God is Here, Not "Out There"!

Here in the midst of the Christmas season our awareness of the meaning of the Incarnation is particularly heightened. In reflecting on this mystery, we commonly speak about Jesus “leaving Heaven” or “leaving the Father” to become one of us, to take on human nature. I submit that while there is certainly some truth in such formulas, they are potentially more dangerous than they are useful, in that they unintentionally reinforce erroneous understandings of Heaven and of God’s transcendence, understandings which unwittingly lead us towards a deistic conception of God “out there” which is manifestly false and contrary to Christianity.

Because we are material beings and experience reality “sensually”, it’s natural for us to think of heaven in geographic or spatial terms, and such language has some biblical pedigree: we read about God dwelling in the heavens, and about Jesus literally ascending from the Apostles to the Father. It seems to me, however, that popular piety sometimes takes such language too far, to the point that we fail to grasp the deeper significance and nature of heaven, and more importantly, the meaning of God’s transcendence and his paternal care for creation, man in particular.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear on this: heaven isn’t a place, but is a state (the same is true for purgatory and hell, for that matter), a state in which we see God as He is (to the degree this is possible for the glorified human being), or better, a state in which we dwell with God and in God, in the bosom of the Trinity, in the embrace of Triune love. To be in heaven is to be in ecstatic love, literally. (This is one way, incidentally, to show that heaven isn’t “boring”: anyone who has been madly & deeply in love can testify to the fact that it’s not boring!) The Catechism describes heaven as “perfect life with the Trinity,” “the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme happiness,” and that “to live in heaven is ‘to be with Christ'” (CCC 1024, 1025).

But by conceiving even implicitly of heaven as a place, we consequently — albeit unintentionally — “remove” God (the Father) from us, from the sphere of our existence, placing him “out there” with the god of the deists. No: God’s transcendence is ontological, not geographical: his “distance” from us is at the level of being, not of physical measurement. Our tradition speaks of God as both transcendent and immanent, but this can only be properly understood when we refrain from conceiving of transcendence in a physical manner. God is Other, but He is also With Us: Emmanuel!

God is Love, and He is deeply in love with us. Let’s not let the limitations of language and our modes of knowing lead us to forget that our destiny is in the bosom of the Father who is always-already with us.

17 Responses to God is Here, Not "Out There"!

  • Actually, it is a place. I would refer you to 326 and 1029-1033 in the Catechism.

  • DB, please note that CCC 326 puts quotation marks around “place,” indicating its metaphorical usage. Your other citations refer mostly to purgatory. In any case, I cited 1024 and 1025, which explicitly refer to heaven as a state. What specific passages do you have in mind?

    Stepping back for a moment, though… I didn’t make another evident point in my post, that is that heaven *can’t* be a place, given that God is spirit, not matter. My concern was with the *implications* of a view of heaven as a place, not with the view itself, as my post indicates, but I should have made this point nonetheless at the outset.

  • Chris, it is clear to me that Heaven is the total ecstasy of the Beatific Vision, and that this is union with God and that God is pure Spirit. But it is not clear to me that for humans, this spiritual reality does not also have a physical place. In the end of time there will be the Resurrection of the Dead, and those with God in Heaven will be reunited with their bodies. These bodies have to occupy some space, as Christ’s did when he appeared to the apostles in the upper room. Given that this is the case, is it not fair to say that Heaven is both a spiritual reality (union with God in the beatific vision) and also a material reality, in our resurrected bodies and our friendship with Christ? The Bible often speaks of Heaven as another world. I think this is commonly understood as a rejuvenated and perfect Earth or new Eden… am I way off base here?

  • But I see your point about putting unnecessary distance between us and God. We should not do this! God is indeed immanent and we need to recognize this. Ought we ought not also recognize that his transcendence is not perfectly revealed to us because of the limitations of human nature? I think this is what is met by the “No one has seen God” verses found throughout the Bible.

    But yes, God is always with us, even here on this strange blog!

  • Your right, Zach, in that those in Heaven will occupy a place; my point is that heaven is not a specific place, though. Using a silly example, let’s say that after the final judgment and the renewal/glorification of creation, we’re able to travel the universe… regardless of our physical location in the universe, we’ll be in heaven.

    Does that make sense?

  • Yes, actually a lot of sense. Very helpful. Thanks!

  • Heaven is a place and a state…to imply that it isn’t a place is nonsense, because where did Jesus go when he Ascended? Your clarification is noted, and your point well taken.

  • DB, according to that logic, love must be a place, because I’m in love with my wife, and I’m somewhere.

    Again, body-soul persons in heaven are obviously somewhere, but the “somewhere” isn’t what makes heaven heaven, but rather the state of their existence *anywhere* makes heaven heaven.

    If you want to insist that heaven is defined as a place, what’s its address?

  • If you want to insist that heaven is defined as a place, what’s its address?

    To listen to my neighbors talk, Heaven is in Texas, but I haven’t found it yet.

    Not surprising, Hell is in Michigan.

    Somewhat fittingly, Purgatory is in Rhode Island.

  • :-) And let’s not forget: Minnesota is the Promised Land. :-)

  • As support for what Chris rightfully states, one might also want to look at this address of Pope John Paul II on hell, which of course the news took out of context:

    http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=1183

  • To listen to my neighbors talk, Heaven is in Texas, but I haven’t found it yet.

    Not surprising, Hell is in Michigan.

    As a native Texan and Michigan lover, I must object. Michigan in the winter is hell, and Texas in the summer is hell.

    Aside from the absurd farm subsudies, from which the government directly funds the corn that helps to make us unhealthy, the Midwest rocks.

    And so as not to derail the thread, thinking heaven and hell as actual places makes my head hurt.

  • Where did Jesus go when he Ascended, if Heaven isn’t a place?

  • DB, for Jesus & Mary, anywhere & everywhere is heaven. I don’t know where they are geographically, but it’s really irrelevant, in that they are resting in the Father’s embrace.

  • D.B.

    How can Jesus be at the “right hand of the Father” if the Father has no hands?

  • That would be a cute observation, except for one thing….People actually watched Jesus enter the sky. Now I am not saying that Heaven has boundaries like the state of Montana or any other piece of Geography, but to imply that Heaven is merely a state of being would be in error..from the Catholic Encyclopedia:
    “Where is heaven, the dwelling of God and the blessed?

    Some are of opinion that heaven is everywhere, as God is everywhere. According to this view the blessed can move about freely in every part of the universe, and still remain with God and see everywhere. Everywhere, too, they remain with Christ (in His sacred Humanity) and with the saints and the angels. For, according to the advocates of this opinion, the spatial distances of this world must no longer impede the mutual intercourse of blessed.

    In general, however, theologians deem more appropriate that there should be a special and glorious abode, in which the blessed have their peculiar home and where they usually abide, even though they be free to go about in this world. For the surroundings in the midst of which the blessed have their dwelling must be in accordance with their happy state; and the internal union of charity which joins them in affection must find its outward expression in community of habitation. At the end of the world, the earth together with the celestial bodies will be gloriously transformed into a part of the dwelling-place of the blessed (Revelation 21). Hence there seems to be no sufficient reason for attributing a metaphorical sense to those numerous utterances of the Bible which suggest a definite dwelling-place of the blessed. Theologians, therefore, generally hold that the heaven of the blessed is a special place with definite limits. Naturally, this place is held to exist, not within the earth, but, in accordance with the expressions of Scripture, without and beyond its limits. All further details regarding its locality are quite uncertain. The Church has decided nothing on this subject.”

  • My final comment on the matter is this: Perhaps we are merely arguing semantics and terminology here. I see no reason why an either/or argument should be the case.

    God Bless.

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