"A man of sorrows and familiar with suffering, a man to make people screen their faces; he was despised and we took no account of him . . . yet he was pierced through for our faults, crushed for our sins. On him lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed . . . Harshly dealt with, he bore it humbly, he never opened his mouth, like a lamb that is led to the slaughter-house, like a sheep that is dumb before its shearers never opening its mouth."-Isaiah 53:3, 5, 7.
"Behold the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world."-John 1:29.
"The lamb slain from the foundation of the world. " -Revelation 13:8.
"In the Incarnation, God the Son takes the body and human soul of Jesus, and, through that, the whole environment of nature, all the creaturely predicament, into His own being. So that "He came down from Heaven" can almost be transposed into "Heaven drew earth up into it," and locality, limitation, sleep, sweat, footsore weariness, frustration, pain, doubt, and death, are, from before all worlds, known by God from within. "-C. S. Lewis. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.
"When I was twenty, would I have been able to fight human loneliness: to remain alone, as I dare do today? . . . I was a victim of all those illusions to which youth is always a prey . . . all the qualities which make us want to hurl ourselves into someone else's arms to soothe the wounds of loneliness, the yearning for a single human presence! Today, in the evening of my life, I know the final answer. It is Jesus Christ alone who quiets the radical anguish that is in us-an anguish which is so consubstantial with the human condition that it is cruelly manifest from childhood to the grave. The torment of loneliness, the vacillating shadows of those we love as they leave us in the horrible mysteries of death, the secret and permanent thirst we have for the limitless gratification of our ego . . . Our hearts remain full of unseen idols until we are stretched on the wood of the Cross with Christ-until we cease trying to nourish ourselves and our desires, and give ourselves completely to the poor, to the needy, to the suffering members of Christ's body throughout the world . . . in the presence of God-become-man-stripped and naked, scourged and covered with spittle, dying unto death for love-and man seeking to become like God, raised above his ugliness and misery through love, finding in This Man all his joy, all his love, all the meaning of life and history. "- Francois Mauriac. Anguish and Joy of the Christian Life.
"I have been continuously aware that I cannot even begin properly to appreciate the beauty of one petal of one flower, and that there is here no question of thoughts that lie too deep for tears, but of a perception too deep for thoughts. And when you come to Man-what then? If, touching a flower, you truly touch the hem of God's garment; if you can never venerate and love it as He does-for He Who is preserving it (Who, if I may so put it, invented it) sees His own reflection in it infinitely better than we do or can-what, when you touch a soul? Intelligence; freedom; immortality-the worth that God sees in each soul, a worth to be estimated by the fact of the Incarnation, the Death and Resurrection of the Son of God made man. It will surely be understood that the nearer you approach perception of this, the less you put any trust in literature, art, argument, writing or talking, however much you must make use of all of these, and the more you can fall back upon the Holy Spirit Who alone can plunge into the watery chaos and turn it not only into order, and life, but into a Font wherein the whole course of human history may be baptized."-C. C. Martindale. What Life Has Taught Me.
"On another occasion at dinner, [Gore] Vidal teased Navone: 'Now, John, tell us what your idea of heaven is . . . all about those angels' Navone gently replied: 'There are no harps. We are already there. Heaven is communicating with friends.' Moved, Vidal had nothing to say."-Time, March 1, 1976.
"To see a World in a grain of sand, And a Heaven in a wild flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour."- William Blake. Auguries of Innocence.
"All that seems earth is hell or heaven."- C. S. Lewis. "Wormwood " in Poems.
"But we all, with open face beholding as in a the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord."-II Corinthians 3:18.
"Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing."-I Thessalonians 5:16, 17.
The problem of evil-that is the perennial "problem", a problem which has plagued not just the philosophers but every man who has tried to make sense of his life on earth. And this preoccupation with the worst things in life becomes understandable when we consider the magnitude of human misery and the horror of "the evil that men do." Too often, however, this concern with the problem of evil has not been balanced by reflection on the problem of good, of explaining the existence of truth, beauty, love, a mystery which is infinitely more paradoxical and puzzling than the problem of evil. Without minimizing the traumatic force of the problem of evil we will try here to contemplate some of the "good things" which have happened to the human race, in particular the supremely "good thing", the Incarnation of the Son of God.
All of us, at every moment of our being, hunger and thirst for love, for acceptance, recognition, security. It is this hunger and this thirst which manifest themselves in nameless longings-"all that men ignored in me," said Browning-which we can hardly comprehend or communicate. In our heart of hearts we know that nothing on earth can ease the pain, the sense of being anonymous, the lingering loneliness, which are part and parcel of this seemingly unquenchable quest. And those who have surrendered themselves utterly to Him know that, at bottom, this yearning of the inmost self is a call for and from the Source of our being and that all who come to Him will never hunger and never thirst. All our lives we are searching for Him and yet running away from Him. Immeasurably more important, He pursues us "down the night and down the days" and His love draws us from darkness to light, from death to life, from lesser goods to the Greatest Good.
July 16,1946, White Sands, New Mexico. The world was changed forever on that day and at that place, we are told, as the threat of thermonuclear destruction cast its sinister shadow over the human enterprise. On one level this may be true-on the level of an ephemeral episode in the comparatively brief history of a minor satellite of a minor star in a universe with about ten trillion galaxies each with an average of a hundred billion stars. On another level these pronouncements awaken in us an awareness of the implications of the infinite-eternal explosion of Love that hit the human race under Pontius Pilate. Its mushroom cloud rises from earth to Heaven; its fallout is forever. Proliferation of this "deadly" weapon proceeds at a rapid pace threatening to make conventional warfare obsolete.
The mystery of this beatific explosion is a mystery we will not fathom in its fullness-its causes, its effects, its nature-in all eternity. The mystery of the infinite preciousness of every human person-a preciousness made manifest by the Life laid down for us. The mystery of the Lord of the cosmos identifying Himself with the lowliest and the poorest of the poor. The mystery of a transcendent order of being which grounds human history and in the context of which history receives its meaning. The mystery of our being known by God not only billions of years before the cosmos got going but always, from all eternity. The mystery of an unimaginably intimate rendezvous with Reality which lasts forever and which each one of us is offered. The mystery, above all, of the Trinity, of the beginningless, endless Love Event, the Real Action, which we call God and which bursts into history and into every human heart.
It is often asked: if God is changeless and perfect, how could He become man and suffer and die for us? To say that God is unchanging is not to say that He is static. As Illtyd Trethowan writes, "To say that someone is active in the ordinary sense is to say that he changes. God is unchanging because his activity, being infinite, can never be either less or more than it is." And God's absolutely unchanging and yet absolutely active life is a life of infinite and eternal love and self-giving among the Three Persons. When one of the Three Persons united Himself with a human nature it was only to be expected that His life on earth would manifest in human terms His infinite and eternal self-giving-in a sin-stained world such self-giving could not but mean suffering and death. In suffering and dying for us, therefore, Jesus gave us a glimpse of the infinite and unchanging Love that is the inner life of God. In being crucified, says George Macdonald, Jesus "did that in the wild weather of His outlying provinces which He had done at home in glory and gladness."
These preliminary reflections on the problem of good will not satisfy those who are deeply troubled by the problem of evil. The Christian response to this problem has been thoroughly explored in three classic works, The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis, God, Freedom and Evil by Alvin Plantinga and Providence and Evil by Peter Geach. In this short space we cannot hope to study the approaches adopted in these works. And since our focus here is the Good, we will concentrate on God's revelation of the unending union with Him that He offers all who hunger and thirst for Him. In the light of this revelation we will briefly reflect on God's eternity, on the Christian response to the problem of evil, on the nature of Heaven, on the incredible possibility of enjoying Heaven (though not in all its fullness) here and now, on sin and on suffering.
The basis of the discussion here is the apprehension of the Christian Faith as the authentic and definitive revelation of God. Again, constraints of space and time (and competence!) will not permit detailed evaluation of the grounds on which the Faith is apprehended as divinely revealed. Such studies have, in any case, been magnificently carried out by distinguished defenders of the Faith ranging from Augustine and Aquinas to a whole host of contemporary champions like Bernard Lonergan, Stanley Jaki, Alvin Plantinga and others.
It has, of course, been said, and rightly enough, that apprehension of the Faith as divinely revealed is not dependent on such detailed evaluation. To begin with, the truths presupposed by the Faith-the existence of God, the reality of human freedom, the mind's capacity to know truth, and so on-are part of the wealth of pre-philosophical and prescientific fundamental insights which are loosely
called common sense. These insights into the essential and ultimate principles of reality are so fundamental that they cannot be proved or disproved by logic or science but are presupposed by both and cannot be rejected without patent absurdity. Examples abound: something cannot come from nothing; mind cannot "spring" out of matter; responsibility presupposes freedom; intelligibility implies rationality. Such cherished canons of common sense have been held by all men at all times. They can act as a litmus test in studying philosophical theories ("There is no opinion so absurd but that a philosopher hasn't expressed it," said Descartes) for truth is too serious a matter to be left to the scholars. While theism "makes sense" of everything and is rooted in our deepest perceptions into reality-it is an affirmation that the universe did not pop out of nothing by some unintelligible accident but that it was brought into being by an omnipotent eternally existing Creator-atheism flies in the face of our most fundamental insights. It is essentially an affirmation of the intrinsically and the obviously absurd: that something can pop out of nothing by itself, that life could "spring" out of non-life, that mind is a product of matter. The human mind has to be severely de- sensitized to even consider these possibilities with a straight face. What the British thinker C. D. Broad said of one notorious atheistic philosophy, Behaviorism, may just as accurately be applied to atheism itself: it is one of "the numerous class of theories which are so preposterously silly that only very learned men could have thought of them. But such theories are frequently countenanced by the naive since they are put forward in highly technical terms by learned persons who are themselves too confused to know exactly what they mean."
The Christian revelation, needless to say, is not something that the human mind could ever have discovered by itself-or even recognized as true without divine illumination. But as presented by the first witnesses and by later apologists like C. S. Lewis its claims and credentials form a seamless garment with common sense so that faith becomes not a leap in the dark but a leap to the light. The critics who try to explain away the remarkable and enduring transformation in the terrified disciples-a transformation which took them around the world and which was not affected by death or torture-and who ignore the simply stupendous power of the Person who speaks "as one with authority" in every page of the Gospels seem to miss the whole point. Once we make the act of faith we find that these transcendent truths confirm our deepest intuitions about the destiny to which we are called. And whereas, initially, we moved all the pieces in the chess games we played with reality, once we are checkmated, the pieces come to life and move on their own.
While taking the Christian revelation as a starting point for the discussion here, we will have to scrutinize the grounds for at least some Christian affirmations. Our discussion will be guided in part by the assumptions and conclusions of a recent and highly influential book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People by Harold Kushner. As the title indicates, the book is concerned more with coping with suffering than with exploring the meaning of suffering. But in answering the "how to cope" questions it touches on "why" questions too, and it is these which interest us here.
In experiencing the tragic death of his son Kushner comes to the conclusion that an all-good, all-powerful God would not permit such suffering and, therefore, God cannot be all powerful. We are not given any rationale for preferring this explanation of an anthropomorphic god over the traditional Christian explanation for the existence of evil in a universe created by an all-good, all-powerful God. And, unfortunately, Kushner tends to caricature or misconceive the basic teachings and insights of the Judeo-Christian tradition. For instance, he denies man's innate will to evil (none of us are "good people"), he rejects the relevance of the after-life in resolving the dilemma of death and he views prayer in reductionist terms (it is useful only in awakening a sense of community and in helping us tap our own hidden reserves). While we deplore such grave oversights we cannot but empathize with the anguish that moved him to write this book. Like him, we will find the callous attitude to tragedy taken by some religious believers inexcusable. Above all, Kushner's book seems to be a plea for divine consolation: he is terrified by the thought of a God Who does not care, Who is unmoved by human suffering: he strips God of omnipotence and omniscience so that he can continue to believe in God's love. It is here that the Good News is most relevant: it is a revelation of "God with us," of Jesus "who will save his people from their sins," of a Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep. But, it will be asked, on what basis do we attribute infinite perfections to God and why, if He truly loves us, does He permit evil? These questions cannot be ignored.
Traditional theism has held that God is a Being who exists and cannot not exist and is the ultimate explanation of all that exists. When the human mind discovers that the cosmos calls out for an "explanation" for its existence and that such an explanation is found only in the self-existent, self-explanatory Being we call God, then it, simultaneously, recognizes that this Being with infinite existence is free of all limitations. Any Being which exists by Its very nature has all the perfections of existence and from the fact of God's necessary existence we learn that He is infinite, unlimited in every respect, the fullness of all perfection. "Not one of the perfections of existence can be wanting in Him who is essential existence itself," said Aquinas (thus echoing a view held by Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus and theists from a variety of different backgrounds).
He must then be spiritual (not limited by matter or space), eternal (not limited by time), immutable (not limited by change), omniscient (being the Creator of everything he knows all there is to know), omnipotent (to create, to make from nothing, is possible only for one with unlimited power), perfect (if He were to be imperfect in any respect His existence would be imperfect). All the values, the hallmarks of the spirit, found in the universe originate in One who has them in the supreme degree (and exist only because of Him). The religious experience of mankind has been woven around a Reality free of all conceivable limitations for the absolute adoration of religious worship can be directed only to infinite perfection. And the moral order has an ultimacy of nature and significance which can be accounted for only in terms of the totally transcendent.
To say that God is eternal, immutable and omniscient is only to repeat the earlier affirmation that "his activity, being infinite, can never be either less or more than it is." Whereas experience is inevitably successive in nature for finite beings (and time is the measure of such change) God has no series of experiences but possesses all His perfections in a permanent present. This everlasting present, this never-ending Now (no beginning or end, past or future) was described by Boethius as "the utter and complete possession of life without end in one simultaneous act" in what is considered the classic definition of eternity. Eternity is not in any sense inert or stagnant; it is the "total simultaneous and perfect possession of life."
The difficulty most people have is not with the concept of eternity as such (though this will never be completely clear to us) but with the relation of God's eternity to time. Since God is totally "outside" the world of finite being and since time is a property of finitude, human lives, the whole of history, all time, is eternally present to Him, present to Him in His never-ending Now. What is yesterday, today and tomorrow, is TODAY to Him. "Thy years are one day; and thy day is not daily but today . . . thy today is eternity," said Augustine.
The fact that we perceive God's timeless actions from our time-limited perspective does not imply that He is involved in time; it only shows our limitation. While we cannot be rid of these, the use of analogy can help us in understanding God's eternity as it can all His other infinite attributes. For instance, the word foreknowledge is a misnomer for eternal knowledge: what is foreknowledge to man is not so to God. To take an example: God eternally "sees" Socrates' birth, actions, postures and death, each circumscribed by the geographical and historical conditions which are attendant on them. But God's vision is not thus circumscribed. Although God's eternal NOW is inseparably linked to the successive, circumscribed, "nows" of human history, it is not positioned "along with" them. Thus if we are asked whether God now at 6:00 a.m., Tuesday, knows a free act one is going to do tomorrow at 6:00 a.m., it can be replied that within man's time-scale it is impossible to know an act which has not occurred and does not exist. But God in His eternal NOW knows always that free act because He sees it as it is actually occurring and not in the future. But His NOW cannot be placed alongside any created "nows".
Applying these insights to our experience of God in the spiritual life, we realize that He is not a glorified telephone operator frantically trying to cope with millions of prayers and problems coming in constantly. He has all eternity to answer the lengthiest prayer. He can give infinite attention to the needs of every one of His countless creations. He can love infinitely any number of finite beings with as much attention to each as if no others existed. God's knowledge of each individual is in no way blurred because of the vast number of objects that He knows for He has no spatio-temporal imperfections. He knows each of us as clearly and as perfectly as if each of us were the one and only object of His knowledge.
God's eternal activity is "experienced as temporal" by His creation. "Since temporal existence is the only existence that creatures have," writes Eric Mascall, "God's activity towards them is necessarily experienced by them in terms of time." It must not be thought that our experience of time is an illusion or that God does not see our experience for what it really is. God timelessly sees the things of time as being in time. This implies neither that they are not actually in time nor that their temporal nature affects the timeless nature of God's perception of them.
This sketchy account is only intended as an introduction to the mystery of God's eternity-a mystery which many modern thinkers have refused to approach except on their own terms. Thinkers like David Burrell, Eleonore Stump, Norman Kretzmann and Eric Mascall, however, have restated the classical account in contemporary terms and have responded to objections with great skill and sophistication .
The God of the Bible, it must be remembered, is the God who said, "I AM WHO AM" ("Before Abraham was I AM," said Jesus) and with Whom there "is no variableness, neither shadow of turning" (James 1:17). His love for us is unchanging-and unconditional (the god of the process philosophers loves us because he needs us).
The Christian response to the problem of evil is the free will defense. A union of love between God and man is possible only if man is morally free, free to choose for better and for worse, free to accept or reject God. Man rejected God's initial offer of loving union and let loose the torrent of evil that has swept through human history. In his God, Freedom and Evil Alvin Plantinga affirms "with Augustine, Aquinas and the Christian tradition that there is no contradiction in the joint assertion of (1) God is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good and there is evil; this can be shown by the free will defense. That, of course, leaves the question "why does God permit all this evil?" We don't know. All we know is that it's perfectly possible that he could achieve a better overall total state of affairs by creating free beings and permitting evil than by not doing so; and perhaps that's why he permits it. What we do know is that he (God) has promised that all things work together for good, for those who love and follow him."
Evil is not one of God's creations. Rather, it is our exercise of the negative power to refuse the good. It is a corruption, misuse or perversion of the good, for which we are responsible. It resides in our intentions and choices.
The origin of human evil is Original Sin, the Fall, man's initial rebellion against His Creator. In his Stanton Lectures at Cambridge University, logician Peter Geach points out that "without the doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin in their uncompromising traditional form the Christian message is so radically altered from what it once was as to lose all credibility. I can now spell this out more clearly: to alter the story of what man has been redeemed from is to abolish the old concept of Redemption, and therewith to reject the Christian faith altogether, at least by implication."
It is the Fall which introduced pain and evil in the world and, for all time, the effects of Original Sin will taint man's life, action and thought, so that he will be at war with God and with himself. Repugnant though it is this teaching conforms with universal experience as unbelievers like Schopenhauer and Camus have testified; significantly, every race of mankind has had some semblance of a tradition of the Fall. All of us can become aware of an inclination towards evil in our nature and of our inability to adequately counter it. The serpent of sin lurks in the holiest of hearts and is ready to strike at the slightest opportunity (we must add that the wickedest of men bear some token of our original God-reflecting grandeur and dignity). If we admit that Hitler and Stalin belong to the same species as us then we must admit too that we cannot but be tainted by the horror that held them captive.
The Christian revelation is an explanation of how, while permitting evil, God brings about an infinitely greater good. By uniting Himself with a human nature and by suffering and dying for us in this nature, God made everlasting union with Him possible for all those who accept His offer of love. No one can complain that he is a victim of someone else's sin. In the first place, "As sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned." (Romans 5:12). Secondly, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in a sense makes every man responsible for his own ultimate fate; he must either surrender his self to his Master or himself be master of his self, alone, separated from God forever. Geach says, "What's wrong with the world is sin or evil will; an evil so radical it is inborn. And the only remedy for sin is conversion of the will."
While salvation, everlasting union with God, is possible only because of and through Jesus Christ and His atoning death on the cross, we know that God is a Savior "who will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of truth" (I Timothy 2:4) "Biblical theism," writes Norman Geisler, "is very clear in its statement that anyone who wishes to establish a relationship with God will receive the necessary information on which to make a decision . . . the responsibility for a decision concerning salvation is in the hands of each person. Each of us is ultimately responsible for the course he chooses." The obligation to preach the Good News becomes especially urgent in this context because only in total self-surrender to Jesus Christ is there a guarantee of salvation.
We cannot merit our salvation: it is a free gift which we can accept or reject. On the question of justification by faith the official Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue group in the U.S.A. issued this statement in 1983 (a statement which was commended very highly by Pope John Paul II): "Our entire hope of justification and salvation rests on Christ Jesus and on the gospel whereby the good news of God's merciful action in Christ is made known; we do not place our ultimate trust in anything other than God's promise and saving work in Christ. (4) . . . Catholics can speak of justification by faith or even of justification by faith alone insofar as they teach, as do Lutherans, that nothing prior to the free gift of faith merits justification and that all of God's saving gifts come through Christ alone. Catholics stress, however, that the indwelling Holy Spirit brings about in believers not only assent and trust, but also a loving commitment that issues in good works." (105)
The doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrine of the inner life of God about which only God Himself could tell us. He did this through His Incarnation in Jesus Christ who teaches it in practically every page of the New Testament.
God is referred to in three terms on at least forty-four occasions in the New Testament. The Three Persons are called the Father, the Son and the Holy
Spirit. "In possessing the divine nature communicated to Him by the Father," explains one writer, "the Son possesses the Father; and in possessing the divine nature communicated to him by the Father and the Son, the Holy Ghost possesses Father and Son. This life never ceases. "Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee." The Father never ceases generating; the Son never ceases being born; the Holy Ghost never ceases proceeding by way of love from Father and Son."
Other than actually entering into the life of the Trinity (and, of course, this life will be expressed in all our other activities), there is for us no higher calling in this life than to meditate on the inner life of God, to ponder the mystery of the beginningless, endless Act of perfect love. Unfortunately many Christians find the doctrine of the Trinity to be a source of confusion and embarrassment and seldom seem to talk or think about it. It is hard to believe that the revelation of the innermost nature of God would evoke so little interest-especially when such a wealth of work has been done on the theology of the Trinity down the centuries (one notable modern study is Bernard Lonergan's The Way To Nicea). All the difficulties which believers and unbelievers have with this doctrine have been dealt with time and again in these writings.
We have been created by God primarily in order to participate (if we choose to) in the infinite-eternal Love of the Three Persons. Our ultimate destination in the journey of life, our uttermost fulfillment, our true Home, then, is Heaven, the everlasting vision of God as He really is in Himself and in all His infinite perfection. Too often those who forget the injunction, "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love him," (I Corinthians 2:9), think of Heaven in purely terrestrial terms. C. S. Lewis had this to say about such conceptions: "There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of 'Heaven' ridiculous by saying they do not want 'to spend eternity playing harps'. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolic attempt to express the inexpressible . . . People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs."
Christians usually talk of Heaven in terms of the vision of God because the key New Testament term used in talking of Heaven is "seeing." "We shall see
him as he is" (I John 3:2). "Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face." (I Corinthians 13:12). Jesus says of the angels, "their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven." (Matthew 18:10). "See" here clearly does not refer to a physical activity: it refers to a spiritual activity, that of knowing (I Corinthians 13:12 continues, "now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."). The knowledge of God we have in Heaven will not be mediated either through our minds or through other finite beings: we will be in immediate contact with Him, ["we shall be like Him" I John 3:2]. The ideas of God we have now will be replaced by His very being: He will live in us just as our inmost thoughts are now in us. And in immediately uniting Himself with us He fills us with supreme and eternal happiness-all our potentialities are fully actualized and our entire being is eternally energized by His infinite perfections. In this life, the mind fulfills itself in knowing, the will fulfills itself in loving. In Heaven the mind knows supreme truth and the will loves supreme goodness. The joy found in this final and endless fulfillment we know at least in embryo in all the instances of knowing and loving we experience here.
Speculation about Heaven in purely human terms is pointless because, by its very nature, the immediate knowledge and love of God is something man cannot enjoy in this life and hence cannot describe or grasp. But man does know that Heaven is a union with the Creator of this immense universe, with the Author of all the love, goodness, and joy around him, with the One in Whom all these are found in perfection. He does know that such union cannot but bring him the highest possible satisfaction and happiness. All physical and spiritual pleasures in this world derive from God, Who is the Source of all joy, and are only hints and harbingers of the final and direct union with Him at "Whose right hand there are pleasures forevermore." There is an almost terrifying ecstasy, a fearful joy, in the thought of union with the Creator, the Inventor, of galaxies and pine trees, sunsets and smiles, babies and giraffes, angels and the Alps.
Man is a union of spirit and matter, of body and soul, and he is incomplete without either. The resurrection of the body is an inseparable part of the Christian revelation of Heaven. All conceptions of the resurrected body must be centered on the risen body of Christ. The resurrection of the body must be seen in relation to the Christian promise of the transformation of the material universe of "a new heaven and a new earth." The paradigm and parable of this transfiguration is again the resurrection of Christ.
The everlasting vision of God does not exclude loving union between those who enjoy it. In Scripture we read of various instances of recognition in the after-life. Heaven includes the fullest satisfaction of all pure human loves rather than impediments to them. And though Heaven is not primarily supposed to be a place where one meets one's dear ones again (as the spiritualists seem to think)-it is the mode of one's everlasting union with God-one can nevertheless be certain that God will not fail to give the joy of final fruition to one's relationships with those whom one loved most. In Heaven, men will know and love their brethren as they have never known or loved anyone on earth. The love and friendship they bore for their brethren in the world will be infinitely ennobled and intensified in Heaven where they are united and indwelt by Him Who is the source of all love and joy. It may be said that such concern with other people seems to cause too much distraction from the vision of God. But when Jesus said, "Love thy neighbor", He meant this for all eternity. Our God-given attachment and love for our dear ones will reach a glorious flowering in Heaven as a facet of our boundless enjoyment of the presence of God Himself, for to love one another, even in Heaven, is to appreciate the variety of God's glory. "He does not snatch away our mortal joys because He gives to us the bliss of Heaven".
For Christians the revelation of Heaven must be a call to constant joy ("rejoice evermore"). This point has been made in a previous essay and the gist of it is recapitulated here.
The Christian Faith is too often thought of in negative terms: as simply and solely a self-denying, joyless religion. In actuality atheism offers only darkest despair- human history as the atheist sees it is a momentary, forever forgotten flicker in the all-enveloping, never-ending darkness and countries, cultures, empires are just accidents of geography and history which, for all their pomposity, strut into a void without end-and Christianity, by contrast, is a revelation of incredible optimism though some of its external features may repel fallen man. We find this illustrated in John Updike's Pigeon Feathers: "He detested the apparatus of piety. Fusty churches, creaking hymns, ugly Sunday-school teachers and their stupid leaflets-he hated everything about them but the promise they held out, a promise that in the most perverse way, as if the homeliest crone in the kingdom were given the Prince's hand, made every good and real thing, ball games and jokes and pert-breasted girls, possible."
The call to the Glory of God, the call to Christ, is at the same time a call to constant joy. Christians rarely realize the full extent of what is offered man by God: they are to have FOREVER. In the most fantastic, and yet the most realistic, of fairy tales, they are to "live happily ever after." Mere reflection on this tremendous truth will change their perspectives, attitudes, views, totally. In the expectation of their eternal destiny they will find joy for, as benign Jane Austen wrote, in a letter, "the expectation of happiness is happiness" or, as Shakespeare (in Richard II, Act II:ii) put it, "And hope to joy is little less in joy/Than hope enjoyed."
The vital insight that "the expectation of happiness is happiness" can be best explained and illustrated by means of an analogy-imagine a schoolboy whose school will close in a week, and who will then be going on a vacation to a place he has yearned to go to all his life, the Swiss Alps. The knowledge, the anticipation of the forthcoming vacation will inevitably color his emotions, attitudes, thoughts, in the preceding week. He will be joyous in the expectation of the joys to come. Far from diminishing it, annoyances and afflictions in the week before will excite his enthusiasm all the more. And if the vacation is a complete gift from someone who wishes him to work very hard before it begins (not to earn it but to prepare himself for it) there is little doubt that he will enter into his daily tasks with fullest vigor. The vision of the week ahead will be a magnet drawing all his energies.
With some minor modifications we can apply the analogy to the Christian vision of life. The school is the world, the schoolboy a Christian. The week is the brief fragment of life between womb and tomb. The vacation is eternal happiness in union with the Creator of the cosmos. The Host, Who wants us to do our best while on earth, is God. As Christians our awareness of the upcoming "vacation" should flood our perspectives, priorities, thoughts, emotions, feelings, attitudes, while we are in "school"; we should be literally joyful in the expectation of the joy without end which will follow. No annoyance, no affliction, should dim our expectant ecstasy. The schoolboy vacationing in the Alps may find his vacation not to be as enjoyable as he expected, may even find it positively disappointing. But the vacation of eternal happiness in Heaven will, when experienced, exceed our most extravagant expectations. Again, the schoolboy may find that he had been deceived or had deceived himself in his hope of a vacation. The Christian,
however, knows that his vacation is not a vain hope, that the Host keeps all His promises. Any number of major catastrophes and tragedies during the last week in school could ruin the schoolboy's "joy in expectation" as well as the possibility of joy during the actual vacation. But, as far as we are concerned, no earthly tragedy or catastrophe, not even atomic annihilation, can dim the joy that "no man taketh" from us: what we are offered is infinite, eternal happiness and no number of finite mishaps can affect infinite joy or the joy in expectation of this infinite joy. To be sure, a life which lasts fifty to eighty years will not seem like a week. The crucial word here is "seem." It may not seem a "week" but, in fact, in relation to eternity, it is infinitesimal, a bare milli-second, and one needs only to train one's thoughts and perceptions in an appropriate manner to make it "seem" what it really is. If we know that, in a milli-second, we will enjoy eternal ecstasy, we cannot but be joyful during that milli-second. We can think of someone who is told that he will live on earth for a day and that thereafter he will have a thousand years of perfect happiness in some other realm-if he accepts the offer. If his mind is not muddled up and if his sensibilities are sharp he will live his day on earth in the light of the thousand years to come and of the choice he must make.
The constant "joy in expectation," offered to all Christians, can be described as the Rejoice Response. The Rejoice Response, loosely defined, is happiness here and now in the knowledge and expectation of happiness hereafter: it means focusing on our destination and gearing all our energies towards our transfinite, transtemporal "coming of age."
We can respond in different ways to these concerns. On the one hand, we can point out that it is always wise to know our destination when we are on a journey and to know how we can get there; in this regard Heaven is relevant to the journey of life. Again, it is obvious that no matter how concrete and tangible, the problems of everyday life, as well as everyday life, will cease to be "in the twinkling of an eye" and we will then be propelled into eternity for which we never had time before. Finally, we might add, the frustrations of the finite ought to make us long for the Infinite all the more.
Now, while these responses seem theologically impeccable, they do not seem to propose any real remedy other than to say, "Hang tight." And this is because they fail to fully appreciate the incredible resources available in the here and now. The only hope for true happiness is Heaven and the only hope for true happiness in this world is to begin living in Heaven here and now (as will become apparent we are not proposing a reductionist or immanentistic conception of Heaven in talking of Heaven here and now).
The essence of Heaven, it has been said, is immediate union with God, a union in which we know and love Him forever in the most intense and complete manner possible for us. "And this is life eternal," said Jesus, "that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent." (John 17:3). This supernatural knowledge which constitutes eternal life and which culminates in the everlasting vision of God can begin here. Though the union with God here and now will flower into fullness of glory only beyond space and time it is, nevertheless, a real union and more than just a hint of the life to come. Every experience, every relationship is pregnant with the most breathtaking possibilities for a Christian if he is willing to see the poetry and not just printmarks, to hear the Voice and not just sounds. The joy of Heaven is not a distant event with no bearing on our life here. On the contrary, once we accept the call to taste and see that the Lord is good, we embark on a supernatural saga, a journey of endless excitement that makes every experience, every memory, a window into Heaven, a painting coming to life. All too often we push this call to the back of our minds, bury it in the remotest recesses of our inner being. We are fearful because, if faced with anything less than total self-surrender and deepest humility, it brings devastation and desolation, an abyss of anguish.
This call to the Joy of Jesus Christ is heard at every horizon of human experience. We hear it in the splendor of every sunset, in melodies which rush us out of space and time, in fairy tales and folklore, in the pursuit of truth by way of every
form of thought and study, in carnivals and the pleasures of sport, in laughter and kindly humor, in thunderstorms spent indoors, in sun-specked lakes, in the roar of ocean waves. "There lives the dearest freshness deep down things,'' writes Gerard Manley Hopkins.
We are citizens of Heaven says Philippians 3:20: Heaven is the Real World. Not being bound by the rules of this world we do not have to play by them. Only when we realize this can we begin to explore the endless possibilities presented in the Good News: once we have learnt the alphabet we can read and write. The spiritual realm is not restricted by the limitations of the spatio-temporal world. And, in entering this realm, in zooming out of space and time into eternity, the Christian enters a transcendent order of being that permeates the here and now.
At the heart of Heaven here and now, for the believer, is union with the Divine Lord, a union which is so intimate and ultimate as to almost break all barriers of "I" and "Thou" between them (almost we say because an irreducible distinctness of identity is retained through all eternity and constitutes the difference between union and unity). This union-a union of knowledge and love-comes about when the believer surrenders himself at all levels to the mysterium fascinans et tremendum, when he loses all desires for and attachments to created things and desires the Creator alone, when his will is only to do his Father's will, when he is so lost in love with Love that he sacrifices self and ego, mind and heart, body and soul. It is of this ineffable union that Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me."
While this supernatural union becomes possible only because it is a gift from God, the gift is given to all who open themselves to the Giver; all who seek, receive. There is no do-it-yourself system for this union with God; it is not a fruit of human achievement. But the Christian who desires this pearl of great price and who wishes to accept it as a gift can prepare himself for it in three stages (which must be preceded by total self-surrender). Initially there is the acceptance in faith of Scripture as divine revelation. This is followed by meditative prayer on the specific content of the Word of God in order to personally apprehend it. The final and never-ending-stage is one of actually entering the world revealed therein: we not only reflect on the implications of God becoming man but are in actual communion with the God-man. This final stage "begins from the moment when the presence of God, the act of God upon us, our life in Christ, have so rectified or dissipated everything that stood in their way or obscured them that what was previously the object of a faith which was in some sort detached from us and opaque becomes the object of an experience, no doubt still very mysterious, yet very real, as real as and more real than our sense-experience or our ordinary intellectual activity."
In this state, the believer becomes aware of living the Divine Life, of being indwelt by the Trinity. The most famous chronicler of this journey of joy, John of the Cross, explains that the Trinity "inhabits the soul by divinely illumining its intellect with the wisdom of the Son, delighting its will in the Holy Spirit, and absorbing it powerfully and mightily in the delightful embrace of the Father's sweetness."
The life of prayer nourished by Scripture is of paramount importance in our supernatural union with God. To many, especially to those who have never had a vibrant life in the Trinity, prayer is a tedious task. We forget that in prayer we are talking to our Father, to the Creator of billions of galaxies, to Him in Whose vision we have been from all eternity. We can reach out and touch Him here and now-we do not just think of Him but talk to Him, letting down our guard, tearing off all our fronts. When we do this we cannot but collapse in love with Him and we can see why Scripture tells us to pray without ceasing: once we have tasted the joy of His presence and His union, how can we ever stop talking to Him? It is true that in the normal run of things we feel more comfortable talking to someone who is concretely present before us. But once we begin the life of prayer, God becomes present to us more concretely and intimately than any finite person could (so much so we find it hard to stop talking to Him even when we are conversing with our fellow men).
Through prayer we break out of our "bit" of reality into the Real World of God's eternal vision. In union with Him all of history, all of our experiences and memories, are seen from His perspective: we become aware of the supernatural drama, the transcendent meaning, the magic, the mystery, the miracle of it all. All of life here and now is seen not only as a take-off point to endless ecstasy but as the beginning of this ecstasy: the infinite energy of eternity cannot be held back once we lay ourselves open. One spiritual writer describes this fruit of prayer as "the gathering point of all our love. It is as though all of our loves, the great ones and the little ones of our life are brought together and transcended. The most endearing moments and deepest intimacy we have shared with our father or mother, husband or wife, brother or sister or dearest friend are united in a burst of love for God. We become a flame of love for God is love's Flame for us."
This delight in the Lord is by no means a hindrance to our duties and responsibilities in this world. "The knight of faith," says Saul Bellow, "having set its relations with the infinite, was entirely at home with the finite." The Christian who is in tune with his true destiny will know what he is really meant to do in his life on earth and he can thus be maximally efficient and effective. In being "crucified with Christ" he loves his fellow man as Christ does. He recognizes that all his desires for created beings are actually desires for the Creator. And all earthly joys given up for the sake of His Maker are ultimately found in all their fullness and forever in Him ("seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." Matthew 6:33).
Writers on the spiritual life usually warn against seeking the joy found in union with God for its own sake or becoming dependent on this joy for spiritual sustenance. But, while feelings and moods are notoriously fickle, we must not fail to appreciate the blessings which come our way. When those supernaturally united with God "rejoice in the Lord," writes Trethowan, "it is obvious that this is a reaction to a real encounter with him, the affective aspect of such an encounter, and some faint foretaste of the beatific vision. It would be blasphemous not to value it in the highest possible degree. The notion that we ought not to desire this joy (as being something foreign to our earthly condition) is certainly no part of traditional Christian teaching."
An important way in which the experience of Heaven here and now makes a difference in our daily life requires further exploration: the nature and destiny of personal relationships. As with everything else in this world, personal relationships, no matter how intimate, are fragile, often ready to crack under the slightest pressure, inevitably destined to end in separation (either through death or through other factors beyond our control). Christianity, the ultimate iconoclasm, seeks to liberate us from the slavery of finite fixation to a focus on that which is enduring and eternal. But Christianity also tells us of the ultimacy of personal relationships: these are not "things of the world" but the very stuff of eternity. The heart of reality is a personal relationship: the Trinity. In this life we are called to enter into the infinite eternal life of the Trinity. Our relationships with other finite persons mirror the Trinitarian relationship and, when united with the life of the Trinity, these too become enduring, solid. No matter how fragile they are in this life, personal relationships, when lived in the life of the Trinity, are "eternized." So much so we can talk of a spiritual union between believers which transcends physical separation and even death. When relationships are grounded in Jesus Christ, in prayer, in spiritual union, separation becomes impossible. We are not talking here of "feeling" the presence of the other despite physical absence but of knowing it: this is a knowledge of faith not necessarily translated into emotions and feelings. When the loved one is "dead" the union in Christ continues. There is nothing occult or esoteric about this. It's just a matter of zooming out of space and time into the Real World.
But it is a hard saying only for those to whom the pleasures of the world seem more real than the joys of Heaven. And it is a necessary saying for them: when our minds become solely focussed on the finite they go mad for the world without Heaven is Hell.
The emphasis on the joys of Heaven should make it obvious that the Christian message does not have a Manichean distaste for pleasures in themselves. All pleasures are seen as reflecting the glory of God and as good in themselves. In point of fact the Christian message is so concerned with bringing us to true joy that it warns us in the strongest possible terms against being satisfied with paltry substitutes for God which, in the long run, bring only frustration and futility. "We are half-hearted creatures," says C. S. Lewis, "fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mudpies in the slums because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."
It is obvious enough that, when running on its own steam, and without any ties to the transcendent, the world has precious little to offer. Its pleasures soon lose their sizzle and become humdrum; its miseries are only too real. In the modern age, man has tried to remedy the world's intrinsic inadequacies by creating different worlds into which he escapes from run of the mill reality. Sensory stimulation of every kind (rock and roll, video dependence), drug abuse, experiments with the occult, utopian quests (like Marxism), pornography, are all, in their own way, substitutes for God and Heaven here and now, symptoms of a vacuum in the human soul. These substitutes, of course, soon suffocate in their own sterility.
Even the seemingly innocuous inclinations of the modern world take on this note of desperation and despair. For instance, countless movies and books have turned the maudlin medley of emotions, impulses and feelings they call "love" into an ultimate value which is sought above everything else and which is even a law unto itself (when marriage is built on a foundation of such whims and fancies it cannot but collapse). Love, as it is understood in Christianity, is primarily a matter of self-giving, sacrifice, commitment, responsibility-and the feelings and emotions involved are aroused by the awareness of the image of God in the other. It is only in learning to love our fellow humans that we can learn to love God ("He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how he can love God whom he hath not seen" I John 4:20).
But even a legitimate relationship of love can have catastrophic consequences if it is not entirely grounded in God. We can choose what is good in itself in an evil way. "Suppose a husband does literally adore his wife, give her the worship, service and preference that belong to God alone, suppose in actual fact his love does not go beyond his wife to the God Who made her and in Whom alone this marital love can stand-is there any question of the evil of this idolatry? Yet the husband has not chosen evil; he has chosen good evilly." "God", writes Francois Mauriac, "does not give himself totally except to the person who has annihilated all things, everything, whatever is in himself and in the world that stands in the way of divine love."
The search for God-substitutes is hastened on its way by the demonic depths of human nature. It is our drive to evil, the Abomination of Desolation that sits in our Holy of Holies, that is at the root of our predicament. In breaking the laws of the spiritual world, in rejecting Love, we cannot but suffer the consequences-no matter how morally desensitized we are. Human evil is not just the lack of good but it is destructive, diabolic and damning: its truly terrifying nature can only be grasped if we meditate for a moment on Calvary.
The enticements of evil draw us on with such force that, left to our own devices, we would be driven to despair. It is only through the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world that we can hope to destroy the desperate evil that is within and without us. Only when we recognize our own helplessness, our own evil and the limitless grace of God, only when we throw ourselves at the foot of the cross and are washed in the blood of the Lamb, can we be healed and restored.
While we must be aware of our own evil we must also realize that, for all its seductiveness, the mystique of evil which mesmerizes us is only an illusion. It promises everything but can give nothing. Those who have known God, the infinite Good, know that He is infinitely satisfying. All our desires, even our disordered desires, are at bottom, desires for God and in finding Him we find too that He is the Land of Heart's Desire. We can avoid the Manichean danger-of thinking of evil as an ultimate reality-only when we focus all our attention on the infinite Good and all that is good. "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."(Philippians 4:8).
This focus on the good is part of the call to holiness in Scripture. "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Matthew 5:48) "Let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God." (II Corinthians 7:1).
Holiness is not a human achievement but a divine gift: but it bears fruit when we die to the self and surrender ourselves totally to God's will in love.
At the most elementary level (but not any the less important for that) suffering is a surefire cure for the perpetual peril of finite fixation-suffering snaps us out of the spell cast by the world, tears us from sin, self and pride. "For godly sorrow marketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of." (II Corinthians 7:10).
At the profoundest level, suffering can become, as Lewis put it, "our share in the passion of Christ", a participation in the heartbreaking love of the Trinity that was expressed most fully in human terms by Jesus, the most tragic figure in history, the Man of Sorrows, the Suffering Servant, whose anguish we must share to fully know His love. Suffering is not sought for its own sake but in suffering we have a vehicle and veil of God's love, a love in which we cannot but rejoice. And Christ's suffering and death cannot be seen in isolation from His resurrection for, "The Resurrection constitutes the basic, prime and total object of the passion."
God's love for us is nowhere seen so clearly as on Calvary. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13), said Jesus, who went on to lay down His life for us, His ever-faithless friends. In suffering unto death for us Jesus displayed before us the infinitely active love and self-giving of the Three Persons. To the questions, does God feel for us, does He suffer with us, we can only say that His infinite, unchanging Love (unchanging not in that it is static but in that it is the highest possible and cannot decrease) is experienced most intensely-if we are open to it-when our hearts are broken and our hopes shattered. In suffering and sacrifice, in being betrayed and rejected, we taste the Love of the Lamb. In the tidal wave of anguish that engulfs our lives we see the bleeding face of Love. Just as God became man when and where He was least expected, it is in suffering and sorrow, when we least expect it, that we experience His Love most intensely and enter into the life of the Trinity which is Heaven.
When our life in the Lord leads us to it, this searing vision of God's love will flood our minds and hearts, our thoughts and emotions and feelings. This vision is not a feeling or an emotion but an awareness that overwhelms us all the time, an awareness of the Love which follows our every footstep and pursues us in every instant of our lives. "Being in love with God, as experienced," writes Bernard Lonergan, "is being in love in an unrestricted fashion. All love is self-surrender, but being in love with God is being in love without limits or qualifications or conditions or reservations." When God's unconditional Love for us is received by us it leaps out of our hearts: "that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them." (John 17:26). We see, as G. K. Chesterton did, that "All men are allegories, puzzles, earthly stories with heavenly meanings." And we realize that, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matthew 25:40). God is a God of the little guy, of the ugly duckling, of widows and orphans.
The only solution to the problem of suffering, is love, a love rooted in and nourished by the Love of the Trinity so that, as Mother Teresa describes it, "every soul we come in contact with may feel your presence in our soul. Let them look up and see no longer us but only Jesus." In the final analysis it is not the arguments that count but the Mother Teresas and the missionaries in darkest Africa.
The bad things that happen to people, then, can become good if we surrender ourselves to Jesus Christ and live in His love. Heaven can begin here and now if we renounce all self-will and desire God alone. In his devotional masterpiece The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection gives an enthralling account of the journey of joy: "In the beginning of the spiritual life it was necessary to act faithfully and to renounce one's own will, but after that one experiences indescribable happiness . . . I keep myself in His presence by simple attentiveness and a loving gaze upon God which I can call the actual presence of God or to put it more clearly, an habitual, silent and secret conversation of the Soul with God; which sometimes causes me interior, and often exterior, happiness and joy so great that in order to moderate them and prevent their outward manifestation, I am obliged to resort to behavior that seems more foolishness than piety . . . If we wish to enjoy the peace of paradise in this life, we must accustom ourselves to an intimate, humble and loving conversation with Him; we must prevent our minds from wandering away from Him on any occasion. When we are thus occupied with God, suffering will be full of sweetness, a balm and a consolation".
The infinite energy of eternity is active here and now, "enshrining" the things of time, and we have only to tune in on it, transmit ourselves Heavenwards, through close encounters of the eternal kind. Joy, said C. S. Lewis, "is the serious business of Heaven."