IS HEAVEN A PLACE?
ROBERT J. SISCOE
Ever since John Paul II's Wednesday Audience of July 21, 1999, during which he taught that heaven is not "a physical place in the clouds, but a living personal relationship with the Trinity,"(1) many Catholics have begun to question, and even doubt, the existence of a literal heaven. One concerned Catholic wrote the following question to Catholic Answers
Like many others, this Catholic has become confused by what Pope St. Pius X called the "novelty of words" which has become the common mode of speech in the post-Conciliar era.
The confusion over the question of heaven increased with the publication of Benedict XVI's latest book, Jesus of Nazareth II, in which he wrote the following about the Ascension of our Lord into heaven:
The Created Heavens
While it is true that the Blessed Trinity is pure Spirit "whose presence is not spatial, but divine," the Divine Person of Jesus possesses a physical body, and it is this physical body — united to the Word of God — that ascended into heaven. And since physical bodies take up space, Our Lord must have ascended into a place capable of receiving a physical body.
When considering the question of a physical heaven, we must recall that heaven is not simply where the Blessed Trinity dwelled for all eternity, but is something that has been created by God. Commenting on the First Article of the Creed, the Catechism of Pius X says: "The First Article of the Creed teaches us that there is one God, and only one; that He is omnipotent and has created heaven and earth and all things contained in them...."
The created heavens are not limited to the atmosphere above — the aerial heaven (the first heaven); or the realm containing the sun, moon, and stars — the firmament (the second heaven); but also include the Empyrean heaven — the third heaven spoken of by St. Paul (2 Cor 12:2) — where the angels and Saints will dwell for all eternity, and where the glory of God is manifest to them as their ultimate reward.
The Blessed Trinity, who is eternal and uncreated, pre-existed the created heavens and as such cannot be contained by them: "God… the heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you" (1 King 8:30). The Blessed Trinity cannot be contained exclusively within any created place; therefore, when considering heaven we must make a further distinction between what St. Thomas called "the Heaven of the Blessed Trinity,"(3) which is the eternal abode of the Blessed Trinity before creation, and the created Empyrean heaven, or "the third heaven," where God "has prepared His throne" (Psalms 102: 19), and where he now dwells, or "subsists," with the angels and Saints, and where the glorified bodies of our Lord and our Lady — the King and Queen of Heaven — now physically reside.
In the next chapter she discusses the works of God ad extra, and distinguishes six instances of creation. It was during the fifth instant that God decreed the creation of the Empyrean heaven: "In this fifth decree the creation of the angelic nature which is more excellent and more like unto the spiritual being of the Divinity, was determined upon, and at the same time the division or arrangement of the angelic hosts into nine choirs and three hierarchies, was provided and decreed… In the same instant was also decreed the creation of the Empyrean heaven, for the manifestation of His glory and the reward of the good; also the earth and other heavenly bodies for the other creatures; moreover also in the centre or depth of the earth, hell, for the punishment of the bad angels."(5)
Some of the recent statements from high churchmen fail to distinguish between the eternal abode of God before creation — "The heaven of the Blessed Trinity" — which is not a physical place, and the Empyrean heaven which was created as the place where the blessed will dwell for eternity, and where our Lord, the King of all Creation, sits upon his throne. After failing to distinguish between the two, it is then implied that, since the Trinity cannot be contained within a place, heaven itself must not be a physical place, but merely a personal relationship with God. This leaves the thinking person in a state of confusion wondering where the resurrected bodies of the blessed will dwell. The distinction between the uncreated abode of the Blessed Trinity before creation, and the created Empyrean heaven, where the blessed will dwell for eternity, clears up the confusion.
Canon Ripley describes the created heaven as "a special place with definite limits, outside and beyond the limits of earth."(6) Blessed Francisco Palau explains that "the throne of Jesus Christ" has been established "in a specially chosen place within the Empyrean heaven."(7)
Glorified Bodies remain Physical Bodies
Heaven was created to be the eternal abode of both angels and men. While an angel is a spiritual substance, man is a body/soul composite, possessing a material body that takes up space. At death, the soul is separated from the body but, at the resurrection, the body and soul will again be reunited to form one unified whole. And contrary to what some modern theologians would have us believe, the resurrection of the body is not simply a "resurrection of the person," or an "evolutionary leap," but a resurrection of the physical body — the exact same body that was united to the soul in this life.
The Fourth Lateran Council teaches that men "will rise again with their bodies which they now bear."(8) In the book of Job, we read: "[I]n the last day I shall rise out of the earth. And I shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh I shall see God" (19:25-26). The Catechism of Trent explains the necessity of holding firmly to this doctrine: "[I]t is of vital importance to be fully convinced that the identical body, which belongs to each one of us during this life, shall, though corrupted and dissolved into its original dust, be raised up again to life…."(9)
The glorified bodies of the risen Saints will be distinguished by four transcendent endowments, or qualities. The Catechism of Pope St. Pius X describes
these qualities as follows: "The endowments that shall adorn the bodies of the elect are:
Yet in spite of these transcendent qualities, the glorified bodies will remain physical bodies. As Dr. Ott explains, although subtlety will spiritualize our nature, this "is not to be conceived as a transformation of the body into a spiritual essence or as a refinement of the matter into an ethereal body."(10) After the resurrection, the glorified bodies of the just will remain physical bodies with flesh and bones. We see this with the risen body of Our Lord, who not only allowed the apostles to touch Him, but also ate with them. "See my hands and feet, that it is I myself; handle, and see: for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as you see me to have. And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet… And they offered him a piece of a broiled fish, and a honeycomb. And when He had eaten before them, taking the remains, he gave to them" (Luke 24:39-40, 42-43).
In The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, we read the following about the resurrected body. The "body will rise again in complete integrity, free from distortions, malformations and defects. St. Thomas teaches: 'Man will rise again in the greatest possible natural perfection,' therefore in the state of mature age (Suppl. 81). The integrity of the body after its resurrection also demands the organs of vegetative and sensitive life, including the differences between the sexes (against the view of Origen; Denz. 207). However, the vegetative functions will no longer take place. Mt 22:30: 'They shall be as the angels of God in Heaven'."(11)
Now since heaven was created to receive the resurrected bodies of men, which are physical bodies, heaven must be a physical or corporeal place. This is the teaching of St. Thomas who taught that the Empyrean heaven is the highest of corporeal places; the place where the angels were created, and where the just are to be transferred for their final beatitude: "The Empyrean heaven is the highest of corporeal places, and is outside the region of change … the abode of beatitude was suited to the very nature of the angel; therefore he was created there," while man "was not placed from the beginning in the empyrean heaven, but was destined to be transferred thither in the state of his final beatitude."(12)
State of Being and Place of Dwelling
This citation of St. Thomas is interesting because it brings out a further distinction. He teaches that the angels were created in the Empyrean heaven, even though, as we know, they did not initially possess the beatific vision (since the vision of God was the reward only of those who passed the angelic test). This shows that the Empyrean heaven and the beatific vision are distinct, even though now (since the fall of the angels) both constitute the simultaneous reward of the blessed. Canon Ripley confirms this when he teaches that heaven is "both the happiness and the abode of the just in the next life."(13) Dr. Ott teaches the same: "Heaven is a place and condition of perfect supernatural bliss, which consist in the immediate vision of God and in perfect love of God associated with it."(14) This distinction is important because it further demonstrates that heaven is both a state of being and a place. It should be further noted that the blessed continue to possess the beatific vision even if they travel outside the place of the Empyrean heaven, which is possible.(15) For example, when the Blessed Mother appeared to the Children of Fatima, she continued to possess the beatific vision. The distinction between the place of heaven and the "state of heaven" (the beatific vision) is also taught in Bishop Morrow's catechism, My Catholic Faith:
So, while it is true to say that those in heaven are in a state — the state of beatitude, this should not be understood as implying that heaven is not also a created place — a corporeal place capable of receiving physical bodies.
In The Four Last Things, Fr. Cochem, O.S.F.C. warns against those who imagine heaven to be merely a spiritual realm: "We must not, as some do, picture to ourselves heaven as purely a spiritual realm. For heaven is a definite place, where not only God is, and the angels now are, but where Christ is also in His sacred humanity, and Our Lady with her human body. There, too, all the blessed will dwell with their glorified bodies after the Last Judgment. If heaven is a definite locality, it must accordingly be a visible, not a spiritual kingdom; for a place must in its nature be to some extent conformable to those who abide in it."(17)
Blessed Francisco Palau explains that the mansions of the blessed — the Church Triumphant — are located in a particular place within the Empyrean, which is called the Celestial heaven.
Commenting further on the Celestial realm, Fr. Cochem writes:
Anne Catherine Emmerich was granted numerous visions of Heaven, which she described as "a beautiful and well-regulated city." She explains that "the different degrees of glory to which the elect are raised are demonstrated by the magnificence of their palaces, or the wonderful fruit and flowers with which the gardens are embellished. ... In the Heavenly Jerusalem all is peace and eternal harmony… the city is filled with splendid buildings, decorated in such a manner as to charm every eye and enrapture every sense; the inhabitants of this delightful abode are overflowing with rapture and exultation, the gardens gay with lovely flowers, and the trees covered with delicious fruits…."
Here we see Heaven described as a literal place where the blessed currently dwell. But can spiritual souls, while separated from their body, dwell within a "place"? According to St. Thomas the answer is yes. He writes:
It is worth noting that in reply to an objection raised in the same article as to how an angel, or separated soul, can be in a place, St. Thomas wrote:
In the book Raised from the Dead, Fr. Hebert, S.M. includes a chapter containing stories of souls who have been taken to heaven. "Those whose souls have been allowed to visit Heaven often describe it in terms of figures and scenes familiar to earthly sense faculties. The privileged persons see paradise gardens, hear glorious choirs of Saints,... smell celestial fragrances. They especially see Jesus (in His humanity) and the blessed Virgin Mary in great beauty and splendour."(22)He then recounts the story of St. Lydwine of Schiedam, whose "visits to the other world were remarkable even among the Saints. She often saw Heaven as a great festal hall in a palace, with crystal and gold goblets. ... [she saw] a beautiful garden of Eden with marvellous trees and flowers. Along the lovely paths the Saints would sing the glories of God as on a beautiful eternal spring morning."(23)
This confirms that the Empyrean Heaven — the third heaven — is a place, one that has been visited by privileged souls who had not yet attained the beatific vision, such as St. Paul, thereby confirming, once again, that the place of heaven is distinct from the ultimate reward of the blessed — the vision of Almighty God.
While it is true that the Empyrean heaven is not "in the clouds" (the first heaven), or on "some distant star" (the second heaven), it does not follow that our Lord did not ascend into the Empyrean heaven (the third heaven) — the place where He now dwells bodily with His Mother and the angels and Saints. Heaven is more than a "personal relationship with the Trinity," which is merely, as Bishop Morrow said, "a foretaste of heaven" — something those in the state of grace can possess even in this valley of tears. The created heaven is distinct from the uncreated abode where the Blessed Trinity dwelled before creation. The Empyrean heaven, where God has "prepared His throne," is a created corporeal place where the mansions of the blessed are located, where resurrected bodies of the Saints will dwell for eternity, and where the blessed, having their intellect perfected by the lumen gloriae,(24) will see God face to face and thereby be raised and transformed into a state of perfect beatitude.
The doctrines of the Faith are interlinked in such a way that the denial of one will inevitably lead to the denial of others. After one denies the existence of a physical heaven, it won't be long before they will deny a physical hell,(25)a physical purgatory,(26)the descent of our Lord's soul into limbo,(27)and even limbo itself.(28)
After these are denied, the next to go will be the resurrection of the physical body, and, consequently, our Lord's bodily Ascension and our Lady's bodily Assumption. The doctrines of the Faith can be compared to the threads of a tapestry; once one is denied, the whole begins to unravel.
(1) "In the context of Revelation, we know that the 'heaven' or 'happiness' in which we will find ourselves is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity" (L'Osservatore Romano, July 21, 1999).
(2) Jesus of Nazareth - Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, pp. 282-283
(3) Summa, Pt 1, Q61, A4, reply 3
(4) Mystical City of God, Vol.1, pp. 49-50.
(5) Ibid., p. 59.
(6) This is the Faith, p. 390.
(7) Francisco Palau Writings, The Church of God, p. 724.
(8) Denzinger 429.
(9) Catechism of the Council of Trent, p. 125.
(10) Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 492.
(11) Ibid., p. 491.
(12) Summa, Pt 1, Q102, A2, reply 1.
(13) This is the Faith, p. 389
(14) The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 476. The Pocket Catholic Dictionary of Fr. Hardon, S.J. provides the same definition for Heaven: A place and condition of perfect supernatural happiness.
(15) See the Summa, Suppl. Q69, A3.
(16) My Catholic Faith, p. 166.
(17) The Four Last Things, p. 174.
(18) Francisco Palau Writings, The Church of God, pp. 733-734 www.carmelitasmisioneras.org/ppsycomunic/escritos/FPalau.pdf. A portion of the citation was retranslated from the original Spanish by Fr. Rickert, FSSP.
(19) The Four Last Things, p. 188.
(20) Summa, Suppl., Q69, A1.
(21) For more on this point, see the Summa, Pt. 1 Q52, A1.
(22) Raised from the Dead, p. 237.
(23) Ibid., p. 239.
(24) "Scholasticism stressed the absolute supernatural nature of the vision of God, which demands an altogether supernatural elevation of the intellect, the so-called lumen gloria (cf. Ps 35:10; Apoc. 22:5), which makes glorified man capable of the act of the Vision of God" ( Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, pp. 477-478).
(25) John Paul II: "Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy" (General Audience of Wednesday, 4 August 1999).
(26) "Scholasticism stressed the absolute supernatural nature of the vision of God, which demands an altogether supernatural elevation of the intellect, the so-called lumen gloria (cf. Ps 35:10; Apoc. 22:5), which makes glorified man capable of the act of the Vision of God" ( Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, pp. 477-478).
(27) John Paul II: "During the three (incomplete) days between the moment when he "expired" (cf. Mk 15:37) and the resurrection, Jesus experienced the state of death", that is, the 'separation of body and soul', as in the case of all people. This is the primary meaning of the words "he descended into hell"; they are linked to what Jesus himself had foretold when, in reference to the story of Jonah. he had said: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Mt 12:40). This is precisely what the words about the descent into hell meant: 'the heart or the womb of the earth.' … If death implies the separation of the soul from the body, it follows that in Christ's case also there was, on the one hand, the body in the state of a corpse, and on the other, the 'heavenly glorification of his soul from the very moment of his death" (General Audience given on January 11, 1989).
(28) In his book God and the World, Cardinal Ratzinger referred to the doctrine of Limbo as "rather unenlightened" (p. 402). In The Ratzinger Report, he wrote: "Staying with eschatology for a moment: 'limbo' has actually disappeared, that intermediate place where the unbaptized children, i.e. those with only the 'stain' of original sin, were supposed to go. For example, we find no trace of it in the official catechism of the Italian episcopate. … Personally – and here I am speaking more as a theologian and not as Prefect of the Congregation – I would abandon it…" (p. 147).