What Difference Does Heaven Make?

Marriage Supper of the Lamb

Heaven’s Difference

If a thing makes no difference, it is a waste of time to think about it. We should begin, then, with the question, What difference does Heaven make to earth, to now, to our lives?

The answer to the question is only the difference between hope and despair in the end, between two totally different visions of life; between “chance or the dance.”

At death we find out which vision is true: does it all go down the drain in the end, or are all the loose threads finally tied together into a gloriously perfect tapestry? Do the tangled paths through the forest of life lead to the golden castle or over the cliff and into the abyss? Is death a door or a hole?

To medieval Christendom, it was the world beyond the world that made all the difference in the world to this world. The Heaven beyond the sun made the earth “under the sun” something more than “vanity of vanities”. Earth was Heaven’s womb, Heaven’s nursery, Heaven’s dress rehearsal. Heaven was the meaning of the earth.

Nietzsche had not yet popularized the serpent’s tempting alternative: “You are the meaning of the earth.” Kant had not yet disseminated “the poison of subjectivism” by his “Copernican revolution in philosophy”, in which the human mind does not discover truth but makes it, like the divine mind. Descartes had not yet replaced the divine I AM with the human “I think, therefore I am” as the “Archimedean point”, had not yet replaced theocentrism with anthropocentrism.

Medieval man was still his Father’s child, however prodigal, and his world was meaningful because it was “my Father’s world” and he believed his Father’s promise to take him home after death.

This confidence towards death gave him a confidence towards life, for life’s road led somewhere. The Heavenly mansion at the end of the earthly pilgrimage made a tremendous difference to the road itself. Signs and images of Heavenly glory were strewn all over his earthly path. The “signs” were (1) nature and (2) Scripture, God’s two books, (3) general providence, and (4) special miracles. (The word translated “miracle” in the New Testament [sëmeion] literally means “sign”.)

The images surrounded him like the hills surrounding the Holy City. They, too, pointed to Heaven. For instance, the images of saints in medieval statuary were seen not merely as material images of the human but as human images of the divine, windows onto God. They were not merely stone shaped into men and women but men and women shaped into gods and goddesses.

Lesser images too were designed to reflect Heavenly glory: kings and queens, heraldry and courtesy and ceremony, authority and obedience – these were not just practical socio-economic inventions but steps in the Cosmic Dance, links in the Great Chain of Being, rungs on Jacob’s ladder, earthly reflections of Heaven. Distinctively premodern words like glory, majesty, splendor, triumph, awe, honor – these were more than words; they were lived experiences. More, they were experienced realities.

The glory has departed

We moderns have lost much of medieval Christendom’s faith in Heaven because we have lost its hope of Heaven, and we have lost its hope of Heaven because we have lost its love of Heaven. And we have lost its love of Heaven because we have lost its sense of Heavenly glory.

Medieval imagery (which is almost totally biblical imagery) of light, jewels, stars, candles, trumpets, and angels no longer fits our ranch-style, supermarket world. Pathetic modern substitutes of fluffy clouds, sexless cherubs, harps and metal halos (not halos of light) presided over by a stuffy divine Chairman of the Bored are a joke, not a glory.

Even more modern, more up-to-date substitutes – Heaven as a comfortable feeling of peace and kindness, sweetness and light, and God as a vague grandfatherly benevolence, a senile philanthropist – are even more insipid.

Our pictures of Heaven simply do not move us; they are not moving pictures. It is this aesthetic failure rather than intellectual or moral failures in our pictures of Heaven and of God that threatens faith most potently today. Our pictures of Heaven are dull, platitudinous and syrupy; therefore, so is our faith, our hope, and our love of Heaven.

It is surely a Satanic triumph of the first order to have taken the fascination out of a doctrine that must be either a fascinating lie or a fascinating fact. Even if people think of Heaven as a fascinating lie, they are at least fascinated with it, and that can spur further thinking, which can lead to belief. But if it’s dull, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a dull lie or a dull truth. Dullness, not doubt, is the strongest enemy of faith, just as indifference, not hate, is the strongest enemy of love.

It is Heaven and Hell that put bite into the Christian vision of life on earth, just as playing for high stakes puts bite into a game or a war or a courtship. Hell is part of the vision too: the height of the mountain is appreciated from the depth of the valley, and for winning to be high drama, losing must be possible.

For salvation to be “good news”, there must be “bad news” to be saved from. If all of life’s roads lead to the same place, it makes no ultimate difference which road we choose. But if they lead to opposite places, to infinite bliss or infinite misery, unimaginable glory or unimaginable tragedy, if the spirit has roads as really and objectively different as the body’s roads and the mind’s roads, and if these roads lead to destinations as really and objectively different as two different cities or two different mathematical conclusions – why, then life is a life-or-death affair, a razor’s edge, and our choice of roads is infinitely important.

We no longer live habitually in this medieval mental landscape. If we are typically modern, we live in ennui; we are bored, jaded, cynical, flat, and burnt out. When the skies roll back like a scroll and the angelic trump sounds, many will simply yawn and say, “Pretty good special effects, but the plot’s too traditional.” If we were not so bored and empty, we would not have to stimulate ourselves with increasing dosages of sex and violence – or just constant busyness. Here we are in the most fantastic fun and games factory ever invented – modern technological society – and we are bored, like a spoiled rich kid in a mansion surrounded by a thousand expensive toys. Medieval people by comparison were like peasants in toyless hovels – and they were fascinated. Occasions for awe and wonder seemed to abound: birth and death and love and light and darkness and wind and sea and fire and sunrise and star and tree and bird and human mind – and God and Heaven. But all these things have not changed, we have. The universe has not become empty and we, full; it has remained full and we have become empty, insensitive to its fullness, cold hearted.

Yet even in this cold heart a strange fire kindles at times – something from another dimension, another kind of excitement – when we dare to open the issue of Heaven, the issue of meeting God, with the mind and heart together. Like Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, we experience the shock of the dead coming to life.

You have had a shock like that before, in connection with smaller matters – when the line pulls at your hand, when something breathes beside you in the darkness. So here; the shock comes at the precise moment when the thrill of life is communicated to us along the clue we have been following. It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. “Look out!” we cry, “It’s alive!” And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back – I would have done so myself if I could – and proceed no further with Christianity. An “impersonal God” – well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness inside our own heads – better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power that we can tap-best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband – that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God”!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! (C.S. Lewis, Miracles pp. 113-114.)

When it does come to that, we feel a strange burning in the heart, like the disciples on the road to Emmaeus. Ancient, sleeping hopes and fears rise like giants from their graves. The horizons of our comfortable little four-dimensional universe crack, and over them arises an enormous bliss and its equally enormous absence. Heaven and Hell – suppose, just suppose it were really, really true! What difference would that make?

I think we know.


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About the Author

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and also at the King's College (Empire State Building), in New York City. He is a regular contributor to several Christian publications, is in wide demand as a speaker at conferences, and is the author of over 55 books including: Back to Virtue; The God Who Loves You; Heaven, The Heart's Deepest Longing; Everything You wanted to Know About Heaven; Your Questions - God's Answers; How To Win The Culture War; The Journey; Before I Go - Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters; and Jesus Shock.

Dr. Kreeft is a convert to the Catholic Church from reformed Protestantism. He earned an A.B. degree from Calvin College, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Fordham University, followed by post-doctoral work at Yale University. He has received several honors for achievements in the field of philosophy, including the Woodrow Wilson Award, Yale-Sterling Fellowship, Newman Alumni Scholarship, Danforth Asian Religions Fellowship, and a Weathersfield Homeland Foundation Fellowship.

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9 Comments

  1. Something strikes me as not entirely honest:

    “The answer to the question [whether there is a heaven] is only the difference between hope and despair in the end, between two totally different visions of life; between ‘chance or the dance.'”

    Indeed? So, according to the author, no one who does not believe in heaven (and, the article goes on to report, a very specific version of heaven) can possibly view his life with hope? This seems quite uncharitable to the countless traditions, even religious traditions, that offer a meaningful vision of human life without reference to heaven or hell. The ancient Jews did not even believe in heaven and hell, for example, yet still viewed their lives as hopeful within the context of a strictly this-world covenant. The modern atheist may view his life hopefully even believing that he will cease to exist upon his death, because he can hope that the totality of his life will be meaningful to others, because he may pour his meaning into a project, or so forth. You may disagree with him that there is a heaven or hell, but it seems like dishonesty to presume to tell him whether he should despair or not.

    Something else strikes me as entirely inhuman:

    “Hell is part of the vision too: the height of the mountain is appreciated from the depth of the valley, and for winning to be high drama, losing must be possible.”

    It has been some time since Nietzsche’s deep criticism of Christianity’s resentment and vengeful bitterness has been reaffirmed to me by such an excellent exemplar of that self-referential sadism: what is the joy of heaven, if not made more exquisite by the torments of Hell? How can I be happy, unless I see that others are unhappy (never mind that God was in infinite bliss before Hell and torment ever existed – unless, maybe, He too needed to see something tortured and unhappy to make sense of his bliss)? It is not enough that I achieve the mountaintop – I must be able to see those down below, suffering; in the words of the Summa, “The saints will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked, by considering therein the order of Divine justice and their own deliverance, which will fill them with joy.” Nothing is more horrifying (and farther from any meaningful application of the word ‘good’) that the idea of an omnipotent God turning His infinite wisdom to the task of preparing unending torments for His own creatures – and the followers that rejoice in this arrangement, who, like Dr. Kreeft, cannot imagine bliss without reference to torment.

  2. @ scottylellis

    Maybe Dr. Kreeft’s preliminary question is based on the hope of eternal life of the soul; maybe not on the hope of human utility, or apparent immortality by the transmission of an accomplishment or benevolent deed through the ages.

    Do you (scottylellis, Dr. Kreeft, or anyone else reading this) know what St. Thomas Aquinas means by “the wicked”? Does he mean the men and women in the purifying flames of purgatory who may not be entirely evil (possessed), or people who may not have known God, or does he mean the legions of demons and evil spirits in whatever state or location they may be, or all, or none of the above?

  3. dradley,

    The wicked referred to are indeed the damned, as in the reprobate of Hell, the vision of whose torments are an indirect source of joy for the blessed. But we don’t have to turn just to Thomas Aquinas for this image of sadistic revelry, when we have Tertullian:

    “At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness…”

    As to hope, sure, people who do not believe in an afterlife by definition cannot hope in an afterlife (but this is to narrow hope to a very specific definition and rigs the game a little). Of course, there are alternative visions of an “afterlife” or “continued existence” which do not involve the Christian heaven as well, but which still may involve some sort of hope.

  4. to: scottylellis

    There is one big problem with your reasoning. You equate the mind of God with the mind of man. The conclusions you present smack of jealousy,revenge, and half-truths.

    Some of the ancient Jews did INDEED believe in an after life – they were the Pharisees. It was the Sadducees who did not believe in an after life; that is why they were “sad…you see?”

    For instance, you make the presumption that those sharing in an afterlife in heaven will take with it a vengeful glee that others will be suffering in hell.

    What you fail to recognize it that ALL ties to earthly things – including jealousy and revenge – will be shed BEFORE a person enters into heaven. For a small percentage of the population the work needed to shed these ties will happen here on earth and they will enter heaven directly upon their death. For most of us, it will mean a great deal of time spent in purgatory to receive purification.

    The greatest torment of hell will be eternal separation from Love; in other words, eternal separation from God. God sends no one to hell. Heaven or hell is a choice made my each person and there will be no gloating in heaven, only sorrow at the loss of yet another soul.

  5. @ scottylellis,

    I find it interesting that you immediately leap from what Dr. Kreeft has written, that there must be a clear alternative, heaven or hell, to the idea that in Christian theology, those in heaven must take pleasure at the suffering of those in hell. Yes St. Thomas wrote about that in the Summa, but not Dr. Kreeft here. Lets remember also that there are certainly different ways of understanding what Thomas wrote. Sure there is the sadistic reading that you and others insist upon, but there is also the notion of the satisfaction of justice and relief at the escape from a similar fate; a fate that is earned by each of us and that can only be avoided by accepting God’s grace (Hopefully that grace will become clear even to the greatest unbeliever at the hour of death so that they may be redeemed as well).

    Now on to your original point. Lets remember that this article is written from a Catholic perspective for Catholics (or at least Christians). Obviously we believe in the truth of our view of heaven. From that perspective, those who do not believe in God and heaven either must dispair or have embraced false hope of there being any real meaning in life. I would point out that the Old Testament Jews did not always seem entirely comfortable with the idea of extinction or sheol upon their Deaths. The book of Ecclesiastes in particular talks about the meaningless of life. As for the atheist who finds “meaning” lets be honest and remember that no such meaning can survive the long the death of the person who finds it.

  6. Carla W.,

    Having as of yet never spoken with God, I must content myself with what men have said about Him, and in this case what Christians have said about Him and the nature of Hell. And as Tertullian demonstrates, there is no lack of vengefulness in the Christian conception of Hell (one can look at Jesus himself for this revenge, embodied in the curse on Capernaum or which he told the disciples to place on cities unwelcoming to their message). Of course, I am not pretending that this is the sole motive ascribed to Hell – Dante, in one of the great ironies of fiction, names love as the motive to Hell. I am simply pointing out that it has been an undeniable part of the history of belief in Hell, and furthermore that Hell itself has roots in the concept of revenge – that is, in the concept of retribution, expiation, and “paying back what is owed,” the pound of flesh.

    The very ancient Jews in general did not believe in an afterlife, and the Sadducees were relatively late and belief in an afterlife likely came about through interactions with Persia. But all that aside, it is clear that Judaism is not essentially a religion concerned with an afterlife.

    As for my presumptions, I believe I have indicated my sources – Christianity has a tradition of Hell which does, in fact, contain the notion that the blessed will rejoice at the torments of the damned, which they will see clearly through the beatific vision. Your notion that in heaven there will be “sorrow at the loss of yet another soul” I believe to be quite human but ultimately foreign to traditional Christian concepts of Hell (I would encourage you to follow the more humane road and see where it leads you vis a vis your belief in Hell). So, consider a man who has loved his wife of thirty years dearly, and she him. She kills a man and immediately dies and winds up in Hell. The husband winds up in Heaven. Thomas Aquinas would have us believe (and, indeed, Dr. Kreeft) that the man’s eternal bliss is made more complete by the fact that his wife is suffering (in his full view) for all eternity.

  7. MaryandBill,

    Dr. Kreeft wrote, “Hell is part of the vision too: the height of the mountain is appreciated from the depth of the valley, and for winning to be high drama, losing must be possible.”

    Now, is this view inherently sadistic? Not necessarily, although I would have to ignore much that has been said about Hell within Christianity to avoid this conclusion. But even if it is not explicitly sadistic, it still covers over a multitude of horrors: let’s say my daughter commits a crime, even a heinous one, for which she is sentenced to death by the authorities. She admits she committed it, but she is not sorry she committed it. What am I to say about the execution? That I as a father am happy that my daughter is being executed? That I am even happy that “justice has been done?”

    Now expand the sentence to eternity, an eternity of my daughter suffering in my full view. I believe the inhumanity of Hell is not solved by reference to “justice has been done” for two reasons: one, our love for someone (and our desire to not see them eternally harmed) is not contingent upon their adherence to a moral law, and, two, there is no true justice in someone being tormented for eternity for a crime committed within a mortal timespan (indeed, the attempted Christian solution to this injustice is to refer the duration of the punishment not to the quality of the punishment itself, but to the nature of the one offended, God – as though our sins in any way can truly harm God!).

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