Opening the Word: The truth of heaven

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, commenting on the “Our Father,” explains that the phrase, “Who art in heaven,” does not “refer to a place but to God’s majesty and his presence in the hearts of the just. Heaven, the Father’s house, is the true homeland toward which we are heading and to which, already, we belong” (No. 2802). Elsewhere, the Catechism states that heaven, first and foremost, is the “perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity — this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed ...” It fulfills our deepest needs and desires, for it is “the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (No. 1024).

As Christians, we tend to take the existence of heaven for granted. But belief in heaven was not held by all Jews during the time of Christ. In fact, although the notion of otherworldly reward dates back to the seventh century B.C., Jewish beliefs about the existence of heaven did not begin to appear regularly and formulate clearly until the middle of the third century B.C.

The reading from 2 Maccabees describes a dramatic martyrdom that took place in the late second century B.C. This particular event transpired after the Temple had been desecrated, the Law had been abolished, and one of the great scribes, Eleazar, had been brutally tortured by the Greek conquerors from the Seleucid Empire. The martyrdom of the mother and her seven sons is a powerful depiction of faith in God and the reality of life after death. One son, as he died, declared that “the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever,” while another said, “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”

But, again, not all Jews believed in resurrection to life. In the early first century, the high priest and the temple authorities were Sadducees (Acts 4:1; 5:17). They opposed the Pharisees and strictly adhered to the laws of Moses alone. They taught that the Torah did not allow for belief in the resurrection from the dead. Some Sadducees came to Jesus with a dilemma based on the levirate law (Dt 25:5), which stated that if a married man died childless, his brother was obligated to marry his widow. This religious argument was rather silly, but had a certain crude logic to it.

But Jesus went to the heart of the matter, which had to do with the nature of God and the reality of the afterlife. Beyond the grave, “in the coming age,” Jesus explained, there will not be marriage or procreation. Those who are children of God — that is, those filled with God’s divine life — will be “like angels.” Knowing well that the Sadducees looked only to Moses for authoritative teaching, Jesus reminded them that God had revealed himself in the burning bush as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” indicating that those men, who died centuries prior to Moses, were still alive, in the presence of God.

St. Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, referred to the “everlasting encouragement and good hope” that God has given to us through his grace; he also wrote about being “delivered from perverse and wicked people.” All of this is based on the truth of heaven, that great “mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ [which] is beyond all understanding and description” (Catechism, No. 1027).

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.