My last column piece dealt on the plausibility of hell. This time, I turn my attention on the celestial, eternal life that is heaven.
How does heaven look like? Given the picturesque panorama of perfect beauty, peace, and happiness – would we, in heaven, be wearing a permanent smile while basking in beatitudes? Seems quite boring, isn’t it so?
Here are some insights from three contemporary thinkers – one physicist and two philosophers – who are simultaneously believers.
First is Russell Stannard, a high-energy particle physicist at the Open University, London. For him, theology can make sense of deep ideas in science, like the relativity theory. Stannard first tries to distinguish between “everlasting” and “eternal” life, adding that the former is “living forever in time” while the latter is “beyond time”.
Heaven hence, for Stannard, is “eternal” life because it transcends or goes beyond the concept of time.
Stannard believes that heaven as “eternal life” is plausible and is not a state of boredom, as can be gleaned from the scientific theory of relativity. “I remember going to a lecture and got the impression that in heaven, there seems to be an awful lot of standing doing nothing. But for me, it’s not. Given that eternal life means ‘beyond time’ and as the relativity theory posits that the past, present, and future are on relatively equal footing – this is similar to the theological idea that in heaven somehow God is able to take in the whole of time in one glorious vision, so God is not bored. Somehow, he gets over the boredom business by being outside of time, rather than being a prisoner of time,” Stannard explained.
Second, we have Robin Collins, an American Christian philosopher who is currently a professor and department chair of philosophy at Messiah University, Pennsylvania, USA.
Collins argues that the heavenly eternal life, for all its platitudes of peace and serenity, is not boring at all.
“I don’t think of eternal life as going to heaven and talking to God or playing the harp for all eternity. Eternal life is participation in the divine nature, which can mean maximum fulfilment of our highest desires, like transcendence and expansion of creativity,” Collins said.
But, it may be asked: how is the process of becoming boring prevented if we are dealing with eternal amount of time?
Collins is quick to answer: “When you have infinity and an infinite number of things to do and an infinite number of realms to explore, you keep going deeper and deeper at every stage. So, I don’t think repetitiveness becomes a problem. Like when you do deep meditation and become very repetitive, the repetition can simply get into a deeper and deeper level.”
Then lastly, but not the least, is Thomas Flint, a Catholic philosopher from Notre Dame University, USA.
For Flint, eternal life in heaven is but a blissful union with the divine nature, and this is founded on the unity of the human and divine natures in the one person of Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity.
“Christians believe that, in the case of Jesus, there are two categories of unity – first is the Trinitarian union of Christ, as second person, with God; second is the union of the two natures, divine and human, in the one person of Christ,” Collins firstly explains.
Then he adds: “If this is true with Jesus, this can also be said for humans to describe their union with God in the eternal life of heaven.”
But whilst, the precipitating question is: If we are united with God in heaven, do we become part of God or the same like God? What about our individuality?
Flint readily answers: “No, not the same like God. (In heaven), I would no longer be a person if I were assumed into the person of the Son of God, in the same way that the historical Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t a separate person from the Son of God. Yes, I will retain my individuality, and as Aquinas says it’s an infinite gain for a body-soul composite to be united to a divine person, my person would be united to God.”
What about our Catholic magisterium? What does it say about the heavenly eternal life?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) # 1024 verily says: “This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity is called ‘heaven’. Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.”
But, as the Church teaches, heaven defies temporal description or understanding. “This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scriptures speak of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise.”
In sum, I find it exigent to put forward the following cogent points: (1) that heavenly eternal life is way beyond time and space (hence, a state, not place) and far beyond our tangible understanding or description; (2) that, regardless of the contention by some that union with God is “becoming like God”, what is more plausible is that being with God (contemplation of God or “beatific vision”) is certainly partaking of the divine life; and (3) as God is infinite, and so is heaven eternal, hence, in the divine scheme of things, heavenly happiness and creativity spring eternal too – and definitely not boring!
In the final analysis, I cannot avoid echoing St. Augustine when he exclaimed: “Inquietum est cor meum, Domine, donec requiescat in Te (Restless is my heart, O Lord, until it rests in Thee)!”
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