I Believe in Life Everlasting
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J.
This article is recommended reading for Advanced Course Lesson 16 and 17.
If there is one truth of the Catholic faith that needs to be emphasized in our day, it is our belief in everlasting life. As we know, this means more than merely the continuation of our human life on earth. True enough, our souls will never die. In that sense, our life is eternal because our souls, once created by God at our conception, will continue living for all eternity.
But faith in life everlasting is deeper than merely believing that our souls will continue to exist once they leave the bodies when we die. Life everlasting is nothing less than the unending share in God’s own life. This participation in the life of God begins at Baptism. It is sustained by prayer and the Sacraments and obedience to the will of God here on earth. This life Jesus Christ restored to the human race by His death on the cross and continues to be nourished, especially by the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion.
It was worth going through this introduction on the meaning of everlasting life, lest we make the mistake of supposing that what we are professing in the closing Article of the Creed is only stating the fact that we shall never die.
What is Life Everlasting?
We may say that life everlasting is the spiritual life. This expression may sound unusual, but it is true. What do we mean when we say that the spiritual life is the eternal life? We mean two things.
- First of all we mean that the possession of sanctifying grace, which is the essence of the spiritual life, gives us the right to everlasting life in the beatific vision with God.
- There is, however, another sense in which the spiritual life is everlasting life. Already here on earth, provided we are in a state of God’s friendship, we are in possession of that life which we are to share forever with the Holy Trinity.
This bears more emphasis than is commonly given it. Why? Many people think of the spiritual life in terms of practicing the virtues of a life of prayer, of a life in imitation of Christ. All of this is true. However, in essence, the spiritual life is a share in that eternal life which Father, Son and Holy Spirit always had and always will have. After all, God is Life, without beginning and without end.
Our eternal life begins at Baptism. Once we define everlasting life as the supernatural life in which we share in the prerogatives of the Holy Trinity, then logically the supernatural life begins at Baptism by water or by desire. Moreover, as the baptismal ritual makes clear, it is God’s will that we never lose this eternal, supernatural life that we received when we were baptized. The verb “begins” is important. Everlasting life, as the supernatural life, does indeed begin at Baptism. But this everlasting life which had a beginning can have an end. The end is or would be the loss of sanctifying grace.
Everlasting life does not begin at our bodily death. Our souls are naturally immortal. Once they are created by God at our conception, they are never to end. Our souls have an eternal future. Consequently, it is simply not true to say that everlasting life, as the eternity of the soul, begins at our bodily death. Moreover, and most importantly, our eternal life, as the supernatural life, begins when we are baptized. This statement cannot be repeated too often. When our body dies, our hope is that our souls will then begin, not to possess everlasting life, but to enjoy everlasting life in the beatific vision of God.
We have just said that everlasting life begins when the human soul receives a share in the very life of God. This is much more than even the most learned pagan philosophers of history professed when they said that the soul of man will never die. Thus Plato speaks of the partnership of soul and body. In this partnership, the soul is master, and the body is a servant. Plato goes so far as to say that it is for the divine to command and rule, and for the mortal to serve and obey. Hence, it is the soul in us which plays the divine, the body which plays the mortal part. On these grounds, the soul is the permanent or divine thing in us; the body is the merely human and changeable. As Plato concludes, we should expect the body to perish, but the soul to be either wholly or almost imperishable.
As believing Christians, we do not speculate whether the soul is immortal or not. We know on faith that the human soul will never die.
We return to what we had been saying. In the closing Article of the Apostles’ Creed, we are not merely declaring what even pagan minds like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle held. We are professing that the human soul does, indeed, live on eternally. But more than that, we believe that, provided we die in the state of grace, our souls will share in the very happiness of the Holy Trinity.
Everlasting Life as the Beatific Vision
This Article of the Apostles’ Creed tells us, what is the essential joy of Heaven. The key word in this statement is the adjective “essential.” The beatific vision is essential to the joys of Heaven in two ways. Without this vision, there would be no Heaven. In other words, the beatific vision is Heaven experienced.
Having said this, however, we must immediately add that Heaven is more than seeing the face of God. I hesitate using the language, but I must say that all the other joys of Heaven, as great as they are, are not essential. In Heaven we shall enjoy the company and friendship of the angels and saints. In Heaven, we shall be reunited with those whom we have known and loved on earth. After the Last Day, we shall have our bodies satisfied with a depth of pleasure that can only be surmised here on earth. But all of these joys are not only not essential to the happiness of Heaven; they depend on our souls beholding the face of the all-beautiful God. Without the beatific vision, there would be no other joy in eternity.
Shall we see God in Heaven through creatures, as we “see” Him here on earth? Absolutely not! It is simply not true, because in Heaven God will be seen directly, immediately, intuitively. There will be no mediation of creatures between our minds and the infinite God. We shall see Him in a way that we cannot begin to comprehend. As far as it is possible for a creature, we shall see God as He sees Himself. Here on earth, there is no creature that sees us as we see ourselves, that knows us as we know ourselves. This is only a faint approximation of what it means to see God face-to-face.
No More Faith or Hope in Heaven
There is more still. The beatific vision is not only the immediate perception of God, no longer by faith, as in this life. In Heaven, we shall not have to know about, or learn about God, or discover something of the attributes of God through our knowledge of creatures. In Heaven there will be no need, as we say to ascend from creatures to God. Of course we shall remain creatures. But in Heaven we will be in contact with God, close to God, intimate with God, with a nearness that we can only believe we shall experience, but which we do not experience here on earth. In Heaven, we shall not even have our thoughts stand between ourselves and God.
I believe it is worth stressing the fact that in Heaven, there will be no virtue of faith. Why insist on this? One reason is that we need to deepen our understanding of the meaning of everlasting life. Here on earth, through the virtue of faith, we believe in everything which God has revealed. We assent with our minds to everything which God has told us is true. We accept God’s revelation, not because we know how or why something is true. We believe on the word of God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.
But in Heaven, there will be no more need of faith. Why not? Because we will no longer have to believe that which God tells us is true without seeing how or why it is true. In Heaven, we shall see how and why what we had believed on earth not only is true, but must be true. Of course the depth of our understanding will depend on the will of God. In Heaven we shall see in greater or less measure, according to God’s will and according to how deeply we had believed on earth. Seeing will no longer require believing.
One more observation. Shall we grow in our understanding of the mysteries that we had believed here on earth? Yes, indeed. In fact, over the years I have told my students this is one reason why Heaven must be eternal. It will take an eternity to even begin to begin to fathom the depths of truth that God will disclose to the souls of the saved, because they had believed in His word here in the darkness of our lives on earth.
There will also be no virtue of hope in Heaven. As we know, the virtue of hope is the confident desire of obtaining the good things that God has promised to those who love Him. What are these good things? Here on earth, they are all the graces we need, and the prospect of Heavenly glory in the life to come.
But once we reach Heaven, we shall no longer need God’s grace. Why not? Because grace is the means that we now need to reach our destiny. Having arrived at our destiny, we will no longer need the means of attaining that destiny. Moreover, we now hope to obtain heavenly glory. The same truth is to be applied here. Once we reach what we are hoping for, there will be no more hope, because there will be no need for anything beyond the vision of God.
In today’s world, we must be constantly aware and beware of the demonic errors that have penetrated into so many Christian circles from the non-Christian oriental world. Among these devastating errors is the folly of reincarnation. There is no reincarnation! When we are conceived, we do not even call that incarnation. It is not as though there are spirits afloat and in need of bodies in which to become incarnate. The moment we are conceived, body and soul coexist. In God’s design, both are destined for a heavenly eternity. Given these truths of our faith, once we have reached the destiny of our existence, we shall no longer have to hope in that which, by God’s grace, we have attained.
The Opposite of Everlasting Life is Everlasting Death
As we reflect on the closing Article of the Apostles’ Creed, it is well to draw a few sober conclusions from what we believe. I doubt if there is any single doctrine of Christianity that causes more scandal to those who do not share our faith than the mystery of Hell. Even among the faithful, belief in eternal punishment places a heavy burden on their minds. Why? Because it seems to run so counter to all that we believe about the goodness and mercy of God.
Certainly the existence of Hell is a mystery. This means that even after the fact has been revealed, we are still unable to comprehend why it must be so, or how the justice of God, which stands behind the mystery, can be reconciled with His infinite love.
Nevertheless, the fact is revealed, and the Catholic Church has never flinched in communicating this truth from Christ, along with the Savior’s assuring promise that His words will never fail.
From his youth, Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope Saint John XXIII, memorized a four-line stanza that remained a motto for the rest of his life. It was entitled, Four Future Things:
Death, than which nothing is more certain.
Judgement, than which nothing is more strict.
Hell, than which nothing is more terrible.
Paradise, than which nothing is more delightful.
We are reflecting on everlasting life. This is our hope, as it is also our fondest desire in this valley of tears. But we dare not forget that there is also an everlasting death. This should be a powerful motive, not only to follow Christ in carrying His cross. It should also inspire our zeal to bring as many souls as possible with us into a heavenly eternity.
The Meaning of Heaven
We are to grasp the meaning of what we believe, at the risk of having the devil steal our Faith. After all, there are two kinds of joy:
- the experience of present desires enjoyed,
- the hope of future desires satisfied.
The more clearly we now understand what Heaven means, the more deeply we shall enjoy our celestial eternity.
Reward Merited. We believe that we have a free will with which we are to cooperate with God’s grace. We cooperate and God rewards: in this life by giving us peace, and in the life to come by giving us heavenly glory.
What virtue especially are we to practice to earn Heaven as our reward? Mainly the virtue of charity:
- By loving God with our whole heart, with our whole soul, with all our strength and with our whole mind.
- By loving others, even as Christ has loved us, selflessly, generously, patiently, even to dying for others if this is the will of God.
End of Suffering. In the Book of Revelation, Christ revealed to Saint John, beginning with the question: “You see this city? Here God lives among men. He will make His home among them. They shall be His people, and He will be their God. His name is God With Them. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death and no more mourning or sadness. The world of the past has gone” (cf. Revelation 21:2-4). Here on earth, doing God’s will includes pain. In Heaven, doing God’s will excludes all sorrow and sadness and suffering. The mystics tell us the greatest joy on earth is the acceptance of pain in doing the will of God. But in Heaven, there is no pain, because in Heaven there is nothing contrary to our desires.
Unlike the joys on earth, in Heaven there is no fear of losing what we have. There is no covetousness or greed. In The Lord’s Prayer, we ask, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven.” In Heaven, everyone enjoys doing the will of God. Everyone does the will of God with all their heart.
The literature of all nations tells us that the single deepest source of unhappiness on earth is the envy of others. Our fallen human nature is sad when we see others possess what we lack or have others succeed where we have failed. In the City on High, no two saints will have the same degree of happiness. Yet, mysteriously, each one’s happiness will be increased by the absence of envy. Why? Because in Heaven we shall all love one another with perfect charity. The quotation is a bit long, but I think it is worth giving in full. It is Saint Anselm, the English Doctor of the Church, writing at the beginning of the twelfth century:
If anyone else whom you love as much as yourself possessed the same blessedness, your joy would be doubled because you would rejoice as much for him as for yourself. If two or many more have the same joy, you would rejoice as much for each one as for yourself, if you love each as yourself. Thus in that perfect love of innumerable angels and sainted men where none will love another less than himself, everyone will rejoice for each of the others as for himself.
If the heart of man will scarcely contain his joy over his own great good, how will it contain so many great joys? Because everyone rejoices as much in another’s good as he loves the other, it follows that, as in perfect happiness each one undoubtedly will love God beyond comparison and more than himself and all the others with himself, so he will rejoice beyond measure in the happiness of God, more than in his own and that of all the others with him.
Few aspects of the faith are more satisfying to the believing soul than the realization that, besides the vision of God, Heaven means interpersonal relationship among the blessed, and that ties of blood and friendship begun on earth will somehow continue into eternity.
There is one more saint that we should quote. It is Saint Thomas Aquinas in his explanation of the Apostles’ Creed. According to Aquinas, whatsoever is delightful will be enjoyed in Heaven superabundantly:
If we desire pleasure, there will be supreme and most perfect delight, because its object will be God, the sovereign good.
If we desire honors, all honors will be there. The highest ambition of a man, if he be a layman, is to be a king; and if he be a cleric, is to be a bishop, and both these honors are there.
If we desire knowledge, there will be the most perfect knowledge; because we shall know all natures of all things and all truth and whatsoever we wish, we shall know; and we shall possess whatsoever we desire to possess, together with eternal life itself.
In this world, there is no perfect security, since the more one has and the higher one’s position, the more reasons one has to fear, and the more one wants; whereas in eternal life, there is neither sorrow, nor toil, nor fear.
There are two reasons why the Church canonizes the saints.
- One reason is to ensure us that the saints are certainly in Heaven.
- The other reason is to inspire us to follow their example and thus reach our own heavenly destiny.
After all, we are here on earth for only one purpose, to return to the God from whom we came. But we have no illusions. We must pay the price of returning to our Creator. The price is nothing less than surrendering our wills to His divine will, here in time, so that we may be embraced by Him in that blessed eternity for which we were made.
Without apology, let me close with the prayer of Saint Alphonsus Liguori, in which he pleads with Christ and His Mother in words that deserve to be memorized;
My sweet Savior, and the love of my soul! In this valley of tears, I still see myself surrounded by enemies, who would separate me from Thee. My beloved Lord! Suffer me not to perish; make me ever love Thee in this life and in the next life, and then do with me what thou wilt. Queen of Paradise! If you pray for me, surely I shall be with thee eternally, to be in thy company, and to praise thee in Paradise. Amen.
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica