[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
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
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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