What Catholics get wrong about heaven

Heaven isn’t a place we go after we die but rather a state of unending union with God.

It’s a shiny, brand-new year. So let’s talk about heaven! With one caveat: I’m not going to strip-mine a lot of theology here. My brain is too small to appreciate those depths. Still, I do accept that theology matters—a great deal, in fact. How we talk about God affects our relationship with the whole religious enterprise of seeking and hoping. What we hold true about the mystery we inhabit makes all the difference to how we live it out.

Recently I was stopped in my tracks by an idea from Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner. His name is one I brake for when it shows up in a paragraph I’m reading, because Rahner was able to perceive and express more about God in a casual afternoon than I have in half a century. The idea that floored me is Rahner’s suggestion that, at his ascension, Jesus didn’t return to a preexisting place called heaven. Instead, Rahner offers that Jesus establishes in the hour of his glory the fundamental possibility of heaven.

This is radical. I hope I can find the words to explain why.

If we’re going to unpack an idea such as heaven, first we have to put our cards on the table about what we were taught, what we’ve heard, and where our imaginations take us in regard to this word. To the average person, heaven implies a whole lot of stuff. For one thing, it’s the place where God lives.


We can only get there after we die. And we only gain admittance to this cosmic concept if we’re good enough. We may imagine heaven as the ultimate family reunion. Or a reward for all the sacrifices we made. Or a garden of earthly delights, including calorie-free sundaes and summers that never end.

What all of these notions rely on is the idea that heaven is a place. It’s a destination at which we arrive and into which we move, like the best resort hotel ever. So if heaven is this glorious location where God eternally is and where we hope to wind up finally and forever, doesn’t that mean it’s always been there? Eternal things don’t pop in and out of existence like mortal and material things do. Eternal is, well, permanently enduring.

Yet Rahner, a very smart guy when it comes to God talk, imagines that Jesus doesn’t “return” to heaven in the hour of his glory, because heaven wasn’t there until that moment. This assertion revolves around the word there, and let me borrow a phrase from novelist Gertrude Stein and say there was no “there” there because heaven isn’t essentially a place. It’s not a where so much as a when; not a location but an encounter. Heaven is properly defined as union with God, now and forever. If heaven is such an ultimate communion, then the possibility of heaven truly did not exist until Jesus opens that door.

John the Baptist contributes a vital element to this conversation as he catches sight of Jesus in the early hours of his ministry: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). To John, Jesus is the sin eliminator, the obstacle mover. It was, after all, an original decision to break from the divine will that made heaven an impossibility from the start. Only after Jesus removes all obstacles to unity by taking away the immutable barriers—sin and death, as traditionally described—that heaven, or oneness with God, is available for the asking.


Poet Robert Browning wrote a lovely line that plays like a counterpoint here: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp / Or what’s a heaven for?” What Browning grasps is that heaven is primarily the ungraspable. We literally can’t get there from here despite a perfect moral track record, mountains of good works, closets crammed with sacraments heaped up across a lifetime. Heaven can’t be seized, and it can’t be bought. The encounter can only be engaged by the graciousness of Christ, who opens the door and welcomes us to full communion.

It helps to conjure up an idea of heaven by imagining the best moments of life. Most of us wouldn’t like simply to go on and on. Much of life is pretty boring. Any working definition of paradise must edit out the slow parts. Who wants to keep on brushing teeth and cleaning toilets? The hours when I’ve been madly in love, though, were really good. When I was with the beloved, especially after a long separation, my heart yearned for our togetherness to be endless. I wanted time to stop and the two of us never to be apart again. That’s my working definition of heaven: madly in love and joined with the beloved forever.

Maybe Rahner wouldn’t describe heaven in quite these terms. But the Bible does confirm that God is absolute love. Those who abide in love abide in God and vice versa (see 1 John 4:16). So the love immersion scenario is spot on. Maybe the “madly in love” part sounds a little off when considering the divine. Certain medieval saints were nuts about God, no doubt; but we may feel more theoretically than poetically attached to God. Human passion is warm and vibrant, while religious fervor more often appears in cooler, reverent tones.

Yet some of us remember getting dressed to the nines for church—Sunday best!—as if for a special dinner date. My dad always shined his shoes before Mass. Lately, we show up looking like we just washed the dog. Get-togethers with the divine may not be viewed in the same light as encounters with the beloved, prepared for in that careful, artful, outward-and-inward way.


Of course it’s not about the clothes. I’m not recommending we spray every last curl in place before Mass as “church ladies” used to do. But how else might we express our impassioned involvement with the God of sacramental encounter? Maybe we need to fall madly in love with the things of God: charity, beauty, justice, mercy, truth, peace, forgiveness, kindness, faithfulness, hope. It would be awkward to spend forever in the company of someone with whom we have little in common. When philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre defined hell as “other people,” he was imagining an eternity with those disturbing, distressing others who share none of our values and get on all of our nerves.

Heaven is the precise opposite scenario: an eternity in total harmony with harmony itself, one with the music that swells our hearts. To achieve this, we must practice the right notes now. We know what matters to God. Our sacred stories define who God is and what “abiding in God” entails. Smoothing out our present discordant notes is the mission of our lives. Greed and ugly thinking, injustice and prejudice, deceit and antagonism, denying pardon for offenses: This isn’t who God is. If it’s union with God we’re after, we’ve all got work to do before communion with absolute love makes any kind of sense.

Behold the Lamb of God, who makes heaven a possibility for us! Breaking down barriers and opening the door to union is the part Jesus willingly and passionately plays. Our part is no less critical, as love always requires a dance partner. What keeps us from union with the beloved right now? Are we madly in love with the ways of love? Or are our opinions, our righteousness, or our indignation what really captures our hearts? 

This article also appears in the January 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 1, pages 47-49). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.


Image: Detail from Hieronymus Bosch, Ascent of the Blessed, circa 1500–1504. Wikimedia Commons


About the author

Alice Camille

Alice Camille is the author of Working Toward Sainthood (Twenty-Third Publications) and other titles available at www.alicecamille.com.

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