Is Heaven a Place or State of Being or Both?
Dear Father John, I read recently that the late Cardinal George, God rest his soul, said that heaven is not a place. I’ve also heard this mentioned elsewhere. I have a good understanding of what Jesus said about the kingdom of heaven being within you, among you, etc. But, it seems to me that saying heaven is not a place denies the bodily Ascension of Christ into heaven (and the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Mother for that matter). We say in the Creed “He ascended into Heaven.” So, what is heaven? Is it a state of being, a place, or both? I think it is both, by the way, but I would like to hear the “official” Church position. Thank you and God bless you!
This is an interesting question. I think the answer really depends on what you mean by “place.” If by that word you mean what we generally mean when we use the word here on earth, namely a particular point in time and space as we currently know it, then heaven can’t really be a place. Heaven is life in perfect communion with God and the saints, and so it is outside the limits of time and space as we know it here in this created and fallen world. I think this is the sense in which our theologians speak of Heaven as being more of a state of being. They don’t want to give the impression that heaven is, say, a few hundred light years away, after making a right turn past this or that galaxy. The way we will exist in Heaven will be a different way of existing than we know now, a different mode of existing.
A limited but useful illustration of this would be comparing the life of a baby in its mother’s womb to the life of that same baby after it has been born into the world. The dimensions, the confines, the experience is radically different inside and outside the womb. In a certain sense, life on earth is like life inside the womb, and Heaven would be like life outside the womb. Here on earth we are being prepared for the fullness of life in Heaven. But the difference between earthly life and heavenly life is even more fundamental than the difference between life as a baby in a womb and outside the womb. It is impossible for us to understand just how different. As the Bible tells us, “What eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him…” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
We get a glimpse of this through Christ’s appearances after his Resurrection. He is not limited by time and space in the same way as he was before his Resurrection. He is truly, physically existing – his Apostles touch his wounds and share a meal with him – but he is able to move through walls and his appearance is mysterious. We don’t understand it fully, but we know that the life of glory will be qualitatively different for us after the final judgment and resurrection of the dead. Yes, we will have bodies, but our bodily existence will be glorified so that the categories of time and space – of “place” – as we understand them here below will simply not apply. Thus, the preference to speak of heaven as a “state of being.”
You may also find some light and stimulation in re-reading the Catechism’s numbers on Heaven. It speaks of Heaven in terms of what life will be like – full communion with God and with all the saints. It doesn’t define what that will look like in concrete terms, but just focuses on the essence of the experience:
Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live for ever with Christ… and other faithful who died after receiving Christ’s holy Baptism (provided they were not in need of purification when they died, . . . or, if they then did need or will need some purification, when they have been purified after death, . . .) already before they take up their bodies again and before the general judgment… have been, are and will be in heaven, in the heavenly Kingdom and celestial paradise with Christ, joined to the company of the holy angels… This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity – this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed – is called “heaven.” Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness. To live in heaven is “to be with Christ.” (CCC 1023-1025)
I hope these thoughts help you reflect more deeply on a topic that, I truly believe, we cannot think about too much. Thank you for your question, and God bless you!
In Him, Fr. John Bartunek, LC
Art: Poem of the Soul – The Golden Stairs, Louis Janmot, 1854, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less; partial restoration detail of Incredulità di San Tommasso (Incredulity of Saint Thomas), Alonzo Rodriguez, 16th century, PD-US author’s life plus 70 years or less; both Wikimedia Commmons. Galaxy Cluster MOO J1142+1527, NASA/JPL-Caltech/Gemini/CARMA, Nov. 3, 2015, PD.