This is the ninth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
I often think that we haven’t done a very good job of setting forth the doctrine of eternal life. For most people, the concept seems a rather shallow one: that we will live forever. Frankly, many may not consider it all that appealing if the place where we live forever is Heaven. Too often, Heaven is reduced to merely this: a place where I’ll be happy. I’ll have a mansion, I’ll see my mother again, and I won’t ever have to suffer. The description never gets around to mentioning God. If He is mentioned at all, He’s way down on the list somewhere rather than at the top where He belongs. This is sad, for the heart of Heaven is to be with God!
Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical “Spe Salvi,” pondered the problem of the generally 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 has led me to conclude that ultimately eternal life is not about the length of life, but its fullness. To enter eternal life means to become fully alive. Here on this earth 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 some aspects of it. For example, have you ever had a day when you felt you had all the energy in the world? Not only did you feel energetic but your mind was sharp and you were efficient and effective. Everything seemed to click; there was joy and contentment. Days like that and feelings like that don’t last, but they provide a glimpse of what eternal life might be like—except that eternal life will be immeasurably better!
Another experience I have of eternal life is one that I hope you share. At the age of 58, my body is no longer in prime condition. It is aging and death will one day come to it, but my soul is more alive than ever. I am more joyful, serene, confident, prayerful, and content than ever. Many sins that used to plague me are gone or at least greatly diminished. In effect, I am more alive now than I was when I was in my twenties. Just wait until you see me at 75 or 90! 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. Its fulfillment will only be in Heaven but I am a witness (and I hope that you are too) that eternal life has already set deep roots in me.
This experience of being fully alive is to be contrasted with one of the descriptions of Hell in the Scriptures which refers to it as the “second death” (e.g., Rev 21:8). This means that the dammed, having died in the corporal sense, now descend to what is not really life. Yes, they have existence and experience, but their lives are dead because they are not living for what God made them for: His very self. Theirs is a “life” of frustration and emptiness because the whole key to happiness is missing. Having rejected God, His Kingdom, and His values, they have nothing left with which to fill the God-sized hole in their hearts. It is a life so far from eternal life that it is barely a life at all; thus Scripture calls it the “second death.”
Again, the main point is that “eternal” in “eternal life” refers not so much to the length of life as to its fullness. To enter eternal life is to become fully alive with God forever; to experience untold joy, serenity, and peace in an eternal embrace with Him forever. Having our communion with God perfected, we will also have our communion with one another perfected. We will be caught up in the great movement of love that is the life of the Trinity. 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; it’s 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 presents this beautiful image of eternal life:
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 from a few years back, Bishop Robert Barron makes an interesting point, one that I have made in other posts as well: 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 video, Bishop Barron discusses the current obsession with vampires. He 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. 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.” Yes, when the Church drops the ball, the world picks it up—but flattens and distorts it.