What is heaven?
Illustration by Dante's Paradiso. Giovanni di Paolo
When a family member or friend dies, we often think about where they are now. As mortal beings, it is a matter of paramount importance to each of us.
Different cultural groups and different individuals within them respond with numerous, often contradicting answers to questions about the afterlife. For many, these questions are rooted in the idea of reward for the good (a heaven) and punishment for the wicked (a hell), where earthly injustices are finally resolved.
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However, these common roots do not guarantee a contemporary correspondence about the nature or even the existence of hell and heaven. Pope Francis himself raised Catholic eyebrows at some of his comments on Heaven and recently told a boy that his late father, an atheist, was with God in heaven because of his careful parenting "having a good heart".
So what is the Christian concept of "heaven"?
Beliefs about what happens when you die
The earliest Christians believed that Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead after his crucifixion, would soon return to complete what he began by his preaching: the establishment of the kingdom of God. This second coming of Christ would end efforts to unite all mankind in Christ and lead to a final resurrection of the dead and a moral judgment of all people.
Christians believe that when Christ returns, the dead will also be raised in renewed bodies. Waiting for the word, CC BY
In the middle of the first century AD, Christians worried about the fate of the members of their churches who had died before this second coming.
Some of the earliest documents in the Christian New Testament, letters or letters from the Apostle Paul, gave an answer. The dead just fell asleep, they explained. When Christ returns, the dead would also rise in renewed bodies and be judged by Christ himself. After that, they would be with him forever.
Some theologians in the early centuries of Christianity agreed. However, a growing consensus developed that the souls of the dead were held in a kind of waiting state until the end of the world, in which they were reunited with their bodies and resuscitated in more perfect form.
Promise of Eternal Life
After the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the early fourth century, the number of Christians grew tremendously. Millions converted across the empire and by the end of the century the old Roman state religion was banned.
Based on the Gospels, bishops and theologians stressed that the promise of eternal life in heaven was open only to the baptized - that is, to those who had experienced ritual immersion in water that cleansed the soul from sin and entry into the Church marked. All others were doomed to eternal separation from God and to the punishment of sin.
In this new Christian kingdom, baptism was increasingly administered to infants. Some theologians have questioned this practice because infants could not yet commit sins. But in the Christian West, belief in "original sin" prevailed - the sin of Adam and Eve when they did not obey God's command in the Garden of Eden (the "Fall") -.
Following the teachings of St. Augustine in the fourth century, Western theologians believed by the fifth century AD that even infants were born with the sin of Adam and Eve, which affected their spirit and will.
However, that teaching raised a troubling question: What about those infants who died before baptism that could be administered?
At first the theologians taught that their souls went to hell but suffered very little or no.
The concept of levitation evolved from this idea. Popes and theologians taught in the 13th century that the souls of unbaptized babies or toddlers enjoyed a natural state of happiness on the "edge" of Hell, but like those who were more severely punished in Hell itself, the happiness of the present was denied to God.
Time of court
In times of war or plague in ancient times and in the Middle Ages, Western Christians often interpreted social chaos as a sign of the end of the world. However, over the centuries, the Second Coming of Christ became a more distant event for most Christians in general, still awaited but relegated to an indefinite future. Instead, Christian theology focused more on the moment of individual death.
Judgment, the evaluation of the moral condition of every person, was no longer postponed to the end of the world. Each soul was first judged individually by Christ immediately after death (the “special” judgment) and at the second coming (the final or general judgment).
Death bed rituals or "last rites" evolved from previous rites for the sick and penitent, and most had the opportunity to confess their sins to a priest, be anointed, and receive a "final" communion before breathing their last.
Medieval Christians prayed to be protected from sudden or unexpected death because they feared that baptism alone would not be enough to get straight to heaven without these final rites.
Another teaching had developed. Some still died guilty of minor or fateful sins such as common gossip, petty theft, or petty lies that did not completely deprive God's soul of God's grace. After death, these souls would first be "cleansed" of any remaining sin or guilt in a spiritual state called purgatory. After this spiritual purification, which is usually represented as fire, they would be pure enough to go to heaven.
Only those who were extraordinarily virtuous, such as the saints or those who received the final rites, could enter directly into heaven and the presence of God.
Images of the sky
In ancient times, the first centuries of the common era, Christian heaven shared certain features with both Judaism and Hellenistic religious thought about the afterlife of the virtuous. One of them was an almost physical rest and refreshment like after a desert trip, often accompanied by descriptions of banquets, fountains or rivers. In the book of Revelation, a symbolic description of the end of the world, the river that flows through God's new Jerusalem is called the river of "the waters of life." In the Gospel of Luke, however, the damned were tormented with thirst.
Another was the image of light. Romans and Jews viewed the abode of the wicked as a place of darkness and shadow, but the divine abode was filled with bright light. Heaven was also burdened with positive emotions: peace, joy, love, and the happiness of spiritual fulfillment that Christians referred to as the blessed vision, the presence of God.
Christ glorified in the court of heaven. Fra Angelico
Visionaries and poets used a variety of additional imagery: flowering meadows, indescribable colors, trees filled with fruit, company and entertainment with the family or others dressed in white among the blessed. Bright angels stood behind the shimmering throne of God and sang praises in exquisite melodies.
The Protestant Reformation, begun in 1517, broke sharply with the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe in the 16th century. While both sides would argue about the existence of purgatory, or whether only some were predestined by God to go to heaven, the existence and general nature of heaven itself was not an issue.
Heaven as the place of God
Today theologians offer different opinions about the nature of heaven. The Anglican C. S. Lewis wrote that even his pets who are in love with their owners could be admitted, since the owners are united by baptism in Christ.
According to Pope Pius IX. In the 19th century, Jesuit Karl Rahner taught that non-Christians and unbelievers could also be saved through Christ if they lived by similar values, an idea that can be found in the Catholic catechism today.
The Catholic Church herself has abandoned the idea of limbo and left the fate of unbaptized children to "the mercy of God". One theme, however, remains constant: Heaven is the presence of God in the company of others who have responded to God's call in their own lives.
This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts.
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Joanne M. Pierce is a Roman Catholic member of the United States Anglican Roman Catholic Consultation, a national ecumenical dialogue group sponsored by the Conference of the Catholic Bishops of the United States and the Episcopal Church.
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