On the Role of the Angels at the Second Coming

Gustave Doré (1868)

This is the last in a series of five posts on the role of the angels in our lives and in creation. The content of these posts comes from a series I have been teaching at the Institute of Catholic Culture on the mission of the angels. Angels are ministering spirits mystically present and active throughout creation, in the events of Scripture, in the liturgy, and in our lives.

The fundamental source for these reflections is Jean Cardinal Danielou’s book The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church. The references to the Fathers in my posts are fully footnoted in his book, but some of the scriptural passages below represent my own additions.

I encourage you to read Cardinal Danielou’s book. It is relatively short (a mere 114 pages) and packed with stirring and edifying accounts of the works of the angels according to Scripture and the Fathers of the Church.

In this last post we consider the role of the angels at the parousia (the second coming) and the glory that awaits those who have been faithful.

The final chapters in the Cardinal’s book, on the eschaton (the last things) and the parousia, are particularly magnificent. I would like to distill them here, adding some material and reworking it just a bit. However, the assembling of the material is fundamentally his. I hope you will be stirred with as much joy and zeal in reading this as I was in preparing it.

We must soberly admit our need to be ready, by God’s grace. If we are, what glories await us! The “great and terrible day of the Lord” will indeed be great for those who have allowed the Lord to prepare them.

Sending forth the multitude of angels

Scripture is replete with descriptions of the role of angels in the great second coming of the Lord. In the Gospel of Matthew there is a text that may refer to 70 A.D. but surely also describes the end of time:

Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (Matt 24:30-31).

The First Letter to the Thessalonians says,

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise … (1 Thess 4:16).

St. Cyril describes the extraordinary magnificence given to the final judgment by the presence of the multitude of angels. He considers how the great depth and breadth of the spiritual world has been invisible up to this point except to the eyes of faith; at the final judgment it is suddenly made manifest! Cyril asks us to imagine the multitude of angels by considering all the human beings who have ever existed, from the time of Adam to the present day, standing before the Lord Jesus. Then he asks us to consider that the angels are vastly more numerous than that, for they are the ninety-nine sheep while humanity is the one! As Daniel poetically says,

Thrones were set up and the Ancient of Days took his throne. His clothing was white as snow, the hair on his head like pure wool; His throne was flames of fire, with wheels of burning fire. A river of fire surged forth, flowing from where he sat; Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads stood before him (Dan 7:9-10).

Waking the dead (the angels are surely part of this)

The Second Sibylline Book, a Christian work, describes the archangels shattering the gates of death and raising up the bodies of even those who had been drowned in the sea or devoured by savage beasts (Sib, 2:214–235).

St. Ephrem speaks of the angels as waking the dead, saying,

Then the Lord will appear in the heavens like lightning with an unspeakable glory. The Angels and the Archangels will go on before his glory like flames of fire, like a mighty torrent. The Cherubim will turn their faces and the Seraphim will fly ahead crying out in fear: “Arise, you who sleep. Behold the bridegroom is coming!” Then the tombs will be opened and in the flash of an eye all the people will rise and behold the beauty of the Bridegroom.

St. Paul says that our bodies will rise, but they will be gloriously transformed:

He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself (Phil 3:21).

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power (1 Cor 15:42).

The judgment by Christ and its execution by the angels

Matthew 13 describes the angels as separating the wicked from the just:

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Mat 14:41-43).

Matthew 25 describes the angels as being with Christ when He takes His judgment seat:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31-32).

St. Cyril of Jerusalem speaks of the angels leading the sinners away, body and soul, “in the full sight of the armies of heaven and they will be unable to escape. But the angels are also uniting the just.”

St. Ephrem describes the angels leading the elect to paradise:

Then the angels will come together from all sides and take up the holy and faithful people into the glory of the clouds above, to their meeting place with Christ.

Origen speaks of the angels escorting the blessed to paradise:

When … we have begun to enter the holy place and pass on to the promised land, those who are really holy and whose place is the Holy of Holies will make their way, supported by the angels and unto the tabernacle of God. … They will be carried on [the angels’] shoulders and raised up by their hands.

St. Paul seems to speak to the same glory when he writes to the Thessalonians,

The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thess 4:17).

The final ordering of the Kingdom

Of this final ordering, Scripture says,

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “For God has put all things in subjection under [Jesus’] feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection under him,” it is plain that he [the Father] is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to everyone (1 Cor 15:26-28).

After rendering judgment, Jesus returns to His Father’s right, in the Holy of Holies

Jesus ascends there, with all the members of His Body (body and soul) joined to Him. He ascends to the throne as Unus Christus, amans seipsum (one Christ, loving Himself). Though co-equal to His Father in glory and majesty, He is delighted to hand over the Kingdom of His Body, the Church, to His Father, who is (as Father) the Principium Deitatis.

At this ascension, the Fathers ponder that the angels will make the same declaration, the heavens echoing with their cry:

Lift up your heads, O gates; and be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates; and be lifted up, O ancient doors; that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory (Psalm 24: 7-10).

The transformation of all creation

The longing of creation for its share in the glorious freedom of the Children of God is prophesied through St. Paul:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it [because of our sins]. But the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:19-23).

Now it comes! Heaven and earth are united, and creation receives its original glory and more, for the heavenly realities are now joined to the earth, beautifully restored and raised. Scripture says,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:1-5).

The joy and rest of the angels

Cardinal Danielou beautifully concludes,

On that day, the joy of the friends of the Bridegroom [the angels] will be complete. They have led to paradise the souls of the just who are entrusted to them. They have kept watch over their mortal remains. But [for now] they still await the day in which the Bridegroom will come to look for his Bride, when her beauty is finally perfect, in order to lead her into the House of his Father for the eternal wedding feast (p. 114).

Of this magnificent beauty St. Methodius says,

Oh dearly beloved, [the angels] burn to see the day of your marriage, all the angels Christ has called from heaven. They will come, O Lord, O Word, and they will carry with them mighty gifts, in their spotless robes.

Thus, we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thess 4:17).

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” … He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints (Rev 22:17; 20-21).

And thus the Scriptures end, with the longing of the Bride for unity with her Husband. Yes, the Bride, the Church, cries out to her beloved, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On the Role of the Angels at the Second Coming

The Fire Next Time – A Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent

The second reading for Sunday Mass speaks to us of “the fire next time” and reminds us of the need to be ready for the coming of the Lord. In this homily I will focus on that reading, in which St. Peter reminds us of the passing that will come for us all one day.

Because Advent is a time to prepare, through prayer and repentance, we do well to heed this sacred teaching and warning. It is echoed by St. John the Baptist, of whom the Gospel today says, A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:2-3).

Note four aspects of the second reading:

I. The PATIENCE that is PURPOSEFUL The text says, Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

Though the Lord seems long-delayed in coming (about 2000 years!), the text tells us that this delay is so that as many of us as possible can be saved.

Notice that the text says that God wants us to come to repentance. God’s patience should not be seen as an excuse for presumption, but, rather, a time for repentance. This is no time to be saying, “Later.” It is a time to be serious about repenting and about preparing to meet the Lord.

The Greek word here translated as repentance is μετάνοιαν (metanoian), and refers not just to better behavior but also to a new mind. Our transformation is not merely external, but internal as well. When what we think changes, so does our behavior. When our thinking is conformed to God’s revealed truth, our priorities, feelings, desires, and decisions all begin to change. Conversion and repentance are the result of becoming a changed and transformed human being with a new mind.

II. The PASSING that is PERILOUS The text says, But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.

In effect, the text says that God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days. When He comes it will be

Sudden – The text says that the day of the Lord will come like a thief.

This image is quite a consistent with the one Jesus used for the Day of Judgment. However, this image should not be the future for those of us who wait and watch. St. Paul says, But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief … So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled (1 Thess 5:4,6).

Further, the image of God as a thief is not appropriate for us if we realize that all we have and all we are belongs to Him. For those who are worldly and who claim authority over themselves and their things, God is a thief who comes suddenly and in a hidden way. He overtakes their perceived ownership and possession, putting an end to it. To them, God seems to be a thief, as He “steals” what they consider theirs. They are badly misled.

For those who watch and are prepared (pray God), the Lord comes not to take but to give. He comes to bestow and reward as we inherit His Kingdom.

Shocking – The text speaks of the roaring heavens and of a fire that overwhelms; all will be dissolved by fire.

This image, though shocking, should not alarm us if we are already on fire. At Pentecost, as well as at our individual baptism and confirmation, the Lord lights a fire within us in order to set us on fire, to bring us up to the temperature of glory. For those in the Lord, the “weather” on that day will seem just fine.

The prophet Malachi speaks of the different experiences of the day of the Lord in this way: Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire, says the Lord Almighty. Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. Notice therefore, that for some the Day is burning with wrathful heat, but for the just, it is a sunny day wherein the sun of righteousness will bring warmth and healing (Mal 4:1-3).

An old spiritual refers to this verse saying, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no water but the fire next time.” God wants to get us ready by setting us on fire with His love and grace. If God is a Holy Fire, then we must become fire ourselves in order to endure the day of His coming.

ShowingThe text says that all things will be revealed.

It would seem that this fire burns away the masks that many people wear, leaving them to be seen for what they really are. The Lord says, But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). In the Gospel of Luke He says, There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs (Lk 12:2-3).

Even the just may wince at this, for all of us have a past; most would prefer that the past stay in the past. When I have visited “12-Step” meetings, I have sometimes seen people recount what they did when they were drinking. They seem to do so with little shame and much laughter, probably because they are sharing it with others who understand, who have also been set free from the source of the problem. Perhaps, for the just, the “day of disclosing” will be like that.

For those who are unrepentant, though, imagine their embarrassment and fear as their secrets, sins, and past injustices are disclosed to those who are also unforgiving and unmerciful. It’s a bad scene, really.

III. The PRESCRIPTION that is PROCLAIMED The text says, Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire … Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

The text asks us to consider what sort of persons we ought to be.

In a word, the answer is “fiery.” God has lit a fire within us to purify and refine us. Hence, on that day when the Lord will judge by fire, we will pass through. Although some final purifications (purgation) may take place, because the fire has been kindled in us and has already been fanned into a flame, we will be purified, not destroyed.

St. Paul describes the just as going through the purgatorial fire that leads to purification rather than destruction in Hell: If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:12-15).

So the prescription for us is to let God set us afire now so as to purify us, making us more holy and devout. The fire of His Holy Spirit is the only thing that can truly prepare us; it will permit us to endure the day of His coming and be spared the “wrath to come” (cf 1 Thess 1:10; Matt 3:7; Romans 5:9; 1 Thess 5:9), when God will judge the world and everything in it by fire.

IV. The PERFECTION that is PROMISED The text says, But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

This text presents the possibility that the created world will not so much be destroyed as purified by God’s fiery judgment. While it may also signify a total destruction of all that now exists and a replacement of it by new heavens and a new earth, some argue that it means that the created world will instead be renewed rather than destroyed and replaced. This view is supported by other passages (e.g., Isaiah 11 and Romans 8). For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:20-21).

Whatever the answer to the debate, the bottom line is that the new (or renewed) world will be a Heaven wedded to earth; the full righteousness of God will be manifest. Further, we will be without spot or blemish; we will be at peace. Yes, God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days, Hallelujah! God’s fire purifies that which is holy and burns away all else. God will restore all things in Christ!

 

Why Damnation Is Eternal and Other Teachings on Hell

This is the thirteenth and final installment in a series on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.

The teachings of the Lord on Hell are difficult, especially in today’s climate. The most difficult questions that arise relate to its eternal nature and how to square its existence with a God who is loving and rich in mercy. As a closing reflection on Hell and on the Four Last Things, let us ponder a series of questions.

1. Does God love the souls in Hell? Yes.

How could they continue to exist if He did not love them, sustain them, and continue to provide for them? God loves because He is love. Although we may fail to be able to experience or accept His love, God loves every being He has made, human or angelic.

The souls in Hell may have refused to empty their arms to receive His embrace, but God has not withdrawn His love for them. He permits those who have rejected Him to live apart from him. God honors their freedom to say no, even respecting it when it becomes permanent, as it has for fallen angels and the souls in Hell.

God is not tormenting the damned. The fire and other miseries are largely expressions of the sad condition of those who have rejected the one thing for which they were made: to be caught up into the love and perfection of God and the joy of all the saints.

2. Is there any good at all in Hell? Yes. Are all the damned punished equally? No.

While Heaven is perfection and pure goodness, Hell is not pure evil. The reason for this is that evil is the privation or absence of something good that should be there. If goodness were completely absent, there would be nothing there. Therefore, there must be some goodness in Hell or there would be nothing at all. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches,

It is impossible for evil to be pure and without the admixture of good …. [So]those who will be thrust into hell will not be free from all good … those who are in hell can receive the reward of their goods, in so far as their past goods avail for the mitigation of their punishment (Summa Theologica, Supplement 69.7, reply ad 9).

This can assist us in understanding that God’s punishments are just and that the damned are neither devoid of all good nor lacking in any experience of good. Even though a soul does not wish to dwell in God’s Kingdom (evidenced by rejection of God or the values of His Kingdom), the nature of suffering in Hell is commensurate with the sin(s) that caused exclusion from Heaven.

This would seem to be true even of demons. In the Rite of Exorcism, the exorcist warns the possessing demons, “The longer you delay your departure, the worse your punishment shall be.” This suggest levels of punishment in Hell based on the degree of unrepented wickedness.

In his Inferno, Dante described levels within Hell and wrote that not all the damned experience identical sufferings. Thus, an unrepentant adulterer might not experience the same suffering in kind or degree as would a genocidal, atheistic head of state responsible for the death of millions. Both have rejected key values of the Kingdom: one rejected chastity, the other rejected the worship due to God and the sacredness of human life. The magnitude of those sins is very different and so would be the consequences.

Heaven is a place of absolute perfection, a work accomplished by God for those who say yes. Hell, though a place of great evil, is not one of absolute evil. It cannot be, because God continues to sustain human and angelic beings in existence there and existence itself is good. God also judges them according to their deeds (Rom 2:6). Their good deeds may ameliorate their sufferings. This, too, is good and allows for good in varying degrees there. Hell is not in any way pleasant, but it is not equally bad for all. Thus God’s justice, which is good, reaches even Hell.

3. Do the souls in Hell repent of what they have done? No, not directly.

After death, repentance in the formal sense is not possible. However, St. Thomas makes an important distinction. He says,

A person may repent of sin in two ways: in one way directly, in another way indirectly. He repents of a sin directly who hates sin as such: and he repents indirectly who hates it on account of something connected with it, for instance punishment or something of that kind. Accordingly, the wicked will not repent of their sins directly, because consent in the malice of sin will remain in them; but they will repent indirectly, inasmuch as they will suffer from the punishment inflicted on them for sin (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 2).

This explains the “wailing and grinding of teeth” in so far as it points to the lament of the damned. They do not lament their choice to sin without repenting, but for the consequences. In the Parable of Lazarus, the rich man in Hell laments his suffering but expresses no regret over the way he treated the beggar Lazarus. Indeed, he still sees Lazarus as a kind of errand-boy, who should fetch him water and warn his brothers. In a certain sense the rich man cannot repent; his character is now quickened and his choices forever fixed.

4. Is eternal punishment just? Yes.

Many who might otherwise accept God’s punishment of sinners are still dismayed that Hell is eternal. Why should one be punished eternally for sins committed over a brief time span, perhaps in just a moment? The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.

This logic presumes that the eternal nature of Hell is intrinsic to the punishment, but it is not. Rather, Hell is eternal because repentance is no longer available after death. Our decision for or against God and the values of His Kingdom values becomes forever fixed. Because at this point the will is fixed and obstinate, the repentance that unlocks mercy will never be forthcoming.

St. Thomas teaches,

[A]s Damascene says (De Fide Orth. ii) “death is to men what their fall was to the angels.” Now after their fall the angels could not be restored [Cf. I:64:2]. Therefore, neither can man after death: and thus the punishment of the damned will have no end. … [So] just as the demons are obstinate in wickedness and therefore have to be punished for ever, so too are the souls of men who die without charity, since “death is to men what their fall was to the angels,” as Damascene says (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 99, art 3).

5. Do the souls in Hell hate God? No, not directly.

St. Thomas teaches,

The appetite is moved by good or evil apprehended. Now God is apprehended in two ways, namely in Himself, as by the blessed, who see Him in His essence; and in His effects, as by us and by the damned. Since, then, He is goodness by His essence, He cannot in Himself be displeasing to any will; wherefore whoever sees Him in His essence cannot hate Him.

On the other hand, some of His effects are displeasing to the will in so far as they are opposed to any one: and accordingly a person may hate God not in Himself, but by reason of His effects. Therefore, the damned, perceiving God in His punishment, which is the effect of His justice, hate Him, even as they hate the punishment inflicted on them (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 5).

6. Do the souls in hell wish they were dead? No.

It is impossible to detest what is fundamentally good, and to exist is fundamentally good. Those who say that they “wish they were dead” do not really wish nonexistence upon themselves. Rather, they wish an end to their suffering. So it is with the souls in Hell. St. Thomas teaches,

Not to be may be considered in two ways. First, in itself, and thus it can nowise be desirable, since it has no aspect of good, but is pure privation of good. Secondly, it may be considered as a relief from a painful life or from some unhappiness: and thus “not to be” takes on the aspect of good, since “to lack an evil is a kind of good” as the Philosopher says (Ethic. v, 1). In this way it is better for the damned not to be than to be unhappy. Hence it is said (Matthew 26:24): “It were better for him, if that man had not been born,” and (Jeremiah 20:14): “Cursed be the day wherein I was born,” where a gloss of Jerome observes: “It is better not to be than to be evilly.” In this sense the damned can prefer “not to be” according to their deliberate reason (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 3).

7. Do the souls in Hell see the blessed in Heaven?

Some biblical texts say that the damned see the saints in glory. For example, the rich man in the parable can see Lazarus in the Bosom of Abraham (Lk 16:3). Further, Jesus says, There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves are thrown out (Lk 13:28). However, St Thomas makes a distinction:

The damned, before the judgment day, will see the blessed in glory, in such a way as to know, not what that glory is like, but only that they are in a state of glory that surpasses all thought. This will trouble them, both because they will, through envy, grieve for their happiness, and because they have forfeited that glory. Hence it is written (Wisdom 5:2) concerning the wicked: “Seeing it” they “shall be troubled with terrible fear.”

After the judgment day, however, they will be altogether deprived of seeing the blessed: nor will this lessen their punishment, but will increase it; because they will bear in remembrance the glory of the blessed which they saw at or before the judgment: and this will torment them. Moreover, they will be tormented by finding themselves deemed unworthy even to see the glory which the saints merit to have (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 9).

St Thomas does not cite a Scripture for this conclusion. However, certain texts about the Last Judgment emphasize a kind of definitive separation. For example, in Matthew 25 we read this: All the nations will be gathered before [the Son of Man], and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. … Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Mat 25:32, 46).

Clearly, Hell is a tragic and eternal separation from God. Repentance, which unlocks mercy, is available to us; but after death, like clay pottery placed in the kiln, our decision is forever fixed.

Choose the Lord today! Judgment day looms. Now is the time to admit our sins humbly and to seek the Lord’s mercy. There is simply nothing more foolish than defiance and an obstinate refusal to repent. At some point, our hardened hearts will reach a state in which there is no turning back. To die in such a condition is to close the door of our heart on God forever.

Somebody’s knocking at your door.
Oh sinner, why don’t you answer?
Somebody’s knocking at your door!

Images of Hell

This is the twelfth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Hell, Fra Angelico, Museo di San Marco, Florence

Part of what makes Jesus’ teaching on Hell difficult is the severe imagery He uses. In pointing to Hell, he seems to point to its deepest pits. He warns of eternal fire, undying worms, and wailing and grinding of teeth. Rather than lingering on philosophical descriptions or on the more subtle aspects of suffering, Jesus goes to the deepest aspects of the sufferings of Hell.

The undying fire in Hell is not a mere physical one; it is a fire of rage and disgust that consumes as it causes pain. In contrast, the refining fire of God’s love purifies. The souls of the dammed in Hell are seething inside and enduring the heat of the indignation of others.

The worms, real and allegorical, gnaw at and devour what little energy the rage has not already burned away. Unjust anger is ultimately exhausting; it saps life the way worms do. Their gnawing brings weariness and weakness, lethargy and listlessness. Depression is anger turned inward. Indeed, when Dante gets to the pit of Hell he sees Satan, strangely bored and up to his waist in ice! In fact, Satan is so bored that he barely notices the presence of Dante and Virgil. Satan’s anger saps him the way intestinal worms do in the physical body. His wrath consumes what little remains of his energy. For now, he rages, for he knows his time is short. Soon enough he will collapse, dissipated and consumed, a sad and pathetic creature: How you have fallen O Lucifer, O Daystar … Cast down to Sheol, into the pit! (Isaiah 14:12, 15)

As for the wailing and grinding of teeth, this double image makes it clear that it has nothing to do with sorrowful repentance. The wailing is linked to anger, expressed in the grinding of teeth. This is an angry sorrow at having been conquered, having been bested, having lost. The defiant refusal to repent from serious sins and the anger at “being told what to do” are the source of this anger. No, the sorrow is not a contrition leading to repentance, but a kind of anger that grinds away in the gnashing of teeth.

The Lord certainly gives powerful images! But we do well to understand the subtleties of Hell as well. Perhaps being in Hell is to be missing the one thing necessary. Perhaps it is like owning a mansion without a key to get in, or having a fortune in a bank account without the PIN to access it. It would be better not to have them at all than to have them but lack the one thing necessary to access them! Along these lines Archbishop Sheen told the following “joke” about Hell:

There is not a golfer in America who has not heard the story, which is theologically sound, about the golfer who went to Hell and asked to play golf. The Devil showed him a 36-hole course with a beautiful clubhouse, long fairways, perfectly placed hazards, rolling hills, and velvety greens. Next, the Devil gave him a set of clubs so well balanced that the golfer felt he had been swinging them all his life. Out to the first tee they stepped, ready for a game. The golfer said, “What a course! Give me the ball.” The Devil answered: “Sorry, we have no golf balls in Hell. That’s the hell of it!” (Three to Get Married, Kindle Edition, Loc. 851-57)

This is a subtle but piercing description of Hell. Perhaps Hell has its “goods” but there is no way to enjoy them! Many are surprised to think that there could be anything “good” in Hell at all. But, since evil is the privation of the good, if demons, the damned, and Hell itself had nothing good, they would not exist at all! There is no such thing as pure evil, for it would be pure nothing. So, there are good things in Hell, but the key to enjoying them is missing. God, of course, is the key to unlocking every other good. Having rejected the vision of God for their life, the damned lack the “one thing necessary” to unlock every other blessing. The frustration of this is but a more intense version of what many now experience as they try to satisfy their infinite longing with finite things. It doesn’t work. We have a God-size hole in our heart and only God can fill it. Until we learn this lesson and set our sights on Him, we will be frustrated and unfulfilled. If we die refusing to learn this lesson, refuse to admit our need for Him and what He is offering, we are doomed to the eternal frustration of lacking the one blessing necessary to unlock every other blessing.

Another description of Hell comes from St. Paul of the Cross. Imprisoned for his faith, he wrote the following passage, in which he presents an image of how the very denizens of Hell become one another’s chief source of suffering. It is the antithesis of the Communion of the Saints, a kind of “chaos of the condemned.”

The prison here is a true image of everlasting hell: to cruel tortures of every kind—shackles, iron chains, manacles—are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief … How am I to bear with the spectacle, as each day I see … their retinue blaspheming your holy name, O Lord, who are enthroned above the Cherubim and Seraphim? Behold, the pagans have trodden your cross underfoot! Where is your glory? As I see all this, I would, in the ardent love I have for you, prefer to be torn limb from limb and to die as a witness to your love (From a letter of St. Paul Le-Bao-Tinh sent to students of the Seminary of Ke-Vinh in 1843 [Paris Foreign Mission Society, Paris, 1925], pp. 80-83).

In the above passage, Hell is described as a place of violence, hatred, vengeance, and calumny. People in Hell experience a kind of death by a thousand cuts. It is not hard to imagine such terrible things because to some degree they are the daily fare of this world, but in Hell they triumph and will never end. From Hell there is no hope of escape through the emergency exits of forgiveness, mutual mercy, reconciliation, or growth in virtue. That day is gone, replaced only by selfishness, greed, hate, revenge, envy, wrath, and bitterness. It is the bad fruit of every sinful tendency amplified by the free and unfettered manipulation of demons. The inmates run the asylum, and to the cruelest and crudest go the spoils. It is a pretty awful picture to be sure.

The grim descriptions of Jesus remain dogma; our own descriptions are a bit more speculative. Do your best to stay out of Hell! Whatever brief promises of pleasure Satan and sin might give you now, the visions of Hell are awful indeed.

Only grace and mercy can rescue us from the lies of Satan and sin. Run to Jesus, repenting of your sins. Ask for the grace to recognize the awful reality of Hell, with its sledgehammer force and its somber subtleties. Ask for the grace to see through the lies to the lasting truth of the glory of Heaven. Choose Heaven by choosing God and rejecting selfish and defiant attitudes.

Hell Has to Be

This is the eleventh in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Today we come to the final of the Four Last Things: Hell. I have written extensively on this topic over the years, largely in response to the widespread dismissal of the revealed doctrine of Hell. In contradiction to Scripture, many presume that Hell is an unlikely destination for most. Never mind that Jesus taught just the opposite (e.g., Matt 7:13-14). In my own small way, I have tried to keep people more rooted in the sobriety of the Gospel than in the wishful thinking of the modern age. No one warned of Hell more than did Jesus. Arguably, 21 of the 38 parables amount to warnings about Hell and the need to be ready for judgment day. (I have written more on that here: Jesus Who Loves You Warned Frequently of Hell.)

In this post, however, I would like to consider why Hell has to be. Frequently, those who doubt Jesus’ biblical teaching ask this: If God is love, then why is there Hell and why is it eternal?

In short, there is Hell because of God’s respect for our freedom. God has made us free and our freedom is absolutely necessary if we are to love. Suppose that a young man wanted a young lady to love him. Suppose again that he found a magic potion with which to lace her drink. After drinking it, Presto, she “loves” him! Is it real love? No it’s the effect of chemicals. Love must be freely given. The yes of love is only meaningful if we are free to say no. God invites us to love him. There must be a Hell because there has to be a real alternative to Heaven. God will not force us to love Him or to come to Heaven with Him.

But wait a minute; doesn’t everyone want to go to Heaven? Yes, but it is often a “heaven” as they define it, not the real Heaven. Many people understand Heaven egocentrically: It’s a place where they will be happy on their own terms, where what pleases them will be available in abundance. The real Heaven is the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. So while everyone wants to go to a “heaven” as they define it, not everyone wants to live in the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. Consider the following examples:

  1. The Kingdom of God is about mercy and forgiveness. Not everyone wants to show mercy or forgive. Some prefer revenge. Others favor severe justice. Some prefer to cling to their anger and nurse resentments or bigotry. Further, not everyone wants to receive mercy and forgiveness. Some cannot possibly fathom why anyone would need to forgive them since they are right! Recall the second son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Instead of entering the feast at the pleading of his father, he refuses to enter because that wretched brother of his is in there. He will not forgive or love his brother as the father does. In so doing, he excludes himself from the feast. Despite his father’s pleading, he will not enter through forgiveness and mercy. The feast is not a feast at all for him. Similarly, Heaven will not be “heaven” for those who refuse the grace to forgive and love their enemies and those who have harmed them.
  2. The Kingdom of God is about chastity. God is very clear with us that His Kingdom values chastity. For the unmarried, this means no genital sexual contact. For the married, this means complete fidelity to each other. Further, things such as pornography, lewd conduct, and immodesty are excluded from the Kingdom. Many people today do not prefer chastity. They would rather be unchaste and immodest. Many celebrate fornication and homosexual acts as a kind of liberation from “repressive” norms. Many people like to consume pornography and do not want to limit their sexual conduct. It is one thing to fail in some of these matters through weakness, but it is quite another to insist that there is nothing wrong with such behavior.
  3. The Kingdom of God is about Liturgy. All of the descriptions of Heaven emphasize liturgy. There are hymns being sung. There is the praise of God. There is standing, sitting, and prostrating at certain times. There are candles, incense, and long robes. There is a scroll or book that is opened, read, and appreciated. There is the Lamb on a throne-like altar. It’s all very much like the Mass—but many are not interested in things like the They stay away because the say it’s “boring.” Perhaps they don’t like the hymns and all the praise. Perhaps the scroll (the Lectionary) and its contents do not interest them or agree with their moral preferences. Having God at the center rather than themselves is unappealing.

The point is this: If Heaven isn’t just of our own design; if Heaven—the real Kingdom of God—is about these things, then doesn’t it seem clear that there actually are many who don’t want to go to Heaven? You see, everyone wants to go to a “heaven” of their own design, but not everyone wants to live in the real Kingdom of Heaven. God will not force any one to live in Heaven if he doesn’t want to live there. He will not force anyone to love Him or what He loves or whom He loves. We are free to choose His Kingdom or not.

Perhaps a brief story will illustrate my point:

I once knew a woman in one of my parishes who in many ways was very devout. She went to daily Mass and prayed the rosary on most days. There was one thing about her, however, that was very troubling: she couldn’t stand African-Americans.

She would often comment to me, “I can’t stand Black people! They’re moving into this neighborhood and ruining everything! I wish they’d go away.” I remember scolding her a number of times for this sort of talk, but it seemed to have seeming effect.

One day I decided to try to make it more clear: “You know you don’t really want to go to Heaven,” I challenged.

“Of course I do, Father,” she replied. “God and the Blessed Mother are there; I want to go.”

“No, you won’t be happy there,” I responded.

“Why?” she asked, “What are you talking about, Father?”

“Well you see there are Black people in Heaven and you’ve said that you can’t stand to be around them, so I’m afraid you wouldn’t be happy there. God won’t force you to live in Heaven if you won’t be happy there. That’s why I think that you don’t really want to go to Heaven.”

I think she got the message because I noticed that her attitude started to improve.

That’s just it, isn’t it? God will not force us to live in the Kingdom if we really don’t want it or like what that Kingdom is. We can’t just invent our own “heaven.” Heaven is a real place. It has contours and realities of its own that we can’t just brush aside. Either we accept Heaven as it is or we ipso facto choose to live apart from it and God. So, Hell has to be. It is not a pleasant place, but I suppose the saddest thing about the souls in Hell is that they wouldn’t be happy in Heaven anyway. It’s a tragic plight, not to be happy anywhere.

Understand this, too: God has not utterly rejected even the souls in Hell. Somehow, He still provides for their basic needs. They continue to exist and thus God continues to sustain them with whatever is required for that existence. He does not annihilate them or snuff them out.

God respects their wish to live apart from the Kingdom and its values. He loves them but respects their choice.

Why is Hell eternal? Here I think we encounter a mystery about ourselves. God seems to be teaching us that there comes a day when our decisions are fixed forever. In this world we always have the possibility of changing our mind so the idea of a permanent decision seems strange to us. Those of us who are older can testify that as we age we get more and more set in our ways; it’s harder and harder to change. Perhaps this is a little foretaste of a time when our decisions will be forever fixed and we will never change. The Fathers of the Church used an image of pottery to teach on this. Think of wet clay on a potter’s wheel. As long as the clay is moist and still on the wheel it can be shaped and reshaped, but once it is put in the kiln, in the fire, its shape is fixed forever. So it is with us that when we appear before God, who is a Holy Fire, our fundamental shape will be forever fixed, our decisions will be final. This is mysterious to us and we only sense it vaguely, but because Heaven and Hell are eternal, it seems that this forever-fixed state is in our future.

This is the best I can do on a difficult topic: Hell has to be. It’s about God’s respect for us. It’s about our freedom and summons to love. It’s about the real Heaven. It’s about what we really want in the end. We know what God wants: to save us. The real judgment in question is what we want.

Growing in the Fear of the Lord – A Homily for the 33rd Sunday of the Year

The past few Sundays have featured the November theme of the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. In today’s Gospel we are reminded that we will one day have to account for our use of the gifts and resources that God has given us.

But today’s readings do more than that; they also set forth a virtue that helps us to use God’s gifts well. That virtue is the fear of the Lord. It is a foundational disposition of the wise, but not the foolish. Scripture says, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10).

In today’s first reading contains this nugget: Charm is deceitful, beauty is fleeting, but the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised (Prov 31:30). Today’s Psalm says, Blessed are you who fear the Lord (Psalm 128:1).

“Fear” of the Lord can be understood in two ways: perfect fear and imperfect fear. Both are important. Imperfect fear (which most of us begin with and still need from time to time) is the fear of punishment and the loss of Heaven. Jesus often appeals to this sort of fear in His preaching; He vividly warns of the punishments that come to impenitent sinners, both here in this world and ultimately in Hell. While imperfect, this kind of fear is necessary—especially for the spiritually immature (and all of us have our areas of immaturity). It is somewhat like a young child who needs punishment and/or the threat thereof in order to learn discipline and the consequences of bad behavior. As the child matures, we can begin to appeal to his reason and his love for others in order to encourage good behavior. Good preaching and teaching should not wholly neglect the appeal to imperfect fear because congregations have people at many different stages. Jesus did not neglect this kind of appeal and neither should we.

However, just as we hope to be able to appeal to higher motives as our children mature, so as we grow in the spiritual life do we hope to move toward a more perfect “fear” of the Lord. This more mature fear is not a cringing, servile one. Rather, fearing the Lord is holding Him in awe, revering Him, having a deep love and appreciation for Him as the source of all that we are and all that we have. Because we love God and He is Abba to us, we fear offending Him by sin, or severing our relationship with Him by refusing His grace. Out of love, reverence, and a sense of awe, we fear giving any offense to Him, who is Holy, God, and deserving of all our love.

With this background, we can look to a deeper teaching in today’s Gospel. On one level, the teaching is clear: We will all have to account for our use of the talents and resources God has given us. On a deeper level, we are taught of the importance of attaining to a mature fear of the Lord as the essential way of bearing the fruit that will be sought. There is a danger in remaining only in imperfect fear (which has its place and time in our life) because we risk developing resentment and avoidance if we refuse to grow toward a more perfect fear.

Let’s look at it with this perspective in mind and discover the differences of each kind of fear.

A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

Three men are given resources to use. Two succeed; one fails. Why? Ultimately it is the difference between holy fear, love, and confidence on the one hand, and unholy fear and resentment on the other.

Consider the plan of the first two men (the ones who succeed):

  1. Receive Riches – One gets five talents; the other, two—each according to his ability. While the “inequity” may offend modern sensibilities, note the explanation in the passage itself: the men had different abilities. Before getting outraged, consider this: what business owner would not give more resources to an outstanding employee than to a mediocre one? The fact is, God blesses some more abundantly than others due to their good use of gifts. Later in the Gospel, we receive this fundamental rule: We must prove faithful in a few things to be ruler over many (Matt 25:23).
  2. Risk Reinvestment – Something in these two men makes them feel free enough to risk reinvesting the money: It is likely their relationship with the master. They view him as a reasonable man, one who would applaud their industriousness. Though they are taking a risk, they believe that even if there were to be losses, they will not be dealt with unmercifully. They seem to experience the freedom and courage to step out and make use of the talents entrusted to them. Notice that the text says they “immediately” went out and traded. They are eager to work for their master and take the risks on his behalf in order to please him.
  3. Render a ReportUpon the master’s return the men seem somewhat joyful as they report, “Master, you gave me five (two) talents. See, I have made five (two) more.” There is an enthusiasm for the opportunity they were given and a joy for the harvest.
  4. Rise in the Ranks – The men’s presumptions of the master’s fairness and reasonability are affirmed in his response: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.” We see that the master is joyful and wants to share his joy with his servants. Further, he is willing to give them greater access to share in his blessings and joy based on their openness to trusting him and their showing themselves to be trustworthy.

The two successful servants see the owner of the riches as a man with whom they can deal. They have a healthy respect for him but not an immature fear. They receive the funds gladly and with gratitude go to work, motivated and enthusiastic about the opportunity they have been given.

Allow the posture of these two servants to be a portrait of a holy and more perfect fear of the Lord. With this sort of holy fear, we love God and are enthusiastic to work for Him, realizing that He shares His blessings and is both reasonable and generous. Confident of His mercy (though not presuming it), we go to work in His vineyard. Although there are risks and temptations in the vineyard, if we do fail or fall, we do not make light of our sin but rather repent of it and are confident of God’s mercy. A mature fear of the Lord does not box us in or paralyze us. It does remind of our boundaries and keeps us away from truly dangerous things that erode our talents, but because we love God we respect His boundaries joyfully, knowing that He protects us from “unsafe investments.” Within the designated boundaries, there is both room to maneuver and safety from the thickets of sin. Mature fear of the Lord is joyful and encouraging, not cringing or hiding from Him. Choose the fear of the Lord.

The servant who fails follows a different plan, one by which he

  1. is Fruitless – for he buries the treasure
  2. is Furious – for he says, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter, so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. He considers the owner a hard man. He also sees him as unjust because he has others do his planting, etc. The man sees his work as slavery, unlike the other servants who see it as an opportunity. Notice, too, this subtlety: The man refers to the talent he was given as “your talent.” In contrast, the other men say, “You gave me five (two) talents.” These men see themselves as stewards whereas the third man sees himself as a slave.
  3. is Fearful – for he says that he buried it out of fear. In this case, we see a cringing and servile fear, and immature and imperfect fear of the Lord. This is distinct from the more mature fear of the Lord, toward which we must move to bear fruit. Note that it is his image of the master that drives his fear.
  4. Forfeits – It is clear that he wants nothing to do with his master. In effect, the master says this to him: “Fine, if you don’t want to deal with me you don’t have to. I will take your talent and given it to the one with ten. If you do not wish to be in my presence or deal with me then consider yourself dismissed.”

The failed servant gives way to anger and resentment; he indulges his immature fears that the owner is out to get him, that the deck is stacked against him. He is not grateful for the opportunity he was given. Notice that these thoughts lead to his actions; but are his thoughts true and unassailable? It is clear that the other two men do not see the master in this way. We see through the reaction of the master to the behavior of the first two servants that he is in fact reasonable, decent, just, and joyful. The failed servant’s thoughts were not accurate. Rather than believing everything he thinks, the failed servant should test those thoughts against reality.

To fear the Lord more perfectly is to hold him awe, to rejoice in His power and wisdom, to accept His authority as saving and helpful. In this way we yield an abundant harvest with His gifts.

Now look, if imperfect fear is all you have, go with it! Sadly, many people today in this secular culture conduct their lives as though they will never have to account for it; they go on sinning, scoffing at the idea that they should have any fear of a judgment day. They are going to be surprised and unprepared for what they will face.

So, even if you have an imperfect fear of the Lord, rooted in punishment, don’t cast it away! To grow, though, seek a more perfect fear, rooted in love and awe of God’s majesty and goodness. If we remain in an imperfect fear that does not seek to grow in love, we risk falling into resentment and aversion and will not bear the fruits that the Lord seeks for us. This call for growth is what the Lord means here:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love (1 Jn 4:18).

The fear counseled against here is not the perfect and mature fear of the Lord referred to elsewhere in Scripture. Rather it is the immature fear, rooted merely in the fear of punishment. We are counseled to grow out of this imperfect fear through deepening love of God.

The deeper teaching here is this: grow in love; mature in your fear of the Lord and reap the abundant riches of a faithful servant and child of God.

On the Passing of Things, as Seen in a Commercial

The commercial below must have taken weeks to film. Regardless of its intent (selling homeowner’s insurance), there is something of an admonition in both the video and the accompanying music: life and the things of life slip away. Not a bad theme in November, when the Church bids us to meditate on the last things.

The lyrics of the background music set forth the theme: “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Don’t stop; it’ll soon be here.” As the song plays, the objects in the house start to get up and leave the house and its owners. Then, the occupants themselves begin to be swept out. By the end of the commercial, all that was within and all who were within have been swept outside.

This is a paradigm for life. No thing and no person in this world will survive the passage of time. All will be swept away; all will pass, down the river of time. Even lofty mountains were once on the sea floor—and to that floor they will eventually erode and return. Jesus says, Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (Mat 24:35).

Scripture also says,

  • For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Heb 13:14).
  • The end of all things is near. Therefore, be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray (1 Peter 4:7).
  • But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13).

This commercial is not morbid. Rather, it is almost joyful. For indeed, although earthly glories fade, Scripture says (in many different passages) that trouble doesn’t last forever (cf Psalm 30:6).

The commercial ends with a photograph being taken. Ultimately, each moment in life is but a snapshot in time. Time itself and all things are moving downstream, down the river of time and slipping away. God alone remains forever. Our only hope is to be anchored to Him. He is our rock, our firm foundation. His Kingdom is our lasting city. All else fades and slips away.

What Do We Mean by the Communion of Saints?

This is the tenth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Continuing our series on the Four Last Things, in today’s post we consider an aspect of Heaven called the Communion of Saints. I have discovered that it is frequently misunderstood. Many of you know that I write the weekly “Question and Answer” column for the Our Sunday Visitor newspaper. Every once in a while, someone poses a unique question, one that I had never thought of before. such is the case with the question below. It led me to reflect on the deeper experience of what we call the Communion of Saints in Heaven.

My answers are required to be no more than 600 words, so this response is relatively brief.

(There is an online catalogue of my “Question and Answer” columns available 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, Kansas

A: The danger to avoid when meditating on Heaven is taking earthly realities and merely transferring them to Heaven. Even if there are similarities to things on earth, things in Heaven will be experienced in a perfected way, with unspeakable joy.

The more biblical and theological way to understand the multitudes in Heaven is not as a physical crowding but as a deep communion. In other words, the Communion of Saints is not just a lot of people walking about or standing around talking.

St. Paul teaches, So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members, one of another (Rom 12:5). Although we experience this imperfectly here on earth, we will experience it perfectly in Heaven. As members of one another we will have deep communion; we will know and be 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 a 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 with one another—together swept up into the life of the Trinity. As St. Paul says, you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor 3:23).