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Heaven holds many mysteries

Published on -8/1/2014, 9:07 AM

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The best-selling book and the popular film "Heaven is for Real" have enjoyed surprising success. While this topic is fresh in the public's imagination, it might be an opportune time to offer scriptural and theological perspectives on heaven.

Both the book and the movie surely have comforted many Christians who must live in a secular world which often is hostile to their faith. The promise of eternal life is a bedrock tenant of the Christian faith. In the gospel of John Christ promised, "I am the resurrection and the life: whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live; and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die."

Scripture, however, says little about the specifics of such an eternal life with God. In fact, it cautions us against material images of divine life. St. Paul cites the Prophet Isaiah, "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard nor has it entered the human heart what God has prepared for those who love him."

When the Bible describes the next life in graphic terms, such as "a great feast" or "many rooms in my Father's house" or even "fiery Gehenna," scriptures scholars caution us such images are analogies rather than factual descriptions.

Theologians also are v cautious regarding the specifics of our eternal reward. Respected authors through the ages, such as Thomas Aquinas, Rudolph Bultmann and Avery Dulles have written extensively on eschatology, which is the technical term for the world to come.

Yet their vocabulary remains in the realm of principles and basic concepts. They seldom employ concrete details because the experiences and the images of this life are not adequate to portray the reality of life with God. But we try, instinctively. St. Augustine wrote, "Our hearts are restless and they cannot rest until they rest in God." Dante's Paradiso might be the greatest of the many literary efforts to describe life with God.

Scripture does offer us examples of people entering the next life and returning to this life, such as Elijah and Lazarus. One might hope they would have given us, on the authority of Scripture, descriptions of sharing divine life with God. But they tell us nothing of their experience in eternity.

It is possible, but unlikely, God would offer a child the experience of divine life, which the child might then recall with age-appropriate images. If such a revelation were given, it must be understood in the context of a child's ability to articulate a mystical experience.

Why such a cautious approach? Veteran preachers have learned not to overstate certainty in matters of faith. If factual evidence should rebut an overzealous statement of faith, the faith of good people can be harmed. Even authentic faith is fragile.

It is a fundamental tenant of the Christian faith that heaven is real. But "Heaven is for Real" might not be for real. How then are people of faith to deal with their innate curiosity about our eternal destiny? In the words of a noted spiritual writer, "Be prepared to be surprised."

Father Earl Meyer is a Capuchin Franciscan priest at the Capuchin Center for Spiritual Life at Victoria.

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