Heaven: Miracle or Entitlement?

March 15, 2012

Our readers might be interested in my latest offering on The Jesuit Post.  Here’s how it starts:

In my current line of work—I’m the administrator of three small parishes on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota—I deal with a lot of funerals.  I schedule them; I lead prayers; I empty the ashes out of the censer afterwards.  I’ve helped to bury everyone from the saintly to those who haven’t seen the inside of a church since they were baptized.

The job causes one to hear and say and think quite a bit about the life after this one, which is a good thing: in our liturgy, in fact, we ask God to turn our thoughts from the things of this world to the things of heaven.  And contrary to what skeptics like Nietzsche thought, a lively belief in heaven helps one live a good life here below; the courage of the saints and martyrs would never have been possible without it.

And yet…

…and yet, I often find myself cringing at the things people say about heaven.  Atheists have historically mocked Christians’ belief in paradise as an opiate—a comforting fantasy, a fairy tale we tell ourselves to soften the pain of loss.  And sometimes I find myself agreeing with Christianity’s critics.

I’ve noticed, for example, a tendency among many to attempt to remake heaven in our own image.  So if Grandpa really loved donuts, heaven gets described as an all-you-can-eat Dunkin’ Donuts, open 24 hours, where the Bavarian cream is always fresh and smooth.

You will be relieved to know that even though I cringe inwardly when I hear someone preach hope in an everlasting supply of jelly donuts, I don’t jump in with, “Actually-it’s-not-like-that.”  Still, I can’t help but think how awful such a “heaven” would be—even if one were spared the indigestion.  As Pope Benedict put it, reflecting on the possibility of an endless prolongation of this life:  “…to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable” (Spe Salvi, 10).

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Ratzinger on Christ’s Descent into Hell

September 22, 2009

 Christ's Descent into Hell by Maulleigh.

Many WD readers will recall the theological skirmish which once, twice, and thrice erupted on the pages of First Things two and a half years ago.  The warring parties were Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Fr. Edward T. Oakes, S.J.  The point in question was Hans Urs von Balthasar’s controversial Holy Saturday theology, wherein he argues that Christ’s descent into hell was a passive, i.e., suffering, descent.  The traditional Holy Saturday motif is of the triumphant Christ descending in glory.  Pitstick argued that it is “undeniable that [Balthasar’s] theology of Christ’s descent entails a de facto, and sometimes even conscious, rejection of Catholic tradition.”  Oakes defended Balthasar’s orthodoxy, proposing that Pitstick’s “real service has been to argue against Balthasar so disagreeably that she will end up midwifing his theology into the mainstream of Church thinking.” Read the rest of this entry »