Talking about Heaven is not all that fashionable these days, and I am not sure that Hell has ever been fashionable to talk about (except in the odd-ball crowds).
Recently, Rob Bell, a famous evangelical preacher, author, and all-around good guy, has caused some controversy with his new book, Love Wins, which many suppose he is positing a "universalist" view of the afterlife, which is just a fancy theological way of saying that, in the end, Hell will be empty and everyone will be in Heaven.
Whether or not it holds is outside the point of this post.
People have started talking about Heaven and Hell and their importance in communicating the Faith. I am loving this new conversation. Heaven and Hell are crucial in evangelization, and I want to share some thoughts on the matter.
I am a nerd for Catholic morality, made so by the works of Fr. Servais Pinckaers, a Swiss moral theologian who wrote the book Sources of Christian Ethics, whereby he placed the desire for happiness and the Beatitudes of Christ back in their proper place in Christian morality, which is prior to the Commandments.
Of Heaven and Happiness
The Catholic view of Heaven and the moral understanding of happiness, are the same thing. God made us for Himself. This is what we call the capax dei, or man's capacity for God. We are made for the infinite and the eternal, and nothing less than that could ever possibly satisfy the human heart. "You have made us for Youself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You".
We were literally made for Heaven because Heaven is nothing other than union with the Blessed Trinity.
Most moral systems, until the Enlightenment, were what we call eudaimonistic, which is a fancier philosophical way of saying "happiness" or "human flourishing". Happiness was defined by the Greeks and Romans not as some subjective and momentary experience of subjective pleasure, but by living the good life, being virtuous, and one could only be described as "happy" after one was dead.
Jesus purified this concept by revealing what our happiness truly consisted in, and in how to attain it. The Sermon on the Mount is the bedrock foundation of Christian morality and the Beatitudes of Jesus begin His catechesis on what it means to live the good life.
Beatitude is most often translated as "Blessed" but can equally be translated as "Happy". So the Eight Beatitudes found in Matthew 5:3-12 are the eight ways to happiness, to the Kingdom of Heaven. Union with God happens by becoming conformed to the person of Jesus Christ. The Beatitudes are His self-portrait and our deepest vocation.
Thus, we are made for Heaven. It is why we were created. It is not a super-added additional thing that happens to us when we die. Heaven is the reason for our living. It was always this way. God created us as rational animals because that is what it takes to enter Heaven. Heaven was not God's after-thought for the human race, but was the determining factor in creating us.
But, and this is important, just because God created us for Heaven does not mean that it is ours by default or by right. We are not entitled automatically to Heaven. We lost that inheritance in the Original Sin and in every sin that we commit ourselves. Heaven is pure gift, the end result of cooperation with God's freely given grace.
The Ultimate End, Means and Ends
There is only one big, overarching goal of human life. The Ultimate End is the final terminus of all human action. Theologians and Philosophers have called this the "Ultimate End", the "Greatest Good", and simply "Happiness."
Let's talk about means and ends. Throughout life, we are choosing means to arrive at ends. I want to eat, so I walk to the frigid and get some food. I do not grab wood cleaner, books, or a portable hard drive, because those things are not suited to the end, or goal, of eating.
Ends reveal purposeful behavior and the means we choose to satisfy those ends can be suitable or unsuitable to reach those ends. Getting wood cleaner when I want food is unsuitable and will frustrate my end from being acheived. Remember that word: F-R-U-S-T-R-A-T-E.
But all of the ends in your life are actually, in the final report, not perfect and complete ends in themselves. They constitute a part of the Ultimate End. We eat in order to stay alive, so that we can get an education. We get an education in order to get a job. And on and on it goes. The stopping point is reached when all other actions and choices can go no further, when those means and ends reach the Ultimate End.
Happiness is the Ultimate End
How we define happiness, the Ultimate End, shapes how we define what is right and wrong, what is good and bad. If people think, and it matters not whether it is explicit or implicit, that happiness is pleasurable experiences, then that will shape their actions, their choices of means and lesser ends to arrive at that goal.
If people think happiness is defined as fame, honor, or respect, then attaining that Greatest Good and Ultimate End will affect their choices along the way, and will color those behaviors they define as virtues or as vices.
Think about the Ultimate End in this way:
Do people pursue money because they think it will make them happy? Or, do people pursue happiness because they think it will get them money? Do people seek pleasure because they want it to make them happy, or do they seek happiness in order to find pleasure? Do people want fame and respect because they think it will make them happy, or do they want happiness because they think happiness will make them famous and respectable?
No one ever said, "I really want to be happy so that I can make a million dollars!" But people all the time think that making millions is constituative of happiness. So their actions, their choices of means and ends, will be shaped by their understanding of what really makes them happy.
Catechesis of Heaven and Happiness
Communicating the Catholic view of Happiness means preaching the Kingdom of Heaven. Heaven is the final goal of all human striving. As I said above, Heaven is not some pleasure banquet, nor is it some boring place with do-gooders obsessed with playing the harp. Heaven is the heart's deepest longing because it is nothing other than the union of man with God in Christ Jesus.
Jesus challenges the way we view happiness. The Beatitudes are not just a list of do's and don'ts. They belong not just to external actions, but are intensified and internalized dispositions. He is asking us to focus not only on our external actions and behavior, but on our character. He is concerned, in the end, with not just what we did, but who we became in and through those actions and attitudes.
Catholics need to understand the importance of Eternal Life, which is the pledge of our inheritance, if only we are "in Christ" and are animated by His Holy Spirit. This life, then, is not just some test, nor does it lack its own beauty, goodness, or significance, as some would caricature it (I'm looking at you, writers of House). Because Heaven is real and is every human person's vocation, this life and all of the choices we make in it, now have eternal significance.
One cannot separate Christ's mission from the idea of eternal life. The Paschal Mystery occured for the goal of removing our sinfulness so that we could enter into union with God. Sin is the stumbling block and the Cross of Christ is the only remedy. This means, though, that eternal life does not just happen after we die, but is begun the moment God's supernatural grace touches our soul.
Catechizing Catholics in the new evangelization means preaching the salvation we have in Jesus Christ and living out that life of grace here and now through the Church He established. We need to start talking about Heaven and, yes, Hell, a whole lot more. We need to get people excited about salvation, about Heaven, and about the glorious joy that awaits us as our Ultimate End.
In short, we need to get serious about happiness.