By Hannah Bowman
Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” tells the story of a city of perfect joy and prosperity, but whose happiness is dependent on one disabled, abused child, locked alone in a basement — and whose inhabitants (mostly) accept this sacrifice for their well-being.
Too often our conception of heaven is built on a similar foundation of harm and exclusion. Traditional depictions of heaven — such as that in the Apocalypse of St. Peter, in which the saved look down upon the damned and rejoice in their damnation — show a picture of never ending joy, a conflict-free and peaceful existence: but they suggest that such an existence is only possible once “the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars” are banished (Revelation 21:8).
The logic of exclusion that underlies such a conception of heaven is not a hypothetical concern. It is exactly the same logic that causes us to banish those who have done evil in the world to a form of “civil death” through imprisonment, felony disenfranchisement, and the hell of being buried alive in solitary confinement. We argue for such practices and institutions on the basis of public safety: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few — or the one.”
But this logic is explicitly rejected by Jesus in the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12–14). God does not desire for one of these little ones to be lost. God does not desire for anyone (at least, not anyone besides God’s Son…) to be sacrificed for peace, safety, or the good of the many.
If heaven is understood only as blessedness and peace — only as the absence of bad things and the presence of trivial joys — then we cannot both take justice seriously and also avoid the exclusion of enemies, oppressors, and abusers from heaven. How can we allow those who have done harm on earth and avoided consequences to reap the rewards of heaven too? Even the most dedicated universalist rightly bristles at the image of Hitler in heaven.
But the existential reality of our fallen world means that none of us measure up to the purely-loving, self-emptying standard of divine justice — whether through our willful action or our complicity with systemic evil in the world (or both). All fall short of God’s glory. Our reaction against the possibility of salvation in extreme cases of evil can actually keep us from recognizing that the same problem attends our own presence in heaven. (Perhaps the truest insight of the brilliant philosophical sitcom The Good Place has been that — spoilers! — no one on earth has made it into the “Good Place” after death in centuries.)
But what if heaven is not primarily a place of peace, but instead a community, created by communal participation in the divine life? Such a conception of heaven allows us to begin to imagine it as a place of communal accountability — a place where all can be welcome only because all are responsible to one another: a place of justice.
So far in this series, I have written about death and judgment. To understand the community of heaven means turning again to a renewed understanding of the judgment of God: as a judgment aimed at restoration to community (as Howard Zehr and Christopher Marshall, among others, have laid out from biblical evidence). All wrongs must be righted, and heaven must have an intrinsic relationship to this righting. This means, then, that our conception of heaven needs to be informed by the idea of restorative justice.
This restorative justice (in our world as in the next) depends upon accountability. Restorative communities are those that enable those who have done harm to see clearly the harm they have done and to take accountability for it and make amends. Restorative justice practitioner Danielle Sered writes of it this way: “If we hurt someone, we have an obligation to face that pain, to face the person who felt that pain, to answer their questions, to hear how it affected them and their loved ones, to sit in that fire. That is in part because when we cause harm, we misuse our power, and accounting for harm therefore requires that we invert that misuse and put our power in service of repair.” This is heaven: this is an image of what it means for heaven to be a community of justice.
The community of heaven is often imaged liturgically by the sacrament of the Eucharist, the “wedding supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 21) where all come together in apparent peace and fellowship. But an equally appropriate image of heaven is the confessional. The sacrament of Reconciliation illustrates the heavenly community: where we speak our sins, share our shames with one another, take responsibility, seek reconciliation — and our accountability is met with forgiveness in the divine life.
Such forgiveness is not “forgiving and forgetting,” (as Miroslav Volf has suggested). Rather, it is the healing that comes in what Robert Farrar Capon calls “re-membering,” rebuilding and recreating our lives and our stories as we see them anew. Heaven is not the state of eternal blessedness where wrongs are forgotten. It is instead the communal life of accountability, of remembering and recounting harms for the sake of “mak[ing] straight what long was crooked, and the rougher places plain” (Hymn 67).
Martin Luther famously wrote that “the entire life of believers should be one of repentance.” In my essay on death, I emphasized the continuity of our post-baptismal life and the world to come. In this world, we already participate in the kingdom that we will see fully only at the resurrection of the dead. Perhaps the “entire life of repentance” is not only a work for this world, between Christ’s first and second advents, but a foretaste of the work of heaven.
In this world, justice is a hallmark of our reconciled life. Our faith is lived out in the work of justice and reconciliation. As Ched Myers and Elaine Enns write, the famous promise of Jesus that “when two or three are gathered I will be in the midst of them” is not a general promise to the church at worship or at prayer, but rather to those engaged in the work of reconciliation, peacemaking, and restorative justice (Matthew 18:15–20). Such work is not some precursor or prerequisite to a passive eternity of joy. Rather, it is itself the joy and the peace that we are promised.
Making peace with one another and doing justice to one another make God present. Surely these are the things we will continue to do when we see God “not as through a mirror dimly, but then face-to-face.” The promise of clear sight is not that confession, repentance, or reconciliation will become unnecessary in heaven, but that in the sight of God, and in view of the cross, we will see our sins, and the harm done by us, clearly, and in seeing, we will repent perfectly, confess completely, and take complete responsibility for the harm we have done. Such perfect accountability is the basis for reconciliation to one another. Our reconciliation to God grants us the secure foundation and the clarity of sight to be accountable to one another in a divine community which, being based on accountability, is then always open to reconciliation.
This is another way of saying that justice and mercy are not opposites. Reconciliation is not—in the ultimate future of God — a setting aside of consequences for past harms. Instead, it is the ultimate end, the telos, of accountability.
The life of heaven is the ongoing persistence in a life of communal responsibility. The goal is the struggle. We “go on to say, ‘I will celebrate another day.’”
If this seems like a harsh view of heavenly rest, it is helpful to consider it as participation in the triune life of God. How do our reconciliation and our accountability, in heaven, find their basis in Jesus?
The cross — the sacrifice of the Son to the Father in the Spirit — is at the center of the divine life, as both Hans Urs von Balthasar and Jürgen Moltmann have explored in different ways. It is the Holy Spirit who mediates the loving unity of the Father and the Son. While we often fall short of this unity, God invites us, through Christ, to share in it, a sharing which takes the form of reconciliation. Our communal life in heaven is our participation in the divine community, in the life of reconciliation mediated by the divine Spirit. Our continuing communal confession and reconciliation to one another participate in the divine drama of separation and reunion. The very perichoresis of the Trinity – the relationships with each other among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – ensures that the life of heaven is not static. It is about self-giving to one another in relationships of self-emptying love (which Balthasar, in terms drawn from Philippians 2, refers to as “kenosis”). Our accountability to one another — our vulnerability in taking responsibility for the harm we have done — and our “will to embrace” (in Volf’s terms) those who have harmed us, within the context of perfect accountability, are the concrete forms that such kenosis takes within our lives as we are granted a share in the divine life.
What this means is that work of justice and reconciliation in the community of heaven is, fundamentally, not our work, but the working out of the self-giving love of the trinitarian persons in and through our lives. Jesus’s death and resurrection are not simply requirements to bring us to heaven — instead they structure the logic of heaven, the framework on which the heavenly community hangs. Our communal life of justice in heaven (and so, also, our baptismal life of justice on earth) is grounded in God’s gift of grace, the self-emptying of God to death, even death on a cross. “We love because he first loved us.”
Such a dynamic picture of heaven offers, perhaps, a hint of a solution to the problem of justice that plagues universalism. No one — not even the most evil — is outside the resurrection life. But the life to which the dead are raised is one of mutuality and accountability, making the amends that were impossible to make on earth. Such a heaven meets the demands of justice — justice as ongoing responsibility to right relationship with one another — without excluding any from the ultimate community of God’s love.
The most important question is not “What must I do to gain eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16) but “What is the nature of the life to which we will be raised?” The answer is the one given by Jesus when he proclaims the presence of God’s kingdom to John the Baptist (Matthew 11:5): heaven is the process by which we come to clearly see God, and therefore one another and the harms we have done to each other; it is the ongoing liberation of the prisoners; and it is the good news, for the poor and those harmed, of the debt they are owed by those who have hurt them, brought back to them at last as the Spirit brings the Son, the bearer of our debt, back to the Father.
Hannah Bowman is a layperson in the Diocese of Los Angeles, where she works as a literary agent and serves as a volunteer chaplain in the LA County Jails. The founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons, she is pursuing an M.A. in Religious Studies at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles.