There is an old joke in which some member of some religious group, dies and goes to heaven. He passes by various rooms and is told who is there. When he comes to one particular room he is told to be very quiet for he is not to disturb those in that room. When the newly deceased asks, “Why?” the response is: “They think they’re the only ones here.”
You can fill in the name of various groups and the joke still works. There are problems, at least as we conceive things, of living in a crowded heaven.
But the very disturbing truth is that we already live in a very crowded heaven. We should not make such strong distinctions between the life we now live and the life we shall live. To do so can be very misleading. The difference may be qualitative, in some important senses, but not qualitative in others.
To love God now is already to anticipate the joys of heaven – for though the veil will be removed and we shall “know Him even as we are known,” that knowledge will not have a radical discontinuity with the knowledge we now have. And so I write of a crowded heaven.
The disciples once asked Jesus:
Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them, “Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able” (Luke 13:23-24).
There is here no answer to the quantitative question, only an admonition to “strive to enter in at the narrow gate.” The difficulty with heaven now, in the diminished manner that we experience it, lies not in its diminished quality, but in the company we are asked to keep. If you had the ability to say who would not be allowed in heaven, who would you put on the list?
This is a revealing question, telling us nothing about other people, but much about the state of our own heart. Whose presence in heaven would change heaven into hell for us? Again, this tells us nothing about the state of the person whose presence we abhor, but much about the state of a heart that so abhors the presence of another.
If the presence of such persons is unthinkable to us now, how will be bear their presence later? Are we to assume that God will have fixed all those people such that they will no longer be abhorable? Or are we to assume that God will have fixed us such that we will no longer abhor others? And what if it is the case that the only problem that truly exists in many cases is not the other person but our willingness to so abhor others?
All such questions bring us to the proper question: how will we endure a crowded heaven?
The appropriateness of such a question is the sure testimony of Scripture that relates the image of God in heaven only as a God who rules in a crowd. He is the Lord God of Sabbaoth (“hosts” – let’s say “crowds”). What are we to do with a God who so loves those whom we hate? What do you do with a God who loves Hitler as much as He loves you? What kind of God can do such a thing and do you want a relationship with Him?
All of which brings us to proper questions about ourselves and our spiritual life. The commandments to forgive our enemies and to love our neighbors are so much more than God wanting us to be nice and get along with each other. It may be a matter of heaven and hell. Sometimes it may be the only difference between heaven and hell.
And thus it is that Christianity inherently involves Church. There is no salvation as a Christian that is simply between us and God, because the immediate question and commandment given to us as Christians always directs us to our neighbors. The Church is perhaps one of the lesser tests of the love of neighbor. Here we are keeping company with those who, on some level, believe as we do. Like those outside the Church they come complete with personalities and issues that we will either like or dislike. We love many people for the wrong reason in the wrong way, and dislike others for the wrong reason in the wrong way. But from the very inception of our relationship with God through Christ we are confronted with “the crowd.” There is no relationship with God that excludes anyone else.
The greatest of our spiritual battles will always be with these crowded relationships. We are created for love by a God “who is love.” And thus the Christian faith is a crowded faith. Ours is a sociological mysticism if you will allow me to coin a phrase. There is no private mysticism, no private relationship, no God apart from His creation. The desire to have such a relationship is demonic in its essence. Lucifer wanted to be like God (if you will, he was very religious). But he wanted such a divine aspiration at the expense of God Himself and certainly at the expense of creation. Thus Scripture calls him a “murderer from the beginning.” We would do well to remember that the demons are quite religious (almost by definition) but they hate God and His creation.
There is a legend among the stories of Orthodoxy that when God was sharing His plan to the angels in the councils of heaven, the sight of the Theotokos, and the glory given to her, was the occasion of Lucifer’s first anger. The thought of mere mud being exalted to such a place: “more glorious than the cherubim and beyond compare than the seraphim.” All of this was unbearable to his pride. The crowd of heaven could not include humanity in such an exalted position.
There is much of the same attitude to be found in the Pharisees and their judgment of Publicans and harlots. There is very much of the same attitude to be found in us towards – well – fill in the blank. Thus we are called not only to love God and to forgive our enemies but to refrain from judging everyone. These are not only “moral” commandments, but are descriptions of the very heart of salvation itself. If they are not present, then we are not doing well spiritually, whatever else we may think. And their presence in many whom we would consider unfit for heaven is a testament of judgment against us.
It’s a crowd. By the grace of God, get used to it. If it is a problem go to confession and pray.
But do not despair. Most of us in the crowd are wrestling with the same thing.