Catholic Faith: Blog
This Catholic Faith Blog is Maintained by the Catholic Rebuttals Research Team. Here You Will Find Responses to Reader's Questions, Catholic Commentary and Other Resources!
Question From Reader:
Please decipher this. Are people in heaven now? The Bible says, “for the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing… their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, NKJV, see also Psalm 146:4; 115:17). It makes sense that after Lazarus was raised from the dead, he doesn’t share what he saw or experienced. He didn’t have anything to tell, except that once he was dead, and now he is alive! He didn’t experience hell or heaven. He was simply “sleeping” in his tomb.
Short answer: It is suggested by the ancient texts that no one who died prior to Jesus’s death, entered into heaven, for no person was righteous enough (without the sacrifice of The Lamb of God) to get in. Therefore, Lazarus himself, having died prior to Jesus’s death would not have gone to heaven, but would have entered into the Bosom of Abraham to await the death of The Messiah.
The question you raise here is a good one (thank you) and has to do with biblical history in its proper time. Your question also points towards the progress of salvation history and what Catholics call the “Communion of Saints” (holy ones in heaven). Before I get to the root of your question, I want to address the biblical passages you quoted. It’s important to keep in mind that regarding this particular issue these quotes are found in the Old Testament (more on that later). After reading these passages in the context of the entire chapter it was clear to me what the author was explaining that those who die in their sin are damned; Psalm 146:3 says, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation”. Here, the author is saying that we should not put our trust in any normal man but in God; for God is hope for the believer.
You make a good point, we can’t really know for certain whether or not Lazarus shared his experience or not since the Scripture does not reveal this. This passage doesn't say one way or the other if Lazarus talks about what happens. But I could imagine his sister Martha asking him about it, I sure would if my brother came back to life after being dead for 4 days. Keep in mind that not one of the Patriarchs, prophets, or even Lazarus were able to go to heaven at this point in time because Jesus had not come to redeem those that were “asleep” or dead. At this point in time, Jesus was currently proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God. His Passion, Death, and most importantly His Resurrection had not come to pass. Remember what Jesus did/said before his death on the Cross? He tells the thief who repented, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” He didn’t tell Martha, Martha don’t worry about Lazarus, he is in paradise, no instead Jesus used this opportunity to demonstrate His power and authority over death and raised Lazarus (whom He loved). After Jesus’s death Scripture tells us, He descended to the dead and spent 3 days there. This place was not the hell of everlasting damnation. Indeed, Jesus went to preach to those who died in good graces with God before his Resurrection, Scripture called this place the Bosom of Abraham, also known to the Jews as Sheol, in Greek, Hades, and latter as Paradise. According to the OT, Sheol was the place of bliss although not complete bliss, a place where those who died righteously went to wait for the coming of The Messiah. (Luke 16:22) And it is by this illustration that they pictured the next world. They conceived of the reward of the righteous dead as a sharing in a banquet given by Abraham, "the father of the faithful" (Matthew 8:11), and of the highest form of that reward as lying in "Abraham's Bosom". Since the coming of Our Lord, "the Bosom of Abraham" gradually ceased to designate a place of imperfect happiness, and it has become synonymous with Heaven itself.
Sorry for the long answer but I wanted to give some context first. The Bible and the Tradition (teachings) of the Catholic Church with regards to your main question, “Are people in heaven now”, depends on what you mean by people. People are made in the image and likeness of God, meaning, people have a soul (the divine part of God’s image, or spiritual part) and our physical part the body (the natural part of the image of God). When someone dies his/her natural body returns to the natural (dust to dust) and the supernatural part the soul either goes to heaven, purgatory or hell. A person’s soul, once created, can never die. Your soul will reside either temporarily in purgatory or permanently in heaven or hell. This depends on the state of your soul at the time of your death. If you are in a state of sanctifying grace when you pass, you will enter into the heavenly kingdom (but I no man can judge you - only God). So my answer is “yes” I believe people are now in heaven, alive and well, but only the supernatural part of people, the soul.
The communion of saints is the spiritual solidarity which binds together the faithful on earth, the soul in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ its head, and in a constant interchange of supernatural offices. The participants in that solidarity are called saints by reason of their destination and of their partaking of the fruits of the Redemption (1 Corinthians 1:2 — Greek Text). The damned are thus excluded from the communion of saints. The living, even if they do not belong to the body of the true Church, share in it according to the measure of their union with Christ and with the soul of the Church.
The Book of Revelation 6:9, discusses the Martyrs whose souls are in Heaven and they are having a conversation with the Lord in prayer. Eph 1:22;23, regards Jesus as the head of His church, and that the Church is His body. This Church incompasses those saints in heaven and those on earth and those in that special place were the righteous who don't deserve hell but are not yet prepared for heaven, go. Eph 4:4 mentions the Church, the body of Christ, as one body one spirit, and for those people who remain in His body the Church, cannot be separated from Christ or from his body the Church, not even death will separate the saints. This is why the saints in heaven are joined with the saints on earth in and through Christ the head, and all together make up the church which is Christ’s body - His complete, whole and singular body.
Ecclesiastes 11:9; 12:1 sq.; and Hebrews 9:27, are sometimes quoted in proof of the particular judgment, but though these passages speak of a judgment after death, neither the context nor the force of the words proves that the sacred writer had in mind a judgment distinct from that at the end of the world. The Scriptural arguments in defence of the particular judgment must be indirect. There is no text of which we can certainly say that it expressly affirms this dogma but there are several which teach an immediate retribution after death and thereby clearly imply a particular judgment. Christ represents Lazarus and Dives as receiving their respective rewards immediately after death. They have always been regarded as types of the just man and the sinner. To the penitent thief it was promised that his soul instantly on leaving the body would be in the state of the blessed: "This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). St. Paul (2 Corinthians 5) longs to be absent from the body that he may be present to the Lord, evidently understanding death to be the entrance into his reward (cf. Philemon 1:21 sq.). Ecclesiasticus 11:28-29 speaks of a retribution at the hour of death, but it may refer to a temporal punishment, such as sudden death in the midst of prosperity, the evil remembrance that survives the wicked or the misfortunes of their children. However, the other texts that have been quoted are sufficient to establish the strict conformity of the doctrine with Scripture teaching.