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Quodlibet 37: Why Eternity?

Sunday, May 18, 2014
One Godzdogz reader recently sent in an email including many fascinating questions on the topic of Eternity, especially in terms of what the afterlife will be like. The questions ranged from heaven, perfection, theosis, and the beatific vision, to hell, annihilation, and our inability to run or hide from God. I'm happy to replicate my response here under the general question:


[...] I was going to write specific answers to each of your questions, but they are all so intimately connected that a single, extended response seems more appropriate. Also, I think you end up answering many of your own questions, not least because you show a good knowledge and appreciation of Catholic doctrine in this area. But I think if you applied this more consistently you would find that your remaining questions disappear. Not that you would have a full arsenal of answers, but you would see the true reach of our Faith and the limits of our knowledge. In the mystery of God’s being, we see a glimpse of our own final destination. All things come from God and all things return to God. That is a great mystery because God is a great mystery. But a mystery is not something about which nothing can be said – otherwise we should take Wittgenstein’s advice and remain silent! No, a mystery is something about which not everything can be known. More on this later.
What does eternity mean? Your questions reminded me of a recent spoof on the Onion: theoretical physicists meet R&B singers to debate the meaning of ‘forever’! Anyway, it is fashionable to distinguish between ‘eternity’ and ‘everlasting life’; the latter is a temporal succession of events that goes on forever, while eternity is thought to be non-temporal. But I think Boethius in the 5th century had a better definition: eternity is the ‘perfect possession of everlasting life all at once’ (interminabilis vitae tota simul et perfecta possessio). That is, eternity is not atemporal but contains time within itself. This is particularly relevant when trying to understand how the eternal God can apparently squeeze himself into time at the Incarnation: God can enter time, not because it can contain him, but because he contains it.

Eternity will therefore be perfectly bearable for those who are received into it by God’s grace. Although Boethius’ term, ‘interminable’, has a pejorative sense in English, there is no possibility of being bored or somehow fed up with an eternal existence, for it happens ‘all at once’, so to speak. Neither will it be a static existence, on the other hand, since it is a possession of life, a fully dynamic existence, even when one has reached perfection. When we wonder what it might be like for a human being to enjoy eternity, in a state of existence somehow between stasis and temporal change, then we are only grappling with the problem that already confronts us when we think of God’s eternity. Aquinas defines God as pure act (actus purus), the fullness of being and perfection; and the very use of Aristotle’s term ‘act’ reveals the dynamic and living quality he is trying to express.
The Creation of Adam
I don’t know what theosis is, and I don’t believe anyone else does! Certainly we have to hold to some idea that “God became man, that we might be made God”, as Athanasius said (and many earlier Patristic writers say likewise). But in what sense we become united to God, or like God, after a while becomes pure speculation. At least, we can rule out that we become God in the strict sense of having the divine essence. Only God has (or rather, is) the divine essence; we all have creaturely essences; and between the two there is no commensurability. That is why the Church had to insist (against Eutyches and other monophysites) that there are two natures in Christ, divine and human, hypostatically united in one person. Of course, these dogmatic definitions are about ruling out mistakes rather than giving us a full explanation of the truth. We’re still dealing with the mystery of God, and even Aquinas is bold enough to say that we are joined to God as to an unknown (ei quasi ignoto coniungamur). Of course, this needs to be understood in the context of what we can say positively about God – as Thomas explains in the questions on the attributes of God (Summa Theologiae I.3-11) and on knowledge of and language about God (ST 1.12-13). (To follow this up, you could read Rudi te Velde, Aquinas on God, chaps. 3-4.) Moreover, God is revealed in Christ, especially in the Paschal mystery, and in the Resurrection appearances (on which Godzdogz did a series last year) we catch fleeting glimpses of Christ’s heavenly existence which is promised to the faithful.

The Creation, Monreale Cathedral
You speak of “loaned being”; yes, our being is a participation in God’s. This is the famous analogy of being (analogia entis) in Aquinas, standing in a venerable Platonic tradition. You suggest that nothingness hangs over us like the sword of Damocles; and yes, we can say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I…’ But to doubt God’s benevolent will to sustain our existence would be to lose faith in his merciful love. Our Lord is 'a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Ex. 34:6 among others). We cannot demand our existence or sustenance from God, but neither should we doubt the extent of his goodwill towards us! Indeed, in prayer we should act like petulant children, insisting on getting our daily bread. And, putting the generosity of all human parents to shame, 'how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!’ (Mt 7:11) To add a more philosophical point, I think Aquinas is right (against Bonaventure and others) to understand creation as a single act which means both creating and sustaining. God doesn’t have to expend any extra ‘effort’, so to speak, to sustain the creation once it exists. This must be distinguished from deism. The creation runs its natural course only because God is creating it every moment of its existence. Creating and sustaining are a single act, viewed from God’s eternity.

You say you ‘simply wish not-to-be’. I’m sorry, but I struggle to see how this is rationally possible. On the emotional level, we can all sometimes wish things to end. But I suspect what we really desire is for this existence to change, to improve. It may be analogous to wanting rest at the end of a trying day; all you think about is blissful and unconscious sleep; but don’t you still look forward to a new day? Many people seem to face death ‘stoically’, while not expecting any afterlife, but don’t they still cling to some shadows of an ongoing existence – desiring to be remembered by loved ones, and to have their life’s work recognised and developed by others? For Aquinas it is almost axiomatic that being is a good: ‘existence is the most perfect of all things’, since existence is actuality (ST 1.4.1.ad 3). The word ‘perfect’ (being complete, most actual) itself attests to this bias in our language. That’s why I don’t think anyone can rationally wish for their own annihilation. Such a person is not using words properly. Of course we all do wish for irrational things, as St Paul said, 'For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.’ But our desires don’t give us carte blanche; that is what the Fall means, and our post-Christian culture so often rages against this basic fact.

Back to heaven. Though he is neither a mystic nor theologian, C. S. Lewis’s wonderful little book, The Great Divorce, is a highly imaginative approach to what the afterlife might entail. Things in heaven are more ‘solid', more real, than earthly realities, and the soul on the threshold between purgatory and heaven is hardly able to bear them. But after purgatory, everything in heaven will be enjoyable, all 'sweetness and light', to borrow Arnold’s phrase. We shall all enjoy heaven to the fullest extent that we are able. There is no bland equality in heaven; the saints all enjoy God according to their unique capacity, which God fills with his grace, with himself. When St Therese of Lisieux was bothered by the idea of degrees of glory in heaven, she discovered through the analogy of a tumbler and thimble full of water that the important thing is being full! Autistic people, then, will enjoy heaven as much as anyone else - i.e. to their full capacity - and in any case I rather suspect that many, if not all, our physical infirmities in this life will be healed in the next. This will not eradicate our unique humanity or personality, but will make us the best persons God made us to be.

Alpha and Omega
You are right that God is the ultimate reality we desire, even as we yearn for perfect things in this life. But once we enjoy God ‘face to face’ in heaven (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12 and Rev 22:4), there will be nothing more to satisfy us. In the light of what eternity means, there is no question of anything after we are fulfilled in God. And in the famous prayer of St Augustine, 'You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’ That is, God is our perfect end, the Omega as well as the Alpha. I like your point about being with God from the beginning. Certainly God is with us all the time and he knew us before we were born: 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you’ (Jer. 1:5); and God 'knit me together in my mother’s womb’ (Ps. 139:13). More importantly, since God is eternal, he is actually changeless in himself; the only changes happen in us, which establish new relationships between us and God. (Aquinas uses the analogy of a fixed pillar: you can move from one side to the other and a new relationship will have been established, but the actual change is only in you, not the pillar.) In this way, God is eternally present to us in the same perfect way, but we can change in relation to him. We grow, we receive the sacraments, eventually we die, and by God’s mercy join him for eternity. All these changes happen in us, not in God. Not that God is passive in all this - on the contrary! He is pure act, creating us at every level and at every moment of our existence.

Well, I’ve written a lot already, so I shall leave it there. I could say more about heaven as the experience of ‘ecstasy’ (ek-stasis), a kind of ultimate buzz of which we would never tire. Or about the complementary images of heaven as an eternal rest – which I think is captured by the serenity of Donne’s Sermon XV: And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no Cloud nor Sun, no darknesse nor dazling, but one equall light, no noyse nor silence, but one equall musick, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but an equall communion and Identity, no ends nor beginnings; but one equall eternity. 
A heavenly vision: Van Eyck, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb
There is, finally, the central Biblical image of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19; cf Mt 19, Lk 14). That reminds us our best idea of heaven is of one big party – a bit like Catholic Heaven according to The Simpsons!

Please get back to me on any points which could be clearer or better developed, especially on any where you disagree with me!

P.S. If you missed this a few months ago, Fr Richard Ounsworth OP recently gave a talk on the afterlife as part of the God Matters series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mwsf2FDUbM.

Matthew Jarvis OP


Anonymous commented on 22-Mar-2015 03:50 PM
Excellent, and very helpful.

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