What Will We Do in Heaven?

What will we do there? This is probably the wrong question, but it’s the first question that comes to mind – unless we envision Heaven as something analogous to laying on the beach and “catching rays” or existing in the rarified company of pure contemplatives.

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.


Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Ib

    I agree that we should check our this-worldly conceptions at the gate whenever we consider heaven. But we really don’t know if there will be pianos in heaven or not. Recall the late scholastic adage “numquam nega, raro adfirma, distingue frequenter”; let’s not deny the possibilities of heaven too severely, even if we can affirm only a slim few at this point!

    One plug for Dante … He did the best job of anyone in depicting its possibilities in the Paradiso

  • Maggie-Louise

    Well, I’m glad you let us know that there are no pianos in heaven. It strengthens my resolve to bring my piano with me. As I told my husband, if I can’t bring my piano with me, I’m not going!!

    Thank you for an interesting essay.

  • Stanley Anderson

    I tend to think that whatever we “won’t have” will be because it only seems “substantial” to us here in this fallen world. I like to think that this world (which includes our physical bodies) in its fallen state can be likened (only by analogy of course – who knows what the “real” state might be) to a solid object that has been reduced to a flattened image drawn on rice paper. The rice paper image (as us) cherishes that sort of “existence” because that is the only thing it knows, but it would be mauled with virtually any sort of contact with actual solid objects (the image of Kwai Chang Caine at the beginning of the old “Kung Fu” series trying to walk on a sheet of rice paper without leaving marks comes to mind).

    But of course C.S. Lewis virtually always says it best. Here is an excerpt from his essay “Transposition”:

    Let us construct a fable. Let us picture a woman thrown into a dungeon. There she bears and rears a son. He grows up seeing nothing but the dungeon walls, the straw on the floor, and the little patch of sky seen through the grating, which is too high up to show anything except sky. This unfortunate woman was an artist, and when they imprisoned her she managed to bring with her a drawing pad and a box of pencils. As she never loses the hope of a deliverance she is constantly teaching her son about the outer world which he has never seen. She does it very largely by drawing him pictures. With her pencil she attempts to show him what fields, rivers, mountains, cities and waves on a beach are like.

    He is a dutiful boy and he does his best to believe her when she tells him that the outer world is far more interesting and glorious than anything in the dungeon. At times he succeeds. On the whole he get on tolerably well until, one day, he says something that gives his mother pause. For a minute or two they are at cross-purposes. Finally it dawns on her that he has, all these years, lived under a misconception. “But,” she gasps, “you didn’t think that the real world was full of lines drawn in lead pencil?” “What?” says the boy. “No pencil-marks there?” And instantly his whole notion of the outer world becomes a blank. For the lines, by which he alone was imagining it, have now been denied of it. He has no idea of that which will exclude and dispense with the lines, that of which the lines were merely a transposition for the waving tree-tops, the light dancing on the weir, the coloured three-dimensional realities which are not enclosed in lines but define their own shapes at every moment with a delicacy and multiplicity which no drawing could ever achieve. The child will get the idea that the real world is somehow less visible than his mother’s pictures. In reality it lacks lines because it is incomparably more visible.

  • debby

    “What will we DO in Heaven?”

    We will BE.
    Full Union with the I AM.
    State of Being.

    it has always struck me as so odd that as “human BEings” we live more as “human DOings” – like living machines.
    i cannot begin to imagine what it is to fully “Be” in Him, but i do know that in Heaven i will “Be like Him” ~ Supreme Joy alive in Love.

    i can’t wait.

  • Other Joe

    There will be no passage of time – at least in the earthly sense, but rather an eternal present. That’s a tough one to imagine. There won’t be time to be bored because there won’t be time as such. Charity and joy will be both immediate and endless. There are no good analogies – although the C.S. Lewis passage is as good as it gets down here below. NDE reports always disappoint no matter how well written.

  • Stanley Anderson

    I’m sorry for this debby, but you’ve set yourself up for it — your post brings to mind that old line:

    “To be is to do.” — I. Kant
    “To do is to be.” — A. Sartre
    “Do-be-do-be-do.” — F. Sinatra

    But I do have a serious point here — I wonder if part of the Fall wasn’t a kind of “unnatural” bifurcation between our concepts of being and doing and that in Heaven a unity between the two will be once again restored. Naturally, something we find hard if not impossible to properly imagine in our present state.

  • Maggie-Louise

    ” Charity and joy will be both immediate and endless.”

    But isn’t it the rainy days that make sunny days sparkle? Isn’t it sadness that enhances joy? Hunger that gives meaning to sustenance? Tears that give depth to smiles? Isn’t the world always more beautiful after a shower? Won’t we miss Beethoven? I was hoping he would be there to give a few lessons and to explain some of the beautiful complexities of his piano sonatas.

  • Stanley Anderson

    Other Joe wrote, “There will be no passage of time…”

    Perhaps. Hard for us to say with assurance. I like to think rather that another passage by Lewis says something more likely. In the Narnian story “The Silver Chair,” Puddleglum and the children, while travelling underground, come across the giant Father Time who is asleep and they are told that at the end of Narnia he will awaken (which we see in the final Narnian book “The Last Battle”).

    This, I think, is how Lewis might think of it, ie, that it is not so much that time will “not be”, but rather that our sense of time right now is constricted to a mere “linear” state, or in the Narnian image, “asleep”. But that when time “awakens” to full consciousness (whatever that can possibly mean) we will experience time in a far “fuller” sense than the present “one-dimensional” sense that we are forced to progress through now (and perhaps for our own good, with God “limiting” our experience of time at the Fall, lest we abuse creation even further? Not at all sure, of course).

    So again, perhaps not “no time”, but rather “fuller time”? Those are my musings on the subject anyway.

  • Christopher Manion

    Saint Catherine of Siena, in her Dialogue, reveals a devastating detail in the story of Dives.

    Dives does not desire that his brothers be saved. He is after all in Hell, and can will nothing good. But he has led his brothers in sin and all their evil ways. If they come to join him in Hell, they will hound him hatefully for eternity.

    This his desire to head off his brothers before they get there is actually just another act of supreme selfishness.

  • Jack,CT

    Mr Kainz,/ALL
    Simply beatiful and I think so many
    could learn much from your wisdom.
    I just wanted to say despite my father passing
    when i was 14,i recall him saying, “Always pray
    for the poor souls!” and i have.
    Dad must have said a thousand times the words
    that would come to benifit his soul.
    I suggest a very old book that is still in print:
    “Purgatorian Manual, Brookln,N.Y. June 20 1946 it
    was first reprinted,I believe the original is from
    the 1920’s.
    Francis Cardinal Spellman.
    I purchased Seven one for each sibling.I still wander
    after about four years if they find the time for the
    small daily passage for each day of the month for the
    poor souls.
    All I had to find out was that we no longer have the
    ability to pray for our OWN soul after passing and I
    have been very devoted to all who hae passed!

  • Robert

    I think Tolkien, in the words of Samwise Gamgee, described heaven best in two passages of the LOTR. Heaven will be a place where “everything that is sad will become untrue” and it will be “like being at home and on holiday at the same time” (talking of Lothlorien).

  • Erin Pascal

    Thank you for sharing this informative piece. It was a wonderful read. For me, It’s absolutely okay with me what heaven looks or feels like. I know that God is there and I would like to be there too. Whether there are no harps or pianos, there’s nowhere I would want to be when I die but with Him. God bless you all!

  • Grump

    “But there won’t be any pianos, gardens needing work, ladies in labor, etc. in heaven. No harps, either – just to eliminate that stereotype.”

    I’m cool with the lack of gardens and ladies in labor but would miss Chopin’s Polonaises and Rachmaninoff’s concerti.

    Please tell us there will be dogs because if there are none then I want to go where they go.

    As for the “beatific vision”, that’s nice but somehow seems to fall short of my expectations. Also, I wonder who will do all the laundry and take out the garbage.

  • Jerry Rhino

    I believe Jesus will be drinking wine in Heaven, with us.
    “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” Matthew 26:29

    There will be time in heaven and a purpose for the galaxies.

  • Doug

    Is it permitted here to use the Bible to answer religious questions?
    The OP asked—as a couple of posters remembered—“What will we DO in Heaven?” That is succinctly answered in Revelation, ‘the book about Heaven’:
    Rev 5:9,10 “And they sung a new canticle, saying: Thou art worthy, O Lord, to take the book, and to open the seals thereof; because thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God, in thy blood, out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation. And hast made us to our God a kingdom and priests, and we shall reign on the earth.” So these redeemed ones, in heaven, are to rule [over] the earth.
    (Why not “on the earth”? Because it has been established that they are in Heaven, with heavenly [spiritual] bodies. 1 Cor 15:42-45 “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption, it shall rise in incorruption. It is sown in dishonour, it shall rise in glory. It is sown in weakness, it shall rise in power. It is sown a natural body, it shall rise a spiritual body. If there be a natural body, there is also a spiritual body, as it is written: The first man Adam was made into a living soul; the last Adam into a quickening spirit.)
    That raises a new question: Over what are they to rule? What do you think?

  • Shamrock

    What will we do in heaven? Are you talking before or after
    the resurrection? Surely after we are united with our glorified bodies there might very well be pianos and lovely
    gardens, etc to enjoy in this New Earth, where God wipes away every tear and makes *all things* new again. Why waste
    time speculating; rather use time on earth to assure our safe arrival in eternity by daily renewing our faith and doing good and most of all praising God for sending us His Son, Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and Savior.

  • Maggie-Louise

    Oh, Shamrock, Thank you. I like your answer best of all–even the part about not wasting time here wondering just what it is that “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard.”

  • Howard Kainz

    @Shamrock: Aquinas was considering the separated soul, before Resurrection. Not a waste of time for a theologian, I think. If there are pianos and gardens after resurrection, who will gather materials and construct the pianos, and who will plant seeds and fertilize the gardens? Just wondering.

  • Maggie-Louise


    Details, details. 🙂

  • Richard Mackin,Jr

    1.THE OTHER SIDE by Michael Brown 2. CAUGHT UP INTO HEAVEN Marietta Davis books for reference/reading about the afterlife

  • Layman Tom

    It’s a mystery. I hope We all Make it and everyone finds more than they ever wished for, including pianos, harps, gardens and dogs.

    Me? I’ll be over at the ball fields playing baseball with the Bride’s Head Revisited guys.

  • Rosemarie

    With our human bodies, I think one of the most beautiful gifts we have is the gift of touch: a hug, holding hands, our arms around our beloved, a kiss….
    Although Heaven satisifes more than we can imagine, as spirits, what about the joy of having that warm, loving feeling by a touching interaction with our beloveds?

    IF get to Heaven, I would want to hug everyone I love and kiss my husband.

  • jude

    I have often wondered if the “Fall From Grace” happened in the Spirit World. As an example, a family has one member that constantly disrupts, agitates,and just cannot cope with the other family members to the point that something has got to be done. This one just cannot live with the others nor they with him. So a loving father has the ability, love, and resources to sort of “Set this one up” in a place where he can learn,grow, and Rehab if you will,until a day arrives whereby he can be re-integrated into the family unit. I have posed this question to priests and preachers and get the same answer.”Well, that isn’t what the bible says”..I disagree, i think it squares perfectly with the bible. Why else would God create the physical universe unless he needed a rehab place for us to 1)grow and learn at our own pace..and 2)keep us away from his perfect creations and himself..One thing God will not bargain with is our Free Will. he will help,cajole,aggravate…but he will not compromise with Free Will….just a thought