“Getting to heaven is often given as the reason we should be good. Unfortunately, heaven is frequently presented as a place of fluffy clouds and baby angels playing harps. In fact, my own idea of heaven growing up was largely shaped by such popular depictions epitomized by the movie The Littlest Angel. In light of these depictions, it’s no wonder that heaven isn’t particularly attractive to many people. Even if we don’t imagine fluffy clouds, we probably think of eternal life as a continuation of this life, forever; but, of course, without all of the bad stuff that goes along with our day-to-day lives.
That’s an excellent pagan version of heaven, like the Greek Fields of Elysium or the Norse Halls of Valhalla. But if heaven is just the best of this life forever, it’s nothing more than a delayed hedonism. Are we just being good now for a little while so that we can do whatever we want for eternity? God promises us that heaven is far more than that.
In the Bible, heaven seems strange. We read a description of God as one seated on a throne who “looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald”(Rev 4:3). Also, “in front of the throne, there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal”(Rev 4:6). Jesus is depicted as “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes”(Rev 5:6); other denizens of heaven include “living creatures, each of them with six wings, [who] are full of eyes all around and inside”(Rev 4:8). All of the depictions of heaven are surreal because they are trying to tell us about something we can’t understand yet. “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”(1 Cor 2:9). Heaven is not worth the trouble if it’s something we already understand. Heaven is more. It’s more than the best we’ve ever experienced. It’s more than the best we’ve ever imagined.
The eternal rest that we so often speak of is more than an eternal lazy day in bed. Such days are nice because they are a relief from the cares of the world, but we would quickly grow bored with them. Life in heaven is an active rest. It’s the combination of the peace of that lazy day in bed with the rush that comes after a difficult struggle. Rest and activity are paradoxically present together because we are in no way disturbed by the activity in which we participate.
My favorite description of heaven comes from Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P.’s spiritual meditation on the Summa, My Way of Life: “Even in heaven itself, where we shall have an unobscured view of divinity, our knowledge will be joyously incomplete, stopping as far short of exhaustion of the ineffable as the finite stops short of the infinite; through all the length of eternity, there will always be more for us to know of God.”
Heaven will be an eternity of moments where each moment is better than the last. It will not be the elimination of our thirst to know God more deeply, but the unceasing satisfaction of an ever-deepening thirst being quenched. Part of that ever-increasing knowledge will be a continually expanding awareness of how much God loves us. As God shares Himself with us for eternity, the friendship we have with Him will grow ever more rich.”