Heaven: A Holy Beatitude, not a Carnal Fantasy

Muslims and Mormons, it is fairly well known, have a very carnal eschatology. The paradise of the Muslims has rivers of wine (a beverage forbidden to them on earth), along with rivers of milk and clarified honey. Each man will have between seventy and one hundred women whose companionship will be, let us say, something other than Platonic.

While the Mormon afterlife appears to be a subject of great misunderstanding, even among Mormons, it seems reasonable to conclude that they believe in a polygamous afterlife, with men being eternally “sealed” to any women they have married (simultaneously or consecutively) in this life. To Mormons, God was once a man like us, and Mormons will become gods like Him one day, which renders their whole concept of the divinity itself carnal.

It is, in a sense, too easy to single out either of these two religions. Islam is justly disliked for (among other reasons) the historical bane it has been to Christendom and the terrorism it still engenders. Mormonism, a genuine American-made religion that harkens back to similar strange sects spawned by the Second Great Awakening, is known for its unconventional beliefs about Planet Kolob, temple garments, and baptizing dead people, the latter practice being deemed inappropriate by some of the living. Clever Mormons even joke about being joked about.

In contrast to an overly carnal paradise stands the spiritualized yet depersonalized afterlife of the Buddhist. For most eastern pantheists, the afterlife is a sort of Nirvana, which is nothing remotely like the Christian concept of heaven, but, rather an annihilation of the person, who is absorbed into the cosmic divinity which is more like the “pure potency” of prime matter than the Pure Act” of the true God. The term itself, Nirvana, literally means “blown out,” as in extinguished.

But, to be just, if most occidentals do not take oriental pantheism very seriously, how many people have a more spiritual and less carnal idea of heaven than Muslims and the LDS? Closer to home, how many Catholics have the idea that Heaven will be a big party in the sky? Does it not happen at Catholic wakes and funerals that trite comments are made about the deceased?

“Fred’s lucky; he gets to play as many holes as he wants now that he’s up in that Big Golf Course in the Sky. And no sand traps up there!”

“I’ll bet Saint Michael’s pouring Ralph another heavenly martini, and the big lug’s looking down on us right now, gettin’ tipsy. ‘Attaboy, Ralph!”

In the Old Testament, material rewards were promised and given for fidelity to the Law. The examples of Job, Tobias, and Judith come to mind, who were rewarded for their virtue by material prosperity. And the Messianic Age is explained to the Jews in terms of temporal abundance. But the Old Law instructed the human race as one instructs a child, whereas the New Law instructs us as one instructs an adult. The comparison, which some moderns might deem offensive, belongs to Saint Thomas, who inferred it from Saint Paul.

Regarding those temporal blessings spoken of in the Old Testament, the abundance of wheat, wine, and oil promised in the times of the Messias have been fulfilled in the Eucharist, Holy Orders, Confirmation, and Extreme Unction — material things, to be sure, but also sacraments that spiritually divinize us.

The true Christian concept of Heaven is supernatural.

There are secondary aspects of happiness in Heaven, e.g., the fellowship of the saints, but Heavenly Beatitude consists primarily in the best activity of what is highest in man. That best activity is contemplation; that highest human faculty is the intellect. When we call it the “Beatific Vision,” we borrow vocabulary from the sense of sight, but the “vision” here is not an ocular act, but an act of the intellect directly intuiting the Divine Essence. It is with the intellect that we “see God.” As Our Lord put it: “This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God” (John 17:3). Compare this to what Saint John wrote elsewhere: “When He shall appear, we shall be like to Him because we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

The life of glory in Heaven is a fulfillment of the life of grace begun here on earth. The scholastics expressed this gracefully when they declared that gratia est semen gloriae (grace is the seed of glory). From this truth, we can draw some connecting lines from the life of grace here to the life of glory in Heaven.

The state of glory itself is the fulfillment of the state of grace. Here, we are given the gift of a new nature which is none other than being made “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) in this life. By this, we are made children of God, a dignity that does not come as part of human nature. In Heaven, this state is perfected in such a way that it cannot be lost. In the technical language of scholastic theology, we call sanctifying grace an “entitative habit” because it is a habit of being that gives us, as it were, a new nature added to the natural man. The state of glory is the entitative habit that fulfills and replaces this in Heaven.

Even though we are raised to a higher nature by sanctifying grace, this grace, which perfects the soul itself, does not give us the power to act according to that new nature. To illustrate with a natural example: Just because I am a man, does not mean I have the virtues or skills that make me a good or useful man. Even to operate minimally as a man, I need a modicum of certain habits like the knowledge of language so I can communicate as a man, or the art of gathering food so that I do not starve to death. These are called, technically, “operative habits,” and their supernatural counterparts are the infused virtues and the gifts of the Holy Ghost whereby we are made not just to be, but to operate in the supernatural order, as children of God.

So the life of heavenly beatitude is a fulfillment of the life of Faith, Hope, and Charity in this life. Without these habits we cannot be saved. By performing acts proper to these virtues, we can, here and now, build up treasures in Heaven. The first two are only for this life, and will be replaced by something higher in the next; that is to say, Faith gives way to vision, Hope to possession. Charity, the “greatest of these” (I Cor. 13:13), abides forever.

Along with the infused theological virtues that orient us directly to God as our last end, the other operative habits that allow us to act in a supernatural way are the infused moral virtues. These do not have God as their formal object, but creatures. By infused prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, we operate in relation to creatures in a way that pleases God.

An important exception bears mentioning, and that is the virtue of religion, which is a part of the virtue of justice. The Scholastics enumerated various moral virtues that are related as “parts” to the cardinal virtues. Piety, e.g., is the part of justice that regulates giving their due to your family members; patriotism is the part of justice that relates to what you owe your homeland, the patria. Religion is that part of justice by which we render to God what is His due (principally adoration, thanksgiving, reparation, and petition). It is the only moral virtue whose formal object is God and not a creature.

We will not need all the moral virtues in Heaven (for St. Thomas’ subtle teaching on this go to ST II IIae, Q. 135 A. 1 and scroll down to the reply to Objection 1), but it is easy to see how the virtue of religion, perfected by the gift of piety, will abide forever (Cf. Apoc. 7:9-11).

When we perform acts of the virtues with ease and facility, the resultant acts are called Fruits of the Holy Ghost. When the Gifts of the Holy Ghost perfect the activity of the virtues, the resulting acts are called Beatitudes, which are a foretaste of the life of Heaven. When we read the lives of the saints, it is a good idea to recall the Beatitudes at times to see how they are manifested in the saint we are studying.

As we can see, the life of grace on this earth is supernatural in character. Yes, grace builds on nature; it does not destroy it, so, with grace, we remain fully human with all our human faculties. But the life of grace itself remains radically supernatural.

What is true of our life of grace in via is true in an even higher sense in the life of glory in patria. While the blessed remain fully human, retaining their distinct personalities (it’s not Nirvana!), the state of glory and the possession of God by the Beatific Vision is radically supernatural in character.

As a mission entirely unique to her, the Catholic Church distributes the treasures of this life to the poor exiled children of Eve so that, becoming children of the Second Eve, they may enter into the eternal nuptials of Christ and His triumphant Bride.

— CODA —

Having just read Gary Potter’s wonderful new book, As It Is In Heaven: Christian Living and Social Order, I feel compelled to add some words on Catholic social thought to these lines.

The purpose of the Church’s social teaching is not that we may build a utopia on this earth, for “we have not here a lasting city, but we seek one that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). (Martin Chouinard eloquently rebutted this error in his talk at our conference.) The primary purpose of the Church’s social doctrine is to safeguard the rights of God over human society. Secondarily, the social doctrine is to make man’s life in society more of a help and less of a hindrance to his achieving that lasting city to come. Far from diminishing the importance of the genuine social teaching of the Church, this explanation of its supernatural finality shows just how important it is. Only when Catholics see the purpose of politics as helping us to achieve a life of Heavenly beatitude can we begin the arduous work of making politics less evil. (Making politics good will take a very long time.)