A couple weeks ago I wrote about Heaven in relation to the Field of Dreams game and movie. That spurred me to dive deeper into what the Church teaches about eternal life. I want to share some of what I've read, particularly through the lens of the Theology of the Body.
From 1979 to 1984, during his Wednesday audiences Pope John Paul II gave 129 lectures on human anthropology, sexuality, and love. These are compiled under the title of Theology of the Body (TOB). This work was the capstone of a lifetime of reflection and writing for John Paul II. He sought to articulate anew what the Church and Bible have always proclaimed: We are made in the image of God. Therefore, every part of us matters, including our bodies.
This is important because we have a tendency to separate Heaven from Earth. We tend to think of our bodies as earthly and our souls as heavenly. But this is not reality. We cannot truly separate this life and the next. In fact, our body is our access point to everything; all of our experience comes through our senses. The body takes on infinitely more significance once we realize God, who is invisible, becomes visible through Jesus’ body.
If this is not enough motivation to do good with our bodies, there is also the knowledge of what the next life is like. Heaven will be full of people with bodies. In some way even the same as on Earth! How do we know this? From what has been revealed by God, particularly Christ (John 20, Luke 24). When Jesus appeared after the Resurrection, the wounds from the Crucifixion were visible. However, He was also different. This is what theologians call the glorified body. It is the same body from earthly life but in a new, eternal way.
Much has been written about this topic throughout two millennia, including by St. Thomas Aquinas. In Summa Contra Gentiles he describes four characteristics of heavenly bodies: clarity (no deformity, impassibility (no suffering), agility (easy movement), and subtlety (spiritualized nature). These are all based on descriptions of the resurrected Christ in scripture. What is amazing is that we too are offered this existence through the life of faith (Rom. 8:11).
In TOB John Paul II spent some time writing about human beings in a comprehensive way. He discusses humanity in three dimensions: before the fall (original man), after the fall/present time (historical man), and the future age (eschatological man). We tend to only view things through the second dimension, historically. However, God’s revelation gives us more light; by faith working with reason we have access to more knowledge. This article is mostly focused on the third dimension.
Eschatology is the study of what happens at the end of our earthly lives. As Catholics we believe the four last things are Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. In Heaven people experience something even greater than what Adam and Eve had in the garden. God in His infinite wisdom brings about a greater good from Original Sin. After the fall in Paradise, God offers us salvation through His Son, whereby our nature can actually elevate into eternal life. This is why at Easter we say Felix Culpa which means Happy Fault. Because of the Resurrection we can rejoice knowing there is something after this broken world.
Again, some might think this is abstract and disconnected from earthly life. However, through Christ we have access to this type of existence even now, albeit imperfectly. Whenever we experience a moment of peace, love, and joy, we are experiencing Heaven. Our lives on Earth are about cultivating habits, relationships, and structures which allow this to grow. It is not without much difficulty at times; however, this is our mission & vision as Christians. Without it we will perish (Prov.29 & Hos.4).
Here is what John Paul II wrote,
"This eschatological perspective, which shows the fundamental orientation of Christian life towards the ultimate realities, is a continual call both to hope and to involvement in the Church and in the world. We must not forget that for Christians the "eschaton", that is, the final event, is to be understood not only as a future goal, but as a reality which has already begun with the historical coming of Christ...The horizon of a new relationship with God is unfolding for humanity, marked by the great offer of salvation in Christ."
One final thing. I think many of us Catholics are told bits and pieces of the heavenly realities throughout our lives. We hear Heaven is a great place where we are united with God and those we love. However, I don’t think repentance is often included. We MUST acknowledge we cannot earn Heaven on our own merit. No matter how good of a person you are, you're not worthy. I'm not worthy. No one is worthy. This is the whole reason Christ became man and suffered death. It is through humility not presumption that we enter the presence of God.
Once we understand this truth in a personal way, it is possible for our lives to be transformed by grace. The reality of the future can positively affect the present, and the will of God can be done on Earth (through our bodies) as it is in Heaven. We look forward full of hope no matter our circumstances because we believe, “Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has it entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2G.HTM CCC 988-104