I often think we haven’t done a very good job in setting forth the doctrine of Eternal Life. For most people the concept seems a rather flat one, namely, that we shall live for ever and ever and ever…. And frankly for many such a concept seems rather unappealing even if the place of it is heaven. Heaven too is often poorly understood. It is reduced to a rather egocentric notion of a place where I will be happy. I’ll have a mansion, I’ll see my mother again, I won’t suffer…. But most moderns in their description never get around to mentioning God. If God is mentioned at all he’s down on the list somewhere, not at the top where he belongs. This is sad for the heart of heaven is to be with God!
Pope Benedict in his Encyclical Spe Salvi also ponders the problem of the poor understanding of eternal life:
Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable….The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”. Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal”, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it. (Spe Salvi, 10, 12).
My own pondering and experience of the concept of eternal life is that ultimately eternal life is not about the length of life, it is about the fullness of life. To enter eternal life mean to become fully alive. For now we are not fully alive. We experience much of death in these lowly bodies of ours. However, most of us do get glimpses of eternal life and can experience aspects of it even now. For example, have you ever had a day when you had all the energy in the world. Not only did you feel energetic but your mind was sharp and your day was efficient and effective. Everything seemed to click and there was joy and contentment. Most of us have days like that from time to time but they don’t last. But it is a glimpse of what eternal life might be like multiplied by a factor of 10 Trillion.
Another experience I have of eternal life I hope you share too. At age 51 my body is not in prime condition. It is aging to be sure and death will one day come to it. But my soul is more alive than ever. I am more joyful, more serene, more confident, more prayerful, more content. Many sins that used to plague me are gone or greatly diminished. In effect, I am more alive at 51 than I was at 28. And wait to you see me at 68 and 88! As I get older I become more alive. What I am saying is that eternal life doesn’t just begin after we die. It begins now and should grow in us more and more. It’s fulfillment will only be heaven but I am witness (and hope you are too) that eternal life has already set deep roots in me.
So again, the main point here is that with eternal life the word “eternal” refers not so much to the length of life as to the fullness of life. To enter eternal life is to become fully alive with God forever, to experience untold joy, serenity and peace in an eternal embrace with God forever. And having our communion with God perfected we will also have our communion with one another perfected. Who really needs a mansion when you can live in the heart of God? That is our true dwelling place that the Father is preparing. It’s not about houses and seats of honor its about a place in the heart of the God who made us and loves us. It is to become fully alive and perfect as the Father is perfect.
Pope Benedict also has a very beautiful image of eternal life in Spe Salvi:
To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John’s Gospel: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22). (Spe Salvi, 12)
In the following video Fr. Robert Barron makes an interesting point, one that I have made elsewhere in these pages, namely, that when the Church fails to teach her doctrine well or casts aside her traditions, the world often picks them up but distorts them. In this rather Halloweenesque video Fr. Barron notes that as we have struggled to present well the concept of eternal life the world has taken up the notion of those “who can never die” in the vampire craze. Obviously the fact that they live forever is a horrible curse to them and any biblical notion of eternal life is absent. They are merely the “un-dead.” When the Church drops the ball the world pick it up but flattens and distorts it.