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The Reactionary Utopian
May 14, 2009

Imagining Heaven
by Joseph Sobran

[Eye hath not seen …]

Mixed feelings, as someone has said, are what you experience when your mother-in-law drives your new car over a cliff.

I wish we had an equally succinct way of describing the bliss of heaven. Fallen man finds it much easier to imagine the endless torments of hell than the eternal joy of salvation. More people remember Dante’s ghastly Inferno than his lovely Paradiso. And the great John Milton more successfully portrayed Paradise Lost than Paradise Regained.

Some religions have at least some idea of heavenly rapture — seventy-two virgins, for example. Fine, if an orgy is your idea of a good time, but I suppose it might be more enjoyable for the men than for the virgins.

Why not say that the joys of the blessed exceed, say, the pleasure of a banana split? That is at least an innocent image, better than the insipid-sounding happiness we usually hear about in hymns and sermons; heaven may sound 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 always seems more vivid than heaven.

St. Paul assures the Corinthian Christians that no earthly felicity can approach the joy that God has prepared for them in heaven. For a long time, I fell into the habit of concentrating on my own sins and the danger of damnation. At last, I realized that my faith was gradually becoming 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. And Jesus hardly mentions hell. We must be aware of it, of course, but not preoccupied with it. He came, after all, to rescue us from it.

One prominent atheist, himself 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 son for us; he gives us great blessings and urges us to share them, as he himself does. This may be almost incomprehensible to a Marxist who sees all human relations in the brutal terms of power and selfish possession; the word “mercy” has no place in the stern and cynical lexicon of Marxist ideology.

But my point is that whatever joy we may be able to conceive, the Lord wants to give us something far better than that: the Beatific Vision of himself, in all his glory. Loving and sharing are intrinsically connected: the very urge to praise tells us that when we love or admire something, we want others to do so, too. Dante’s love for Beatrice is as irrepressible as his love for God. His poetic genius glorifies both.

And, after all, atheism is only temporary. At the end of the day, I surmise with some confidence, hell may be full of rather severely disappointed atheists. They may, in this life, enjoy some good laughs at the expense of believers, but in the tremendously laconic words of Jesus, “They already have their reward.”

God damns nobody, but some people insist on damning themselves. Is the momentary pleasure of a small bit of flesh worth trading your immortal soul for? No; the whole world is not worth that.

I got a sweet little foretaste of heaven the other day 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 us, provided we love him. Satan must be delighted when we imagine heaven as boring.

We have to train ourselves, almost in spite of our religious training, to imagine heaven. Otherwise we may fall into the habit, as I did, of thinking only of avoiding hell. We are not commanded to rejoice only because we may not have to spend all eternity in the fiery pit. 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.

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