What Heaven Will Be Like (If You Make It)

One of my favorite exchanges in the 1991 film Black Robe concerns the nature of the Roman Catholic understanding of heaven. Early in the film, the Jesuit missionary (i.e. the “black robe”) chides one of the Frenchmen for speaking respectfully of the concept of the afterlife held by the Algonquin Indians, an afterlife in which the souls of men hunt the souls of animals at night. Daniel, the young Frenchman, snaps back at the missionary: “Is it harder to believe than in Paradise where we all sit on clouds and look at God?”

Gustave Dore's image of the beatific vision

partial of Gustave Dore’s illustration of the beatific vision

The official Catholic teaching would not have us sitting on clouds, but otherwise the young Frenchman’s characterization is not too far off the mark. One somewhat apophatic strand in the Church’s tradition emphasizes the transcendent, incomprehensible nature of heavenly life (“no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”). Yet another strand in the Church’s tradition does make a positive statement about what heaven will be like: the blessed in heaven will see God “as he is,” even “face to face.” The Church calls this form of union the “beatific vision.” It is an intuitive contemplation of God’s essence. To put that back in the terms of the young Frenchman, the Church claims that we will “see God”…with our minds.

Both strands of teaching are equally authoritative; both are included in the Catechism (see CCC##1023, 1027-1028). However, as a teacher, I have found that the second strand is initially more difficult for students to accept. If you want to see this yourself, conduct a little experiment with your students (or relatively unchurched friends): ask them to brainstorm for a few minutes about what heaven should be like. If they don’t believe in heaven, then have them approach it as a thought experiment–if there were a heaven, what would it need to be like? At first you will get a few silly answers like “hitting you in the face with a dodgeball, forever” or “72 virgins,” but you can deflate those answers by emphasizing that the goal of the discussion is to try to figure out the sort of ideal nature of heaven, what it should be like, what it must be like to actually be, well, paradise.

As the conversation turns serious, someone will invariably invoke some version of the first theological strand identified above: “We can’t know, but it will be AWESOME!” Others will nod their heads approvingly. But when the dramatic moment comes, and you reveal the more positive theological strand–the intuitive contemplation of God–no one will nod. The sense of disappointment will actually be somewhat palpable. Privately, some may even think, like Ivan Karamazov, “Where do I return my ticket?” Spending eternity in thought doesn’t seem alluring to most of us.

However, the idea of the beatific vision is surprisingly defensible–not only theologically, but philosophically. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas arrives at the ideal nature of heaven as contemplative activity through a line of thought that is exclusively philosophical (i.e. he thinks his way to the idea; he does not draw upon revelation). His argument in the Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 3, a. 8 depends upon three fundamental principles:

“Man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek.”

“The perfection of any power is determined by the nature of its object.”

“The object of the intellect is ‘what a thing is,’ the essence of a thing.”

If you accept these three principles, then the argument is rather straightforward and hard to criticize: We would not be perfectly happy in heaven unless our minds were perfectly “fed” by being able to have some insight into what God is, his nature. Without the contemplation of God’s essence, there would be a part of us–the highest, strongest part–whose desires were not being met. We might be happy at first with the dodgeball and virgins, but after awhile (we are talking about eternity here, after all) our mental desire to know God would become like an itch we could not scratch.

The ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche as told by Lucius Apuleius offers a marvelous illustration of this truth about the human mind (“Psyche” is the Greek term for soul or mind, as one of my students recently reminded me). Psyche, a human woman, ends up marrying Cupid, a god of love (the son of Venus). However, there’s a catch: Psyche never gets to actually see Cupid. He only visits her at night (he’s the god of love, you see).

At first, everything is great. She lives in a magnificent palace “filled with all manner of treasures.” Invisible servants bring her “the greatest delicacies of food.” Invisible performers sing and play the lute for her. And at night…it’s the god of love.

But after a time, the situation begins to prey upon her mind. She needs to see him. She has to know. Her sisters don’t help the situation much either: they suggest that he has been concealing his form from her because he is, in fact, “a direful and tremendous monster . . . who nourishes you for a while with dainties that he may, by and by, devour you.” (There’s surely a moral in that, but as I like my sisters-in-law, I will refrain here from commentary).

Long story short: she looks, he’s cute but offended at her lack of trust, she gets kicked out, it’s sad, Mother-in-law demands impossible tasks as atonement, Cupid misses her and takes her back, Psyche becomes a goddess, they have a baby (Pleasure).

I read once that C.S. Lewis was haunted by the story of Cupid and Psyche; Lewis felt that the characters behaved “irrationally,” and so he felt compelled to offer his own interpretation of the myth in his novel Till We Have Faces. The only thing I find irrational is that the famous pair only had one baby (are gods and goddesses worried about the cost of daycare, or something?). As far as Psyche goes, her actions make perfect sense. We want to see because we want to know. Our minds are wired to seek the essence of things, even the “thing” that is God. A paradise in which we could not contemplate God would be a paradise fit for animals, not humans.

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