Question 183:

What are Christian Paradise and Hell like? (TR)



In answer to this question we need to expand a little and consider the words of a leading modern day Catholic theologian says about the dead, eternal life and therefore also about heaven (paradise) and hell.

Many of our contemporaries, even baptized Christians, struggle with the last sentence of the creed, as, indeed, did the people of Athens at the time of St Paul (Acts 17:32).

Presumably this is rooted in the apparently mythological images which the New Testament has taken over from the early Jewish apocalyptic tradition, and which were then passed on throughout the centuries through the preaching of the Church and through Christian art: that on the last day of our times, with the visible second coming of our Lord to earth, the graves will be opened and the bodies of all the dead will come to life again, so that all the people can then gather before Christ, the judge, for the last judgment.

Today many believers and the majority of theologians are convinced that we can imagine the resurrection of the dead in ways other than these strongly bodily images, without having to abandon the binding content of our faith. And so today much more emphasis is placed on the unity of body and soul, also with respect to the completion of life with God. This means: we believe that after death all human beings comes face to face with the love of God in the form of the risen Christ, with body and soul, with their whole humanity and their whole colourful life story, with everything they have experienced and suffered, done and not done. As with the Eucharist, where we receive the body of Christ (i.e. the risen Christ!), the term body refers not to the biological organism of our body (with skin, flesh and bones), but to that which St Paul calls the spiritual body of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:44), that is to say the whole body which has been penetrated and transformed by the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. In it remains stored all that of our earthly life, of our transient physicality and its experiences of happiness, love and joy which is important for the salvation of human beings in God. This resurrection of the body is not in contrast to the immortality of the soul, because the biblical meaning of the word soul emphasizes human being’s openness to God and that they can enter into a personal relationship of love and friendship with God beyond their physical connection with earth and creation. From God’s perspective, this love and friendship never ends and is therefore immortal. The resurrection of the dead therefore describes the salvation of the one and whole human being.

For human being’s death represents the definitive end of life on earth lived across the various phases in time and space. The everlasting life after death therefore does not simply run eternally and parallel to our time, only on a higher, invisible heavenly plane. Rather, in death our life lived on earth reaches its final form with God. But this must not be misunderstood as if God then codified the result of our live forever. Rather, finality means: we bring the fruits of our life to God. He accepts it, preserves, cleanses and perfects it in the never ending conversation of love between Father and Son in the Holy Spirit. In the light of this love the fruit of our lives can reach its fullness and reach that form which God has planned for each one of us at the very beginning of our lives. Once all human beings have suffered their death and have handed over the fruits of their lives to God, then Christ will have come again to every one of them. Then the last day of history has been reached. Like all of creation, this last day is not a certain calendar date in our timeline, and can therefore not be calculated in advance.

In this final and open coming face to face with the love of God we will understand the truth of our lives, clearly and without being able to suppress it. The huge discrepancy between our lives and the love of God for us will become apparent. His love will take the form of a judging love (= judgment) which hopes to move us to the recognition of truth, acceptance of our sin and to repentance. If we then accept Gods unerring, true and endlessly merciful gaze on our lives, his love can purify the innermost part of us. Then we can truly accept God’s forgiveness and allow it to transform us, thus becoming truly fit for heaven. Tradition calls this purgatory (purification), and it represents the gates of heaven.

Heaven is defined as the blissful existence of mankind in the unity of the triune God, but also with the body of Christ, which will gather up all faithful, hopeful and loving people of the earth; and finally also with the whole creation, which is loved by God in all eternity, which together with us is still suffering birth pangs, but which shall be released from its bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:21f).

And Hell? Unlike Heaven God does not assign people to Hell (as punishment). Of himself God only communicates himself, but only as love that desires nothing but salvation for everyone. However, human beings have been given the absolute freedom to say no to God’s mercy, however improbable such a choice may seem. For example, when they are so in love with their own achievements that they will not accept Gods salvation as pure grace but rather request it as their due. Such a negative finality can only be comprehended as a frozen fossilisation, a negation of life and all relationships, as an egocentricity that sees itself as the only absolute. We may and must hope that there is no-one for whom this will be the final word about themselves and their lives. But we cannot exclude the possibility with absolute certainty. Because the ultimate relation of God’s endless mercy and humankinds endless freedom remain a secret to us. As long as we are still on our way, they are part of the mystery of faith and hope. (Medard Kehl SJ in: W. Fürst & J. Werbick (Hg.), „Katholische Glaubensfibel“. Freiburg: Herder, 2004, p. 87 ff.)

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