Who Goes to Heaven?
Who are the Communion of Saints?
Who goes and how does one get to heaven has long been a question on the mind of believers. The young rich man asked it and didn’t like the answer (MK 10:17-31; MT 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30). The consistent descriptors of the young rich man suggest he was foolish and self-focused. So, should we ask it? Is it even the right question?
This motivation can’t help but operate on the assumption that God selects a limited number of faithful Christians (Christians only, or even Catholics only) who, after their death, will be resurrected to live with God in Heaven. These saved must maintain a rigorous standard of faith and behavior to not be disqualified from this gift. The great temptation associated with this approach is that it can turn the meaning of life into a contest of “I told you so” where the winners get to shout down to the losers as kings and queens atop the heavenly hill. Let’s hope this is not the fulfillment our God created for us.
While the troubling quality of this soteriology (study of salvation) can be seen when talked about plainly, we likely hear or even hold some elements of this vision today. It is important to wrestle with this idea because of its every day implications. This view problematizes the very nature of God we trust is loving and can justify less than Christian behavior when it comes to those who do not share our religious affiliations.
A helpful truth test to apply to any theological idea is determining whether you could or would say it in a pastoral situation. For example, could/would you tell a mourning child that his or her non-Christian parent is not in heaven? Pope Francis demonstrates this theological examination in his response to the question from a young boy living on the outskirts of Rome. (You can watch the video of the whole exchange at the conclusion of this blog.)
Through trembles and tears, Emanuele whispers into the Pope's ear that his father was an atheist but he was a good man. The boy asks Francis, “Is my papa in heaven?”
After hearing the boy’s question and comforting him, Pope Francis engages the audience to help answer his deeply personal and theological question. “It is nice when a son says of his father ‘he was good,’” he begins. He then asks the gathered parishioners, not rhetorically, “Do you think that God would be able to leave a man like him far from Him? Do you think that?” There is an unsure murmur in the crowd. “Louder, with courage,” the Pope challenges them. The gathered parishioners say clearly, “No!”
Pope Francis continues questioning and eliciting the courageous responses from the crowd: “Does God abandon His children?” “No!” “Does God abandon His children when they are good?” “No!” The Pope then turns to the suffering son and concludes, “Here, Emanuele, this is the answer.”
In this exchange and elsewhere, Pope Francis has called our attention to the blurring of some boundaries we thought were sacrosanct. Of who we thought would go to heaven, yes, but also who might help us start living there now.
In our own daily struggles, it is tempting to turn the meaning of life into a zero sum contest, but there is good reason to not lose heart. We are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses” or the “communion of saints” that includes, but is not limited to, the canonized or even Christian. Can you see this growing communion around you? Are you looking for it? Or are you focused on the hill and shouting down at the end of time?
We each can rest in the realization that accompanied and guided by the many friends of God we do not have to carry alone what, in truth, we could never carry alone. In the communion of family, friends, neighbors, and the many saints now in God’s presence, we are called to be a new generation of saints witnessing to a more fulfilling meaning of life than “I told you so.”
MISSIO offers themed-quizzes in MissioBot to examine your religious knowledge - and this blog by James Nagle, PhD to reflect on questions of faith.