Most of us are involved in doing things, and a lot of us really enjoy them. I enjoy playing the piano, my wife puttering in the garden, my daughter the midwife helping deliver babies. But there won’t be any pianos, gardens needing work, ladies in labor, etc. in heaven. No harps, either – just to eliminate that stereotype.
So wouldn’t it be helpful to us mortals to have a somewhat reliable image of what our state might be, if and when we get there?
In an age of empirical science, one possible source of information about the afterlife might be books about Near Death Experiences (NDEs) – e.g., best sellers such as To Heaven and Back: a Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again; Heaven is for Real: a Little Boy’s Astounding Story of his Trip to Heaven and Back; or Proof of Heaven: a Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife .
But if you pick one up, lower your expectations: these books, often 200 pages or more, usually include a mere four or five pages of “travel” information – relatives or friends met in heaven, angels, Jesus, the Light, and great infusions of knowledge too ineffable to reveal. Or the Near-Death Experiencer is prohibited from revealing what he or she learned.
Other sources available are the accounts from visionary saints, favored with special revelations. The Catholic Church has produced quite a few of such visionaries. But oddly, it seems that the most prolific revelations have not been of Heaven, or even Hell, but rather Purgatory. St. Frances of Rome, St. Catherine of Genoa, St. Magdalen of Pazzi, St. Bridget, and others, dedicated to intercessions for poor souls in purgatory, have published accounts of their sufferings.
Possibly the relative lack of visions of heaven stems from the sheer incommensurability of the experience of heaven to anything on earth. 1 John 3:2 says that the change in the afterlife will be so profound, that it is inexpressible: “We are now the sons of God; and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know, that, when he shall appear, we shall be like to him: because we shall see him as he is.” And St. Paul (1 Cor. 2:9) seems to warn us not even to try to conjecture what heaven will be like: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him.”
On the other hand, a few things seem to be clear: Before bodily resurrection, souls in heaven will have no body, nor hands and feet. And Jesus tells us those who are saved “shall be as the angels of God in heaven.” (Matt. 22:30)
Salvation depicted: The Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, c. 1431
St. Thomas Aquinas, fortunately, had some of the same questions we might have: he wanted to know some specifics about what separated souls, sans bodies, are capable of in the afterlife.
In the Summa Theologiae, he probes Scripture, Aristotle, the writings of Augustine and other Fathers, and offers some conclusions that seem to dovetail with NDE literature. For example, he says the soul freed from the body will be in one sense incomplete, since it has a natural orientation towards union with the body, but it will also have “greater freedom of intelligence, since the weight and care of the body is a clog upon the clearness of its intelligence in the present life.”
Thus Aquinas agrees with the unanimous testimony of NDERs about the tremendous freedom and intellectual clarity that characterized their separation. Also, the separated soul will not be able to have any influence on material things. This echoes the experience of NDERs who experience themselves going through walls and other material things.
In discussing the “separated soul,” Aquinas frequently uses analogies from Jesus’ parable (Luke 16:19-31) of the rich man (Dives) in Hell, who beseeches “Father Abraham” to send the beggar whom he ignored (Lazarus) with a drop of water to cool his tongue, or at least to allow Lazarus to warn his five brothers so they can escape his torments.
Just as Dives was able to see Abraham in heaven, souls – being purely spiritual – will be able to see and communicate at a great distances with other souls and even with angels. Like Dives, they will have memories of what took place in their life on earth, and what they have done or experienced. And just as Dives was concerned about warning his five brothers about Hell, separated souls may have concerns about persons still on earth, although they may lack full knowledge of their state.
Souls will retain the intellectual habits and concepts that they formed in life, but without connections to sensible images and memories. But their main cognitive powers will come from God himself. The human soul will derive its intellectual light directly from Him, according to Ps. 4:7, “The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us.”
Finally, there will be no faith, since faith is of things unseen, nor hope, since hope is of things not yet possessed, but only charity, which remains in the next life, and even will be the measure of an individual’s happiness: “The greater the charity from which our actions proceed, the more perfectly shall we enjoy God.”
It is possible that NDEs give us an indication of what the initial entrance into the afterlife is like. But since nothing impure can enter into the presence of God, most of us may need to slowly learn to leave behind a lot of bad habits we hold quite dear.
Maybe that explains why so many saints talk more about Purgatory than Heaven.