It is the simple truth: God created us for happiness. Not jealous of the good He has (or rather is), God fashioned finite intellectual beings—angels and men—capable of sharing His good through knowledge and love, and thus capable of entering into His eternal joy. We honor and love Him by seeking and welcoming this gift from His hands. Indeed, it would be a sin to despise this gift of blessedness, to consider oneself “unfit” for it if one has received the grace of Christ through the sacraments, and, by the aid of that grace, is striving to lead the Christian life. But as we know from history, some Christians, especially the more theologically sophisticated among them, have been tempted to consider heavenly happiness a goal to which one could not aspire without being guilty of selfishness; a goal, indeed, that one must not have in mind, much less act for the sake of. In short, there have been theories that, in the name of achieving “pure” love, in the name of self-sacrifice, or in the name of moral unworthiness, would set at naught even God’s own repeated desire for us to be happy with Him forever, as if He did not really want us when He made us, or as if the Son of God did not come to earth and die on the Cross to open heaven’s gates for those who believe in Him.
Admittedly, we are more likely in the modern world to encounter a permissiveness and naiveté that considers everyone who dies a candidate for immediate glorification. Still, the kind of negativism I mentioned is not wholly absent from our thoughts, and in more subtle forms.
First, under the pervasive influence of a culture fixated on health and longevity, we are (most of us) much too frightened by the prospect of death and spend too much of our time and energy evading its inevitable occurrence. According to Aristotle, who accurately summarizes the perspective of the human race lacking the consolation of faith, “death is the most terrible of all things”—and it remains terrible even for Jesus Christ in His human nature, as the Garden of Gethsemane allows us to see. Man naturally clings to life and flees from death, which cleaves him in twain, soul from body. Yet the resurrection of Christ cries out to mankind that if we cling to Him who is Life, our death separates soul from body only to unite soul to Savior, whether immediately or after some welcome purification has been suffered. Devout Christians should look forward to the day when they will see the Lord, and prepare for it every day by their way of life, by remaining in the state of grace, and by asking the Lord for the gift of perseverance in His love. As Fr. Michael Casey says:
For the moment we are landlocked in space and time, but this separation [from God] will not be permanent. Like a thief in the night, the hour will come in which we are summoned forth to our eternal destiny. If we have learned well the message of the Gospel, we will live our lives with our eyes fixed on eternity, not allowing ourselves to be weighed down by concern for what is transient and ephemeral. The “ethics” promulgated by the New Testament are designed for this single purpose. They are not primarily a charter for the perfect society on earth, but a map that will guide us to heaven.
The Cross of Christ has made of death a gateway to life, and if we pass through the primal punishment marked by the sign of the Cross, we pass into that true Paradise from whose earthly prefiguration Adam and Eve were cast out. As Dom Sebastian Moore puts it: “To the believer, to man-in-forgiveness, this death is joyful, in a human world in which death cannot be wholly joyful. And finally this death is glorious with the glory of another world, the real world of God.”
Second, we think much too little about heaven and its bliss. We are supposed to meditate on the good things the Lord has in store for us who keep His commandments; we are supposed to long for His courts, for the heavenly Jerusalem, for the glory of beholding face to face Him who is Love—the unfathomable mystery of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Love in Three Persons. True, if we did nothing but stare off into space, well might God say to us through His messengers: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” (Acts 1:11). But the angels’ point was not that the disciples should stop thinking of heaven, but rather that they should start preaching the Good News of the Risen Christ to all nations, because the Good News is that where the Head has gone, there the members of the Body will follow.
Third, as has just been suggested, even those who believe in heaven and look forward to the resurrection of the dead are not, on the whole, very eager to share this hope of theirs or very resourceful when it comes to finding ways to share it that make it believable and attractive to others. And yet we profess that dwelling forever in the house of the Lord is our heart’s desire, that entering into His joy is the goal that gives meaning to our lives! I have often thought that preparation for a really good Confession should include, after the list of standard violations of the Ten Commandments, a final and sobering set of questions: Do I long for God’s friendship? Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness? Do I set my heart on heaven? Am I dying for eternal life? We could go even further in this examination of conscience: Do I realize that the life of heaven is, so to speak, a perfectly monastic life? The life that the contemplative monk or nun now leads reflects and anticipates the total gift of self to God in eternal life; do I desire this life more than anything else? Am I left unsatisfied by anything less than the total holocaust of my being to God? If at this moment God called me to become a contemplative monk or nun, in much the same way as Abram was asked to sacrifice Isaac, would I rush to embrace this calling, and throw myself with gusto into a life of seclusion, hiddenness, obscurity, and prayer?
If we were honest with ourselves, I think we would find that we are too fascinated with this world after all, and too lukewarm about our soul’s eternal destiny once our brief life shall have passed. This realization is the starting point for a deeper conversion—one that goes beyond the mere avoidance of sin or the keeping of commandments to the single moving force behind all that we do: everlasting union with the divine Beloved.
What is the Beatific Vision?
The essence of the happiness (Latin, beatitudo) of heaven consists in the direct or “face to face” vision of God (visio beatifica) enjoyed by the good angels and the souls of the just. Pope Benedict XII in the Constitution Benedictus Deus of 1336 states that the blessed “see the divine essence by an intuitive vision and face to face, so that the divine essence is known immediately, showing itself nakedly, clearly, and openly, and not mediately through any creature.” There is nothing else standing between God and the blessed; the latter behold “God, one and three, as He is,” to use the words of the Council of Florence (1438–1445), and in this vision is consummated all their longings for absolute, eternal happiness. Moreover, in this vision of God who perfectly knows all things, the blessed gain also the knowledge of everything that pertains to their own life and condition, including other persons, the history of the world and its destiny, and the prayers of those travailing on earth.
The promise of the beatific vision of God is very clear in the New Testament, although it begins to be foreshadowed in the Old: “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut. 33:27). “Surely the righteous shall give thanks to thy name; the upright shall dwell in thy presence” (Ps. 140:13). “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever” (Ps. 73:25–26). “Blessed is he whom thou dost choose and bring near, to dwell in thy courts! We shall be satisfied with the goodness of thy house, thy holy temple!” (Ps. 65:4). As C. S. Lewis observed in his Reflections on the Psalms, the Old Testament (apart from the deuterocanonical books, which the Protestant Lewis does not have in mind) nowhere speaks openly and plainly of eternal life in the world to come, because men must be taught first to respect and obey God simply because He is God, not because He will give us good things if we obey Him. Still, there are scattered hints and veiled hopes across the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures that come to fruition in the good news of Jesus Christ, who reveals to us what God has in store for those who love Him. Christ reminds the Sadducees that God was always planning life for His chosen ones, not nonexistence or a shadowy obscurity: “But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to him” (Lk. 20:37-39).
The inspired writers of the New Testament openly proclaim the heavenly destiny of the saints: “They are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple; and he who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence” (Rev. 7:15); “they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:4). “We see now through a glass in a dark manner, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12); “We shall be like to Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2).
It is to such texts as these that the earliest Fathers of the Church regularly appealed. Later Church Fathers, concerned to refute heretics who claimed that the soul could possess a perfect or comprehensive knowledge of God both here and hereafter, emphasize that even our perfect union with God in the next life never wholly “comprehends” His infinite eternal mystery. Our knowledge of God in heaven is immediate but not comprehensive; it fulfills us completely but it can never “exhaust” the divine nature. As man becomes immortally blessed by permanent union with the God who is eternal beatitude, so man can “see,” that is, know God, but not as God knows Himself: “the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:15-16). Only God knows God simply, perfectly, comprehensively. This truth led St. Gregory of Nyssa to conceive eternal life as a perpetual desire to see more that is always answered by the vision of more—a conception we can well relate to, since even in our earthbound experience of finite beauty a lifetime of acquaintance can never exhaust all that there is to be perceived in a beloved face, a wilderness vista, an elaborate symphony, a literary masterpiece.
Even though it is a reward for the right use of divine grace, beatitude is the most exalted and gratuitous of all God’s gifts; it cannot be merited without grace nor attained by a creature’s own powers. The Council of Vienne (1311–1312) reaffirmed the purely supernatural mystery of beatitude by condemning the proposition that “the soul does not need the light of glory to elevate it to see God and enjoy Him blissfully.” The beatific vision is the completion of the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification in us: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). Because the intellect can know intelligible truth and the will can love goodness in its universality, and God is supremely intelligible and supremely good, men and angels as intellectual beings have the capacity to be united to the divine essence in knowledge and love; but it is God who, by an exercise of his omnipotence, elevates the creature to a supernatural end beyond its inherently finite powers. It should be stressed that God, for the blessed, is not an object “out there,” like a physical object separated by some distance from our eyes. (As God is pure spirit, the language of “vision” and “sight” cannot refer to the physical vision of the eyes.) He dwells within the blessed by the most intimate knowledge and love, for in the act of knowing, the mind is made one with the thing known, and in love the will is conformed to the very being of the beloved.
Is Heaven Easy or Hard to Attain?
According to some versions of modern religious liberalism, everyone will be happy in the next life, regardless of what religion he or she professes on earth; heavenly happiness is simply a natural consequence of God’s love for all. As we have seen, however, the beatific vision must be a gift given by God to whomever He elects, and on any orthodox account of predestination, the elect will be those who have in fact lived a life pleasing to God, since it would be manifestly unjust for an unrepentant criminal to gain the same everlasting joy as one who embraced the divine will—even one who was a notorious criminal but repented, as the good thief. Some theologians cannot bring themselves to believe that God would be so “hard” on us that He would make the beatific vision a goal difficult to reach, that God would be so “unfeeling” that He would create a world in which many departing souls are condemned to unending misery because they were unwilling to endure the earthly sufferings demanded of them to attain this goal. Are they thinking that heaven ought to be the default position, so to speak, away from which one has to tear oneself violently by an act of explicit hatred against God?
Much of the problem comes to this: we moderns no longer understand our faith, we have increasingly lost contact with the most basic verities. We do not see that what God asks of us is easy—“my yoke is easy and my burden light”—if we use what He has given us in the Church and if we trust Him unconditionally. We do not see that what God is promising to us is ineffable blessedness. Our ideas of happiness and of heaven tend to be so superficial that it is hard for us to consider such a goal to be worthy of the mortification of desire, nay, radical self-denial. It all goes back to ignorance of God, poverty of faith. What is God? Who is God? If only the single sentence “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” were understood, the whole practice of the faith, including its asceticism, would suddenly become plain as day; one would look upon it with joy, with the eagerness of a child rushing to find his presents under the tree on Christmas morning.
The goal of eternal life is easy, as easy as falling asleep—if we are in union with Christ, who is the way and the life. A Dominican, Fr. Geoffrey Preston, remarks on how the Office of Compline, the restful, gentle night prayer of the Church that prepares us to let go of our day as we fall asleep, is a gradual training for the ultimate act of letting go, of dying, of going to sleep in the earth. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in one of his magnificent hymns, has this to say:
|Ut te quaeram mente pura,
Sit haec mea prima cura,
Non est labor nec gravabor:
Sed sanabor et mundabor,
Cum te complexus fuero.
|To seek Thee with a pure spirit,
May that be my primary concern,
It is neither troublesome nor arduous,
Because I shall be healed and cleansed
When I shall embrace Thee.
The goal of eternal life is hard, harder than swimming across the Pacific, if we were to attempt it on our own. This is where the fundamental and irreplaceable role of the sacraments becomes most vividly clear. Baptism is the gateway to eternal life; the Eucharist is the consummation of our love with Christ, and the viaticum, the food for our journey into the next world, the blessed medicine of immorality. Penance and anointing of the sick purge us of poisons and bring healing to our deepest spiritual wounds, they begin already to restore our broken selves to wholeness, to the image of Jesus.
Nihilism or Eternal Joy?
I found a text in Nietzsche that made me realize what great evils can flow from having the wrong conception of what it means to serve God with self-denial, to love Him in humility and with total submission. Nietzsche—who, poor man, had to grow up in a household of pietistic Protestant women—clearly inherited their skewed understanding of what the Christian life is. To try to divorce the desire for personal beatitude from the love of God “for His own sake,” or to think that negating the former will intensify the latter, is not only philosophically fallacious but is close to being a kind of foundational heresy, a cosmic slap in God’s face, an overturning of the whole order of nature and grace. Here is the text from Nietzsche:
The Christian conception of God—God as a God of the sick, God as spider, God as spirit—is one of the most corrupt conceptions of God arrived at on earth: perhaps it even represents the low-water mark in the descending development of the God type. God degenerates into the contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! In God a declaration of hostility toward life, nature, the will to life! With God war is declared on life, nature, and the will to life! . . . In God, nothingness is deified, the will to nothingness sanctified!
Nietzsche asserts over and over in his writings that the Christian God is anti-life and anti-joy. How many times was his thundering verdict echoed in the twentieth century by nihilists and hedonists of every stripe, ready to build a secular paradise, as they imagined it, on the ruins of repressive Christendom? I have always thought that this accusation, ridiculous though it be, deserves a serious response, at least for the benefit of those who might then overcome one of the most formidable human obstacles to faith in Christ—the fear that conversion, with its dual requirement of repentance and discipleship, will destroy our happiness and make of our lives a waste of life rather than its unexpected fruition.
The serious response is found in the lives of the Saints, in the pages of Sacred Scripture, and in the testimony of the Fathers and Doctors who tell us how “the glory of God is man fully alive” (St. Irenaeus), how “sin offends God because it harms us” (St. Thomas). We are shown, not merely told, how Jesus Christ is grieved by the stranglehold that death has on human nature and how He comes to shatter it (witness the scene of the raising of Lazarus). We are shown that God is life and lavishes life on all who cling to Him in love. Nietzsche says that God should be the transfiguration of life and the eternal Yes to the will to life. What do we see on the Mount of Transfiguration? The Lord shining with the strength of anticipated immortality, unveiling to us a superabundant, indestructible life. And what does Saint Paul write? “The Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you … was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:19-20). Did the poor anti-Christian (or should we say, anti-Protestant) Nietzsche know his Bible after all? Did he know the true Church or only a somber simulacrum? We hear a desperate cry for “life, nature, and the will to life,” all the more pathetic for its failure to recognize that the only source of life, the only founder of nature, the only power strong enough to endow man with the will to live, is the God of the Christians. All other gods, including Nietzsche’s own god, the promethean ego, have no lasting life to give, no creative power, no lasting strength against the crushing weight of suffering. The choice is either metanoia or madness, conversion of heart or perversion of heart. As the prophet Jeremiah cries out:
O Lord, my strength and my stronghold, my refuge in the day of trouble, to thee shall the nations come from the ends of the earth and say: “Our fathers have inherited naught but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit. Can man make for himself gods? Such are no gods!” (Jer. 16:19–20)
A Marxist-Feuerbachian line of attack is also quite common nowadays, and has been for some time: talk of beatitude is a form of self-deception by means of which our restless human desires are imagined to have an infinite object of fulfillment; religion thus functions as the opiate of the masses by promising them another world wherein earthly ills are redressed and joy endures forever. The most basic problem with this psychological reductionism is that it simply ignores the knowledge of God attainable by natural reason as well as the compelling evidences that lead to faith in the supernatural authority of the Church and her Scriptures. It assumes that one would believe in an otherworldly happiness only because of intellectual indolence or moral anguish, a sleepy desire for “sweet untruth,” whereas the real motives are often quite different and always more compelling than this caricature. As for the hedonist’s creed that a person, maximizing the yield of the moment, can find happiness in the pleasures or comforts of this world—an honest examination of human experience dispels it as a deceptive and self-destructive fantasy.
Definitive happiness can never be found in any created goods. A surprising exercise: look up the word “heaven” or “heavenly” in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. In nearly every place where earthly goods are mentioned, there is a mention—sometimes a very strong emphasis—on their impermanence and the longing of the human heart for more, for God Himself. The longing for heaven is not treated as something indecent or escapist, but as the deepest root of human action, as the created signature of the Creator who is ever blessed. The desire for supreme happiness is the fundamental “law” of human desire; it is the very reason we are free to choose or not choose various finite goods, since not one of them embodies the fullness of the good. What we want is just this fullness, and not in part but fully. That is heaven. The innermost desire of the heart for abiding peace and everlasting joy proclaims irrefutably that man was made for a destiny greater and more glorious than all the fleeting pleasures this world can offer. There are some facts that are more basic than any theory designed to explain them. The need of the human person to love and be loved, to find ultimate truth, goodness, beauty, meaning in life, are basic facts that any adequate account of human life must reckon with and do justice to. Such facts might for a time be suppressed or explained away, but they do not go away.
And that is why, at the deepest level, all human beings are ready—some more than others as far as natural dispositions are concerned, but everyone with God’s grace—to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ: “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). This is what we were made for: eternal life, the blessed vision of God. This is why the Son of God came to earth: to rescue us from hell and “lead captivity captive” to heaven. We must work and pray: work that this Good News reaches more ears, and pray that it will also reach the hearts of those who hear it. But first, we ourselves have to make sure that we hear the truth of our awesome destiny, that we take this promise earnestly into our hearts and make it the wellspring of our thoughts and desires. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman who represents each of us: “Every one who drinks of this water [of earthly goods] will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:13–14). Only then, with this hope of endless life gushing up inside our hearts, can we be hopeful lights in the world of darkness, pointing to the true Light and never-ending Day.
[Originally published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review 108.10 (July 2008): 44–52.; Originally re-printed at 1P5 on August 26, 2015]
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book III, ch. 6.
 I say “welcome” because, according to the mystic St. Catherine of Genoa, the souls in purgatory, knowing that their heavenly reward is but delayed, throw themselves eagerly into the purifying fires in order to be worthy of the sight of the God for whom they long.
 Michael Casey, O.C.S.O., Fully Human, Fully Divine: An Interactive Christology (Liguori, Missouri: Liguori/Triumph, 2004), 307.
 Sebastian Moore, O.S.B., The Crucified Jesus is No Stranger (New York: The Seabury Press, 1981), 60. In citing this interesting book, I do not, of course, indicate my endorsement of any of Fr. Moore’s unorthodox opinions.
 Because the object enjoyed is one and the same infinite common good but the degrees of participation in this good vary according to the personal merits of the blessed, theologians distinguishes between formal beatitude, the personal activity of knowledge and love by which the blessed are joined to God and in which they subjectively experience their happiness, and objective beatitude, or the very object, namely God, which makes those who know and love it blessed.
 Antichrist, par. 18. I have not been able to locate the translation out of which I took this paragraph, but it is rendered in a similar way in any translation of this work (e.g., in H. L. Mencken’s translation, available on the internet).