In a recent post on her blog, Kate Edwards gives us more of her analysis of the Australian Church. One thing that stuck out for me (quite incidental to her over all post) was this paragraph:
Thus, my starting point for this series is the conversion of Australia: the ‘new evangelization’ if you will. It is meant to promote reflection on what graces we need in this coming Year of Grace to achieve internal reconciliation and promote the Church’s mission of getting people to heaven.
It was that last phrase that struck me, and caused me to ponder: IS the mission of the church “to get people to heaven”?
For a given meaning of “getting to heaven” (or the more usual phrase “going to heaven”), I know what she means and don’t actually disagree with her. But I do wonder if envisaging the mission of the Church in this particular way is this really the best way to foster the work of evangelisation.
I have asked before (and will keep asking) the question “What is the Gospel?” because I firmly believe that unless we grasp what the Gospel – the Good News – actually is, we will not be able to proclaim it. An important study in this regard is what the Gospel meant when Jesus announced it in 1st Century, pre-70AD, Israel. Equally important (and this is not exactly the same thing) is what St Paul meant by it in the same period when he was proclaiming it to the Gentiles. We would need to study the four Evangelists also, whether pre- or post-70AD and whether for Jewish or Gentile audiences.
But at this point I would just like to note that we do not find anywhere in the New Testament the suggestion that the Good News Jesus preached was about how to “get people to heaven”. That idea is later – much later, I would argue. Various historical changes in language and context led to “getting to heaven” to be the dominant image used for the “Good News” which the Church proclaimed. It was not the original idea behind the proclamation or the mission entrusted to the Apostles.
(Please don’t get me wrong here – I am not saying we should do away with the idea of “going to heaven” when we die, but I do think that we should understand that this is a development of the original form of the proclamation of the Good News which has not, in many or all respects, preserved the full content of that original proclamation.)
I will take it as a given that the Scriptures (either Old or New) do not talk about “getting people to heaven” as the climax and fulfillment and the aim of Gospel. (You might want to argue that point with me, but here I am on another tangent beyond that one). It occurred to me last night while falling asleep to investigate the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this matter. Now, I have already expressed elsewhere my surprise that the Catechism is rather sparse on the actual definition of the Gospel. Given that, I want to ask: Does the Catechism say anything about “getting people to heaven” or “going to heaven”?
I found one clear reference to this idea, and it is from a secondary source: the life of St Rose of Lima:
§618 …Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven [St. Rose of Lima: cf. P. Hansen, Vita mirabilis(Louvain, 1668)].
I did find the original of this work by Hansen on the internet, but it was in facsimile and (lacking a precise citation for the quotation) I could not find the original Latin phrase. But I hazard a guess that here the Catechism is actually borrowing words directly from the Vita mirabilis; that is, the idea of “getting to heaven” is not here original to the compilers of the Catechism, but to St Rose herself. And I would expect nothing else. In the context, it makes perfect sense. But while Jesus most certainly did proclaim his sacrificial death on the cross as the way of salvation, the way to life, the way into the Kingdom of God etc. (eg. Mark 8:34-35) – all of which may have an equivalent meaning for those who use the phrase “get to heaven” – he certainly didn’t ever use that phrase to announce the Good News.
In the main, the phrase “to heaven” or “into heaven” (ie. words describing someone’s entry into heaven itself) is used in the Catechism to refer to either the Ascension of Jesus or the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
We do get another phrase which might be more helpful to Kate’s intention, and that is “in heaven”. Now, usually even this refers to the Father who is “in heaven”, and sometimes to elements of the created order which are “in heaven” (as opposed to “on earth” or “under the earth”). The one other significant usage is for the departed saints, who are said, repeatedly, to be “in heaven”. A clear example of this is the discussion in §956 and following, and the quotation from Benedict XII (from Benedictus Deus, 1336AD) where he insists upon the doctrine of that the souls of the departed faithful (when they have been perfectly purified) are “in heaven”.
So let me say once more: I am not denying that Jesus or the Blessed Virgin “went to heaven”, nor that the souls of the saints are “in heaven”. But I am asking whether in fact the Gospel we are called to announced is that Jesus was born, suffered, died and rose again in order to “get us to heaven”.
The one passage in St Paul that seems to many to speak of “going to heaven” is this one from 2 Corinthians 5:
1 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. (ESV)
I stand with those exegetes who see this as a reference to the “resurrection body” which God has prepared for us and is keeping for us “in the heavens” to clothe us with on the Day of Resurrection. This is made clear in the new translation of the first Preface for the Dead in the new missal.
The old translation read:
Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended.
When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death
we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.
That seemed to me to be a denial of the resurrection of the body – this body dies, but our souls go to live in heaven. The new translation makes clear that this is not the idea at all:
Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended,
and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust [ie. when this mortal body decays]
an eternal dwelling [ie. an immortal body] is made ready for them in heaven.
Not that we will receive the new body when we “get to heaven when we die”, but that the new body which we will receive at the Day of Resurrection is even now being kept for us for that Day. (Benedict XII was quite clear that our souls will be in heaven before the resurrection, but only Our Lord and Our Lady – and perhaps Elijah and a couple of others – let’s not quibble – have bodies in heaven now).
There are two passages in the Catechism that help us to deal with the authentic meaning (what has become) the “traditional” language of “going to heaven”.
In §2795 we read:
The symbol of the heavens refers us back to the mystery of the covenant we are living when we pray to our Father. He is in heaven, his dwelling place; the Father’s house is our homeland. Sin has exiled us from the land of the covenant [cf. Gen 3], but conversion of heart enables us to return to the Father, to heaven [Jer 3:19-4:1a; Lk 15:18, 21]. In Christ, then, heaven and earth are reconciled [cf. Isa 45:8; Ps 85:12], for the Son alone “descended from heaven” and causes us to ascend there with him, by his Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension [Jn 3:13; 12:32; 14:2-3; 16:28; 20:17; Eph 4:9-10; Heb 1:3; 2:13].
Now that looks pretty close to the idea of “getting to heaven” that Kate is using. But I would say (and this isn’t a minor quibble), this passage is telling us that our “traditional” language of “getting to heaven” is in fact a metaphor for “returning to the Father” and “ascending to be with Christ”.
There is another simple line in the Catechism which says it so much more simply
§1025 To live in heaven is “to be with Christ.”
To “get to heaven” = “to be with Christ/the Father”. And there is plenty of New Testament material that speaks about the latter and in precisely those terms. In fact, this is the content of the meaning of “entering the Kingdom of God” also: to enter the Kingdom of God is to be with him as our King, to be restored by forgiveness as a member of his covenant people.
The use of language in which the Kingdom of God is announced as coming near (arriving) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – opens up the way to the original language of Jesus and the scriptures:
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1, ESV)
There is, of course, a lot more study to be done into the true meaning of “Gospel” and the mission of the Church. One would want to spend several life-times, for instance, studying the use of this language in the early Fathers. I will end at this point, however, with a quotation from St Ambrose cited in the Catechism at §1025:
For life is to be with Christ; where Christ is, there is life, there is the kingdom [St. Ambrose, In Luc., 10, 121: PL 15, 1834A].