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Richard G. Malloy, SJ Answers:
Quetsion: How can we be sure that heaven exists? In the whole history of the world how come no one has ever crossed over or communicated from heaven? It seems that we were created from nothing, then it makes sense that we would go back to nothing. Thanks very much busted halo for answering.
How can we be sure anything exists beyond our immediate, personal experience? I’ve never been to China, but I am sure it exists. I’ve never seen my DNA, but I know it’s there. Consideration of epistemological methods (“How do we know?”) is one of the hallmarks of the Catholic intellectual tradition from St. Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas to Thomas Merton, Karl Rahner, S.J., and Bernard Lonergan, S.J., in the 20th century. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict have published lengthy meditations on how we know the truths of our faith. The fact that such heavyweight intellectual reflection has always been part of the Catholic tradition deeply consoles me. “Smart faith” is much better than “dumb faith.”
We know there is a heaven the way we know anything else. We experience, understand and make a judgment. Some things we know from immediate experience (I exist. I am in Philadelphia at this moment. I need to lose 10 pounds… OK, 25). Most of what we know we accept as true on the witness of credible authority. I was born on Sept. 6th. The only way I know that is because I believe what my mother told me. I cannot claim to remember the auspicious event. Scientists tell me the universe is made of billions of galaxies and evolution happens. I know these facts are true because I believe the scientific community. Much of what we accept as true we accept because it makes sense to us, i.e., we judge that what we are told is reasonable.
Is it reasonable to judge there is a heaven? One of the most startling moments in my life was when I realized I was (1) going to live forever, or (2) at some point I would cease to exist. Since I exist now, it seems more reasonable to me to judge that whatever or whoever called me into existence, and causes me to exist now, will see that I continue to exist forever. Obviously, I know that I will die. So, I hope and trust that life beyond this life is real. I have experienced my existence, I understand I cannot cause myself to exist, and I make the judgment that whatever has caused me to exist will continue to cause me to exist. In that sense I know there is an afterlife.
I also hope that what the church teaches, in scripture and tradition, is true, i.e. that life beyond death is with God in heaven. Heaven is not so much a place, or series of puffy clouds on which we will sit playing harps. Heaven is the condition we will exist in when we are resurrected and fully transformed in Christ. We will live in the presence of God and be filled with joy as we praise God forever. The old Baltimore Catechism had it right years ago: “Why did God make me? To know, reverence and serve him in this life, and to be happy with him forever in heaven.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes that of all creatures, we are “called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that [we were] created” (CCC #356).
More erudite descriptions are those of David Stanley, S.J. and Pope Benedict. Stanley writes in his Scriptural Approach to the Exercises (1967): “Heaven… is not a kind of perennial ‘Old Folks Home.’ … Heaven [is] our participation in the reign and mastery of the Risen Christ over the course of the world’s history” (p. 283). As Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict writes in his Introduction to Christianity (1970): “Heaven is to be defined as the contact of the being of man (sic) with the being of God. … Heaven is accordingly that future of man and mankind which the latter cannot give to itself. … Therefore, heaven is always more than a private individual destiny” (p. 240).
We are saved in community. Heaven is the reality to which we are moving, to which God is drawing us, in our existence as human persons. We believe that Christ did and does communicate to us from heaven. This is the audacious claim of our faith: our God loves us so much that God has revealed in Christ our eternal destiny. We celebrate that future destiny when we celebrate the sacraments. We live in hope of our being graced, i.e. gifted, with heaven.
Fr. Rick Malloy, S.J., is a Jesuit priest, fisherman and author. He is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, and serves as a Chaplain at the college. His book, A Faith That Frees: Catholic Matters for the 21st Century, (Orbis Books 2007) examines the relationships between the practices of faith and the cultural currents and changes so rapidly occurring in our ever more technologized and globalized world.