almost incomprehensible to a Marxist who sees all human relations in the brutish terms of economic power and the deification of the State. There is no room at the Marxist Inn for anything resembling Mercy.
Atheism is only temporary. At the end of the day, I surmise with some confidence, Hell may be filled with severely disappointed atheists. They may, in this life, enjoy some good laughs at the expense of believers but in the tremendously terse words of Jesus, They already have their reward.
I often wonder if the momentary pleasure of a small bit of flesh or relishing in the materialistic joys of a consumer culture are worth trading one’s immortal soul. Matthew’s Gospel raised the eternal question of Eschatology: What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and yet loses his immortal soul? That is probably my favorite Bible quote. It overtly establishes the moral equation in the final realm of things. Weigh the pleasure and accomplishment of life on earth against the risk and the cost. God should win every time.
Yet the legitimate pleasures of life on earth might be the answer to my original question about selling heaven. Years ago I got a sweet foretaste of Heaven when I was playing with my three-year-old great-granddaughter. You’re a smart girl, I told her. No, she retorted, I’m a woman! But if my laughter could have lasted forever, it would not begin to match the joy God has in store for me provided I love Him. Satan must be delighted when we imagine Heaven as dull and boring.
Now I try now to condition myself to think about what Heaven may be like. Several new books and movies have tried to do this as well. I think it is high time that Catholics condition ourselves, almost in spite of our religious training, to imagine Heaven. It is not unimaginable. We have to make it real so that it becomes the focus of our pilgrimage on earth, and not some mystical vacation beyond the clouds. We have been commanded to rejoice, not just because we have avoided spending all eternity in the fiery pit.