Bruce Charlton writes on his blog “Bruce Charlton’s Miscellany” (one thing about Bruce’s blog: He almost always gives me something to write about!):
“In general, Christianity seems to offer more, far more, than any other religion – greatly more than the ancient Judaism it displaced; we must die but after this there is resurrection in a perfected body, forgiveness of all sins, and eternal life in communinion with God and in His presence.
“And the most recent Christianity, Mormonism, offers even more than mainstream Christianity: not only eternal resurrected life with God, but to live this life in a marriage of total spousal love and with a perfected family community; also the possibility of eternal spiritual progression after death, perhaps including full divinization.”
(Bruce Charlton, “It seems that all actual religions are honest about what they themselves offer (but wrong about other religions)“, Bruce Charlton’s Miscellany, November 13, 2013.)
I question whether these things amount to “more” than what mainstream Christianity “offers”.
It can only be more if people in the other scenario are lacking something offered in this scenario. But what do the saints in heaven lack, in the mainstream Christian scheme? Bruce names three things:
- Eternal marriage;
- Eternal progression;
- Full divinization.
I’ll consider these in turn.
Is the lack of eternal marriage really a lack? St. Thomas Aquinas writes of marriage that it is
“a sacrament of the Church; therefore the contracting parties are blessed by the ministers of the Church. And as in the other sacraments something spiritual is signified by an external ceremony, so here in this sacrament the union of Christ, and the Church is typified by the union of man and woman according to the Apostle: ‘This is a great sacrament, but I speak in Christ and in the Church.’ And as the sacraments effect what they signify, it is clear that the persons contracting marriage receive through this sacrament the grace by which they participate in the union of Christ and the Church.” (New Advent Encyclopedia article on Marriage.)
To enumerate, marriage is:
- A sacrament of the Church;
- A typification of the union of Christ and the Church;
- A means through which married persons receive the grace by which to participate in the union of Christ and the Church.
A sacrament, he says, is “something spiritual signified by an external ceremony”. In other words, “[T]he sacraments of the Christian dispensation are not mere signs; they do not merely signify Divine grace, but in virtue of their Divine institution, they cause that grace in the souls of men.” (New Advent Encyclopedia article on Sacraments.)
A sacrament, then, is something physical which brings about a spiritual effect.
Will there be a need for sacraments in Heaven? I found two excellent answers to this question on the Catholic Answers forum:
“Because sacraments are, by their nature signs that convey supernatural realities, they are ordered to our temporal and physical existence. By the end of time, all sacraments will cease, for we will no longer need signs. We will witness the real thing behind the veil, and ‘see him as he is'” (comment by porthos11);
“The Sacraments are, at their core, sources of Grace. When we reach Heaven, we will attain perfect union with God, and receive His Grace completely. This will be the ultimate Sacrament, and we will no longer have any need of the Sacraments we celebrate on earth.” (comment by Dr. Colossus)
Those in Heaven have perfect spiritual union with God and are completely fulfilled because they possess God himself:
“In heaven the just will see God by direct intuition, clearly and distinctly. … In heaven, … no creature will stand between God and the soul. He himself will be the immediate object of its vision. … The essence of objective beatitude, or the essential object of beatitude is God alone. For the possession of God assures us also the possession of every other good we may desire; moreover, everything else is so immeasurably inferior to God that its possession can only be looked upon as something accidental to beatitude.” (New Advent Encyclopedia article on Heaven.)
For these reasons, sacraments are not necessary in Heaven: the union of Christ and the Church has no need to be typified, since that union will be present and complete to every inhabitant; marriage will no longer be the means through which people receive the grace by which to participate in the union of Christ and the Church, since they will be participating in union with Christ directly.
Some might argue that if our marriage ends in Heaven, we will lose our intimate relationship with our spouse. But there is no ground for this fear. As Jimmy Akin writes,
“In the glorified state we will be able to love each other more purely, more intensely than we ever could in this life–and without distraction or weakness or contrary temptation. We won’t be our irritable, flawed, exasperating, flawed selves. We will be both more loving and more lovable.” (Jimmy Akin, “Marriage, Sex, New Heaven, New Earth“, jimmyakin.com (undated).)
It’s also groundless to mourn the loss of sexual union in marriage. Akin addresses this as well:
“In one of [C. S. Lewis’s] writings he considered the difficulty that we will not have sex in heaven and how that seems like a diminution rather than an increase of joy. He acknowledged this and compared it to the situation of a little boy and his perception of joy. The boy might think that the greatest joy is eating chocolates, and he might have a hard time understanding how a married couple having sex might have a higher joy that didn’t involve eating chocolates at the same time. In this way, adults in the present life may recognize sex as a supreme form of joy and have trouble understanding how in the next life there could be an even higher joy that does not involve sex.” (Id.)
As C.S. Lewis also wrote (in Surprised by Joy), what we experience as joy in this world is but a sign pointing to the real thing in the next:
“Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
Since in Heaven we will have our fill of joy, it’s not possible that the loss of anything we experience on earth will constitute a diminution of joy. Indeed the enjoyments of earth are mere signs pointing to the true joys of heaven.
The idea that one must “progress” eternally, implies that there can be no perfection (“perfection” understood as “having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be“). In the Mormon scheme we apparently never reach this state, since beyond it no progression would be possible. Taking as a given that eternal progression is a good thing, perfection, in this scenario, is ironically conceived as a limitation.
Whereas in the Catholic scheme, God is in fact perfect, and when we ourselves attain to a state of perfect union with God, we lack nothing that he possesses. As the Protestant minister Charles Finney observes,
“[S]o far as our own happiness is concerned, this is all we ask, to have eternal union and communion with the ever blessed God;–that, give us this and we could lack nothing essential to our happiness; but deprive us of this, and nothing in the universe could satisfy us.” (Charles G. Finney, sermon entitled “Delighting in the Lord“, July 2, 1845.)
From this state of perfect bliss, to what would we progress? What could there be in the universe to make us happier than we already are? What indeed could increase our knowledge or understanding beyond communion with the very mind of God, such that we see all that he sees and know all that he knows?
I have similar issues with Bruce’s notion that the possibility of “full divinization” constitutes something greater than the mere perfect union with the infinite, eternal God offered by mainstream Christianity. Once thus united with God, what does one lack which he might gain by achieving “full divinization”? Power? What would he do with power who already possesses perfect beatitude? Wisdom? What wisdom could he gain which he does not already possess by virtue of his communion with the mind of God? What knowledge will God withhold from him which he is capable of knowing?
It seems like the only way “full divinization” can be conceived as something better than mere communion with God, is first, by assuming that God is not infinite and therefore communion with him cannot provide all that one could ever want; and second, by assuming that those in Heaven might want things that are at odds with what God wants, and therefore need some degree of independence from God in order to pursue their own goals. But this simply assumes that one in communion with God could lack anything desirable, and could desire anything that God does not already desire for him.
In other words, in my view you can only make the Mormon conception appear as though it offers more than the mainstream Christian conception, by assuming that the latter is false.
(As usual, please note that I am not attacking Mormonism in this post, as I am careful never to do. On the contrary, I am defending my own faith tradition against the implication that, in terms of what it “offers” in eternity, it is inferior to that of Mormonism.)