So, what do you think heaven is like?
I’ve always pictured heaven as a big place, even though technically and theologically it’s not a place as we understand the word “place.” A place is limited. Even a big place. A place has boundaries. At some point it’s restricted. You can only go so far.
I remember back in the 1990’s I believe it was, when Pope John Paul II, now St. John Paul II, came out with the statement that heaven is not a place. He said that heaven is a relationship with God. First with the soul after we die and eventually come up from Purgatory. And then, with the resurrected body after Jesus’ Second Coming as he calls to himself all the bodies of the righteous and those destined for the joys of eternal life. “Come to me, all you who have been faithful and seeking of mercy. Come to the banquet that has been prepared for you from all eternity.”
When John Paul II said that heaven is not a place, but a relationship where we will have our place with God, he drove a lot of Christians crazy, especially the Baptists and Fundamentalists. He drove them nuts. They couldn’t wrap their minds around the joyful truth that a relationship with God forever in heaven does not have any boundaries, that it does not remain in this universe, yet it can penetrate this universe in ways of intercession and communication. We get messages from heaven every day. The deeper our faith, the greater the possibility of recognizing and understanding them. Faith in Jesus as Lord is the uncompromising nugget that makes possible our personal experience of heaven in this life. Faith in Christ is always the key to touching heaven right now.
Now, if heaven is not a place, then how can Jesus say to his Disciples that in his Father’s house there are many dwelling places? And if there were not, would he have told them that he was going forth to prepare a place for them? It sounds like the Baptists and Fundamentalists were correct for challenging St. John Paul II for saying heaven is not a place. They see and read the language of Scripture, and the words of Jesus, and that’s what they hear. “I am going to prepare a place for you. And that place is in heaven.”
I love our Baptist brothers and sisters and their steadfast faith in Christ, but their understanding of heaven being a place is incorrect, and John Paul II had it right. Heaven is an eternal relationship with God. Just as hell is eternal separation from God. There is no more fundamental truth about our eternal destiny. It will either be an eternal relationship with our Creator, filled with joy that words cannot describe, or, it will be eternal separation from God, filled with such horror and suffering that words cannot begin to describe. There is no in between. Purgatory is not in between. Purgatory is a soul that heaven has claimed for its own, in need of purgation, of cleansing, before arriving at the fullness of God’s joy in heaven.
Isn’t this fun stuff? This is awesome.
When our Lord tells his Disciples that there are many dwelling places in his Father’s house, meaning heaven, because that’s where Jesus ascends to, he’s not talking boundaries and restrictions, where you can go to your place on your end of the universe, and the person you couldn’t stand in this life can go to their place on the other end of the universe, so you never have to look at them again. That kind of thought is childish and spiritually ignorant.
Instead, Jesus is telling us disciples that he’s inviting every human being to salvation. To a joyful relationship with God. And the word “many,” as in many dwelling places, does not mean some are automatically left out, as the Jehovah Witnesses believe. If you’re not part of the 144,000 in the Book of Revelation, then you’re toast. We’re condemned. This is a profound misunderstanding of the Book of Revelation, of which there is much with that wonderful book that close the Bible. The word “many” incorporates every person ever born. There is a dwelling place, a heavenly relationship with God, for every single person. The problem originates in us. The problem being that not every person wants their place in heaven.
In the Gospel, St. Thomas says to Jesus, on behalf of his fellow Apostles, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way and the place where you are going to? We don’t know if you’re off to California, or Alaska, Cape Cod for the summer, or to Wright’s Chicken Farm. We don’t know where you’re going, Lord!” Jesus answers Thomas with the only way to heaven… “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I am the relationship that will forever unite you to your Creator.”
So what is Jesus’ way, truth and life? What is his way? What is his truth? What is his life all about? It’s not just believing, where all I have to say is “Jesus is Lord,” and I’ve got my dwelling place all locked up. That’s called cheap salvation, and there are those who believe in that cheap theology. But not Catholics. Jesus’ way, truth and life is belief in him backed up by actions. The actions of having a heart for the poor; visiting the sick; listening to another person’s struggles; being kind, patient to, and loving the elderly. It is the St. John’s Soup Kitchen, Visitation House, Food Pantries, and Our Lady of Hope Christmas Gift Giving. These actions reflect our relationship with God. Actions of love have no boundaries or restrictions. They are limitless, because they bring a slice of heaven to this place called Earth.
Now that I’ve thrown a big boulder into your image of what heaven is like, I prefer not to send you out to dinner this evening shaking your heads. Yes, there are many dwelling places in the house of Jesus’ Father. And yes, our Savior has gone to prepare a place for each of us. But the “place” of heaven does not mean boundaries and limitations. It means relationship. Relationship with God our Father; relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus; relationship with the Church, the Body of Christ; relationship with family, friends, and strangers, who are no longer strangers.
The Polish Pope who is now in the Communion of Saints knows his theology. He’s correct. Heaven is not a place. We’re destined for much greater things than a place in the skies. Heaven is a relationship that finds rest and peace with our Lord forever. But it begins each day with our choice to perform actions of love grounded in our belief in Him, who live and reigns forever.