Many of you know that I write the weekly “Question and Answer” column for the Our Sunday Visitor newspaper. Every now and again I get a question that stands out as unique, one that I had not thought of before. And such is the case with the question below. I had never thought of Heaven as potentially being crowded or considered it a drawback. But the question led me to reflect on the deeper experience of what we call the Communion of Saints in Heaven.
My answer is brief due to the limits of that particular column (600 words or less). But I choose not to expand my answer here, hoping that its brevity might provoke a few more readers.
There is an online catalogue of my “Question and Answer” column at OSV here: Msgr Pope’s OSV Columns.
Q: The descriptions in the Bible seem to describe a vast amount of people and the paintings I have seen from the Renaissance make it look rather crowded and busy. Frankly I hate big cities and crowds. Are these descriptions accurate or am I missing something? –Doris Leben, Wichita, KA
A: The danger to avoid when meditating on Heaven is taking earthly realities and merely transferring them to Heaven. Whatever similarities heavenly realities have to things on earth, they will be experienced there in a heavenly and perfected way, with unspeakable joy.
The more biblical and theological way to understand the multitudes in Heaven is not as some physical crowding, but as a deep communion. In other words the Communion of Saints is not just a lot of people standing around talking or moving about.
St. Paul teaches, So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members, one of another (Rom 12:5). And though we experience this imperfectly here on earth, we will experience it perfectly in Heaven. As members of one another we will have deep communion, knowing and being known in a deep and rich way. Your memories, gifts, and insights will be mine, and mine will be yours. There will be profound understanding and appreciation, a rich love and sense of how we all complete one another and really are all one in Christ.
Imagine the glory of billions of new thoughts, stories, and insights that will come from being perfectly members of Christ and of one another. Imagine the peace that will come from finally understanding and being understood. This is deep, satisfying, and wonderful communion—not crowds of strangers.
Therefore, the biblical descriptions of Heaven as multitudes should not be understood as mere numbers, but as the richness and glory of communion. The paintings showing “crowds” should be understood as an allegory of deep communion, of being close in a way we can only imagine.
St. Augustine had in mind the wonderful satisfaction of this deep communion with God and with one another in Christ when he described Heaven as Unus Christus amans seipsum (One Christ loving Himself). This is not some selfish Christ turned in on Himself. This is Christ, the Head, in deep communion with all the members of His Body, and all the members in Christ experiencing deep mystical communion with Him and one another, together swept up into the life of the Trinity. Again, as St. Paul says, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor 3:23).