No use weaseling around it. That is a dogma of the Catholic Church. And I don't care what you think Vatican II said or didn't say, it is final. Irrevocable. It hasn't changed for 2000 years and it won't change for the next 2000. If the world lasts that long.
But nothing gets people's noses to crinkle and their underwear to bunch up than this dogma. Go ahead--bring it up at a party, and you'll end up observing to yourself, as you are hurtling out a broken window accompanied by shards of double-pane glass and stray argon molecules, that it absolutely maddens and infuriates people like no other.
People have developed this smug idea that the Church can't POSSIBLY be right on this. No way. To sentence a "nice person" to hell is stupid on its face. Ridiculous.
Well guess what. Those people are wrong. The Church is right.
I'm sure fellow Catholics will want to chime in with all different ways to nuance the dogma. Baptism of Desire. Invincible Ignorance. I get all those things. I understand that they are important concepts.
But never mind those things right now. I am not interested in them here. I want to hopefully demonstrate why, even *without* those nuances, the Church's dogma is STILL perfectly sensible to the modern mind.
The problem, at heart, is that too many people *think* they know what the Church is talking about when it uses the words "heaven" and "hell". But they don't. They've made some bad assumptions in the beginning, then everything has gone wrong from there. But once we fix those bad initial assumptions, the whole thing makes much more sense.
First, let's ask ourselves a question. What is heaven?
Easy question, right? Or maybe not so easy. But take some time and answer it before you read any further. Really think about it. What IS heaven? It's part of the afterlife, we know, but what really characterizes it? What does it offer to us that we don't have here on earth?
Ponder that a bit.
Now here's what I'm betting. I'm betting many of you think of heaven as some sweet place of happiness where there's nice music, and gardens, and freedom from pain, and reunions with loved ones who have died. Where there is enough to eat. Where there is comfort. Where man is physically and psychologically content. Where there generally is...happiness.
The existence of such a place is an entirely reasonable proposition. The pagans, I think, pretty much all believed that. The Elysian Fields. The happy hunting grounds. The pagans thought, generally, that if you were good you went to a good place, and if you were bad you went to a bad place.
I am not going to dispute that idea one bit. I think the pagans were absolutely right on that score.
But here's the problem.
The pagan good place ain't the Christian heaven.
You see, the pagan good place is a place of *natural* happiness. What do I mean by natural? I mean the happiness that is due to your nature: your human nature. Basically, creature comforts. Enough food, enough drink, enough companionship, enough affection, enough all the things that make life enjoyable.
There also happens to be a place of natural happiness in the Christian afterlife. But it's not in heaven.
It's in hell.
Or, actually, maybe on the border of hell. It's sort of hell and it sort of isn't. We're not sure. But we know it ain't heaven.
Go grab a copy of Dante's Inferno. In it you'll find described a place called Limbo, where the souls of the just pagans reside. And if you compare Dante's description of Limbo with what other religions describe as the "good" afterlife, it's pretty clear to me anyway that the same place is being described.
Here's what the old edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia said about Limbo:
"The New Testament contains no definite statement of a positive kind regarding the lot of those who die in original sin without being burdened with grievous personal guilt……Now it may confidently be said that, as the result of centuries of speculation on the subject, we ought to believe that these souls enjoy and will eternally enjoy a state of perfect natural happiness; and this is what Catholics usually mean when they speak of the limbus infantium, the "children's limbo."Now I am no theologian. But it's pretty clear to me anyway that the good afterlife of pretty much every major religion (maybe with the exception of Buddhism) is the exact equivalent of the Catholic Limbo: a place of natural happiness.
So if one of those nasty old Christian dogmatists tells you you're going to hell because you're not Christian, ask yourself this rather uncomfortable question. Is that Christian REALLY offering you any worse deal than the deal you already have? The Church believes the good non-Christian enjoys natural happiness in Limbo, and the bad non-Christian endures suffering in the nastier bits of hell. If you're good, you won't suffer. If you're bad, you will.
Now do you see why the complaints about "Catholics think I'm going to hell" is so hollow? Why it doesn't make sense?
If you believe in an afterlife of natural happiness and that's it--if your idea of heaven is all the things I described above, YOU think you're going to hell. Call it the underworld. Fine. Call it the Elysian fields or the happy hunting grounds. I don't care. We call it Limbo.
Whatever you call it, it may really be the only thing you ever wanted or expected from an afterlife anyway. If so, then stop complaining about going there.
Another uncomfortable question is this…is do you even WANT to go to our heaven? Heaven as Christianity defines it? Because once you hear what it is, maybe you won't.
We Christians are not content with mere natural happiness. We want more.
Heaven is not just a place of natural happiness. Oh sure, there WILL be natural happiness, all the good things that are in Limbo will be in heaven too.
But the defining characteristic of heaven, the thing that makes it qualitatively different than Hell and Limbo, is SUPERNATURAL happiness.
Now too many of us have forgotten what supernatural really means. It doesn't just mean spiritual. It doesn't just mean other-wordly. It doesn't mean ghosts and goblins.
The word is, etymologically, super + nature. Above nature. Greater than nature. Superior to nature.
Thus, supernatural happiness is a special kind of happiness that is over and above what nature owes us.
Let's draw an analogy. Say we gave you unlimited food, companionship, drink, perfect weather, etc. Say we took care of all your needs. You'd be pretty happy right?
Now suppose we went one further and said ok, "Guess what, now you can fly through space!" You could fly to the moon, or to Saturn, or a comet. Unlike with food and water and loved ones, you could be perfectly happy without being able to fly through space. But if such a thing could be given to you, you would enjoy a new kind of happiness, an *extra* kind of happiness.
Heaven is supernatural happiness because in it we experience something that is not due to the human being by nature. This is the beatific vision--the direct, immediate experience and participation in the life of God. Remember that back in the old days, pagans and Jews too didn't think human beings could experience the divine nature directly. It was just too much for a human being to bear. Hence all the statements about "none shall see the face of God and live."
Try to put the Creator of the entire Universe into a human brain and, yeah, you better believe you're gonna bust the seams a bit.
Unless, of course, someone takes the time to restitch and reinforce it. Add some extra bits of fabric that weren't in the original.
The Church says that with God's help, with his free gift of the thing we call grace, we CAN see the face of God and live. We can participate in the life of God. We can undergo, as the Eastern Churches say, theosis--an elegant Greek term that we might shoehorn into English as "enGoddening."
All it takes is to consent to the process of being made into a new being. To be conformed to Christ. This is where the Church comes in.
The Church is not a gatekeeper letting some folks in and keeping some out.
The Church is a state of the art medical center where God, through the sacraments, freely offers everyone--every single person--the chance to "upgrade" our natures, as it were, from a normal human nature to one that is capable of directly experiencing the Uncreated Creator without blowing apart into tiny bits. That upgrade is a gift. We've never deserved it, and God is not bound by any sort of justice to give it to us. You are obligated to feed and shelter your dog. You are not obligated to teach him to read.
Interestingly, the pagan deities were not strangers to this process either. They practiced a form of theosis and allowed select people to join the ranks of the gods.
But this transformation wasn't for the masses, no no no. To become a god you generally had to have divine blood in you already. You had to be a demigod. Aeneas, Romulus, Julius Caesar, Augustus--all of them claimed divine ancestors. All of them were kings and emperors. Governors and generals weren't made gods--to say nothing of commoners. The poor beggar in the streets of Antioch or Rome--no WAY he could participate in the divine nature after death. He had to be content with his common fate in the underworld and that was that.
Those who fault Christianity for its harshness toward souls in the afterlife have it exactly backwards. It was the pagans who stingily insisted on keeping the most precious gift of divinity for a little privileged elite. It was the pagans who threw the masses indiscriminately into the underworld and never allowed them to lift their sights to the deities of Olympus.
Christianity blew the doors of Heaven off the hinges, setting its sights beyond Olympus, beyond the sun and the stars, beyond even the edge of the universe. It offered anyone, ANYONE, no matter how poor or miserable or downtrodden a way to share divinity in the next life. Not to totally become God Himself, mind you, but in some mysterious way to share in His nature. We don't totally understand it. But that's what it offered, and that's how it must be judged.
So you say ok, fine. Why *wouldn't* everyone want that? Why *wouldn't* everyone want to be your superman, your supernatural upgrade?
Well you tell me. Personally, I think it's nuts not to want it. But people still have their reasons. There's a lot of arrogant people out there. Do you really think such folks are keen to peer into the mind of God and see how small and insignificant they are next to the immensity of the universe, much less the Creator of it?
So you may say well, I DO want it. I WANT the supernatural happiness. I WANT to behold the face of God for all eternity, and not just have the natural happiness of Limbo.
Fine. Then ask yourself this. Does your current religion or lack thereof currently offer a true participation in the divine life of God? Does your current religion give you that option?
If it doesn't, if *by its own admission* it can't offer you these things, and if that is something you want, well……