What is paradise?
When a family member or friend dies, we often find ourselves reflecting on the question “where are they now?” As mortal beings, it is a matter of fundamental importance for each of us. Different cultural groups, and different individuals within them, respond with numerous, often conflicting, answers to questions about life after death. For many, these issues are rooted in the idea of reward for the good (a heaven) and punishment for the wicked (a hell), where earthly injustices are finally corrected. However, these common roots do not guarantee a contemporary agreement on the nature, or even the existence, of hell and heaven. Pope Francis himself raised Catholic eyebrows with some of his comments about heaven, recently telling a boy that his late father, an atheist, was with God in heaven because, by his careful parenting, “he had a good heart”. So, what is the Christian idea of “heaven”? Beliefs about what happens in death The first Christians believed that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead after his crucifixion, would return soon to complete what he had started with his preaching: the establishment of the Kingdom of God. This second coming of Christ would put an end to the effort to unify all humanity in Christ and would result in the final resurrection of the dead and the moral judgment of all human beings. In the middle of the first century AD, Christians were concerned about the fate of members of their churches who had already died before this second coming. Some of the early Christian New Testament documents, epistles or letters written by the apostle Paul, offered an answer. The dead simply fell asleep, they explained. When Christ returns, the dead will also be raised in renewed bodies and will be judged by Christ himself. Afterwards, they would be united to him forever. Some theologians in the early centuries of Christianity agreed. But a growing consensus developed that the souls of the dead were kept in a kind of state of waiting until the end of the world, when they would be reunited with their bodies, resurrected in a more perfect form. Promise of eternal life After the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the early fourth century, the number of Christians grew enormously. Millions of converts across the Empire, and at the end of the century, the state’s ancient Roman religion was banned. Based on the Gospels, bishops and theologians emphasized that the promise of eternal life in heaven was open only to the baptized – that is, those who had undergone the ritual of immersion in water that purified the soul from sin and marked the entrance to the church. All others were condemned to eternal separation from God and punishment for sin. In this new Christian empire, baptism was increasingly administered to children. Some theologians contested this practice, as children could not yet commit sins. But in the Christian West, belief in “original sin” – the sin of Adam and Eve when they disobeyed God’s order in the Garden of Eden (the “Fall”) – prevailed. Following the teachings of Saint Augustine in the 4th century, Western theologians in the 5th century AD believed that even children were born with the sin of Adam and Eve, spoiling their spirit and will. But that doctrine raised a worrying question: What about those babies who died before baptism can be administered? In the beginning, theologians taught that their souls went to Hell, but they suffered very little or nothing. Limbo’s concept developed from this idea. Popes and theologians of the 13th century taught that the souls of unbaptized babies or young children enjoyed a state of natural happiness on the “edge” of Hell, but, like those most severely punished in Hell itself, the bliss of presence God’s. Time of judgment During times of war or plague in antiquity and the Middle Ages, Western Christians often interpreted social chaos as a sign of the end of the world. However, over the centuries, the Second Coming of Christ has generally become a more remote event for most Christians, still expected, but relegated to an indeterminate future. Instead, Christian theology focused more on the moment of individual death. The trial, the assessment of the moral status of each human being, was no longer postponed to the end of the world. Each soul was first judged individually by Christ immediately after death (the “Private” Judgment), as well as at the Second Coming (the Final or General Judgment). Deathbed rituals or “Last Rites” developed from previous rites for the sick and penitent, and most had the opportunity to confess their sins to a priest, be anointed and receive a “final” communion before giving the last Sigh. protected from sudden or unexpected death, because they feared that baptism alone would not be enough to enter heaven directly without these Last Rites. Another doctrine developed. Some still died guilty of minor or venial sins, such as common gossip, petty theft or small lies that did not completely exhaust the grace of God in someone’s soul. After death, these souls would first be “cleansed” from any sin or guilt remaining in a spiritual state called Purgatory. After this spiritual cleansing, usually seen as fire, they would be pure enough to enter heaven. Only those who were extraordinarily virtuous, like the saints, or those who had received the Last Rites, could enter heaven directly and in the presence of God. Images of paradise In ancient times, in the early centuries of the Common Era, the Christian paradise shared certain characteristics with both Judaism and Hellenistic religious thinking about the afterlife of the virtuous. One was an almost physical rest and refreshment, as after a trip in the desert, often accompanied by descriptions of banquets, fountains or rivers. In the book of Revelation of the Bible, a symbolic description of the end of the world, the river that crosses the New Jerusalem of God was called the “water of life” river. However, in the Gospel of Luke, the condemned were plagued by thirst. Another was the image of light. Romans and Jews thought of the abode of the wicked as a place of darkness and shadows, but the divine abode was filled with brilliant light. Heaven was also charged with positive emotions: peace, joy, love and the bliss of spiritual fulfillment that Christians came to refer to as the Beatific Vision, the presence of God. Visionaries and poets used a variety of additional images: flowery meadows, indescribable colors, trees full of fruit, company and conversation with family or others dressed in white among the blessed. Bright angels stood behind God’s dazzling throne and sang praises in exquisite melodies. The Protestant Reformation, initiated in 1517, would severely break with the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe in the 16th century. Although both sides argued about the existence of Purgatory, or if only a few were predestined by God to enter heaven, the existence and general nature of heaven itself was not an issue. Heaven as God’s place. Today, theologians offer a variety of opinions about the nature of heaven. Anglican CS Lewis wrote that even pets can be admitted, united in love with their owners as owners are united in Christ through baptism. Following the 19th century Pope Pius IX, Jesuit Karl Rahner taught that even non-Christians and non-believers could still be saved through Christ if they lived up to similar values, an idea now found in the Catholic Catechism. The Catholic Church itself abandoned the idea of Limbo, leaving the fate of children not baptized “to the mercy of God”. However, one theme remains constant: paradise is the presence of God, in the company of others who have responded to God’s call in their own lives. This article was republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. Read more: * How the Catholic Church opposed birth control * How Catholic women fought the Vatican’s ban on contraceptives * How did celibacy become mandatory for priests? Joanne M. Pierce is a Roman Catholic member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Consultation in the USA, a national ecumenical dialogue group sponsored by the United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Episcopal Church.