Heaven Can Wait

There’s a terrific moment in the TV show House, in which the irascible and brilliant Dr. Greg House is explaining to a lapsed Catholic subordinate why he doesn’t believe in the afterlife. House, with all the self-lacerating irony that actor Hugh Laurie can impart to the character, says, “I would hate to think that all of this was just a test.”

House is right — and he’s offered a crucial diagnosis of one form of Catholic piety. There’s a way of thinking about the afterlife that makes this life, here, irrelevant and even inexplicable. Catholics will sometimes argue against universalism — the comforting belief that all people must be saved, because God would never be so cruel as to damn somebody’s grandma — by asking, “If everyone is saved, why even bother to do the right thing here on earth?”

Universalism is perhaps the second-most American belief about the afterlife possible. For the most nationally characteristic view, I turn to an existentialist friend of mine, who once told me, “I heard someone say that everybody gets the afterlife he or she believes in. And I couldn’t help but think, That’s so American!” Americans believe in a universe whose order is apparent to the naked eye; an order where God’s justice lines up neatly with American cultural preferences for self-definition and multiple “truths.” This is a mindset that we might expect from a nation that has built its identity on both Enlightenment philosophy and immigration — as ZZ Top didn’t quite sing, everybody’s crazy ’bout a self-made man. Even our Last Things must be self-wrought and accommodating, pluralist and tolerant and as blandly nice as an American airport smile.
So I don’t write to defend universalism. If you want to go to hell, then Godspeed! Universal salvation is a possibility for Catholics — or else why would the Fatima prayer bid us to beg that Christ might lead all souls “into salvation, especially those in most need of Thy mercy”? But to say that everyone must be saved, because otherwise God would be too cruel, is to ignore the photonegative witness of the fallen angels — sometimes God really does let you choose hell — and to assume that mercy trumps justice, rather than marrying justice on the cross.
But I want to fight hard against a certain tendency in Catholic arguments: a bizarre reworking of Plato’s Euthyphro, in which, since our ultimate goal is union with God in heaven, actions in this life are only good if they advance us on the celestial Snakes and Ladders board. If Hitler might be in heaven, this argument runs, how on earth could hatred, slaughter, and suicide be wrong?
And it seems to me that House’s quip gets at the basic problem with this approach. What we do here matters. God put us here for a purpose, created temporal human life not merely as a “test” but as something good in itself, with goods of creaturely love, artistic creation, and philosophical seeking that are particular to this life. Did God make anything He could not love? If the answer is “no,” as I think it must be, then humans — we who live in time, as opposed to angels who live in the eternal recurrence of Nietzsche or the Mass — have some uniquely lovable characteristics. There is a point to what we do here.
Ordinary experience bears this out as well. Let’s say your mother promises you that absolutely under no circumstances will you be punished for anything you do today. She will forgive you everything. Would you slap her in her face?
Of course not! Because her forgiveness is, while intensely important to you, not actually the factor governing your conduct. Your love is what governs you. You may cry miserably if she doesn’t forgive your wrongs, or cry in humiliated relief if she does; but the basic horror of wrongdoing is the action itself, not its consequences. A good child, should one exist, is not less horrified at her own wrong actions solely because she has escaped punishment for them. (We might even be more horrified by wrong actions that go unpunished. Punishment can provide the catharsis of expiation, and so be much more comforting than the blank-check form of forgiveness, which can leave the child feeling as though her actions are either meaningless or so irredeemable that no possible action could ever cleanse her. But I’ll concede that this point, while perhaps relevant to childrearing, isn’t especially relevant to universal salvation if you already believe in purgatory.)
Moreover, a belief that heaven is all that matters can lead to insouciant disregard of the Great Commission. If invincible ignorance protects against hellfire, and the afterlife is all that matters, why would anyone evangelize? Why aren’t missionaries culpable for exposing people to the previously unattainable possibility of hell?
Well, because knowing the truth is good. Christian witness makes hell possible; it also makes true love of God, in this life, possible. To use the slap-your-mama analogy, Christian witness makes it possible for you to completely reject your mother — but it also makes it possible for you to cherish her, for the first time.
The Euthyphro may encapsulate some of the central problems of modernity, and may offer hope for a postmodern Christian response. This dialogue poses the question, “Are pious actions good because the gods love them, or do the gods love pious actions because they are good?” No fully Christian answer can accept the terms of the question, since it drives a wedge between God and the world He created. A Christian neo-Platonist might say that the biblical God is unique because He alone exhibits both the characteristics of a personal god — the kind the Greeks would have been familiar with — and the Form of the Good. He alone is made of both love and ethics, so that goodness flows out from Him, imbuing all His creations with their own characteristic goods. In this view, God infuses His creating word into all of His creatures. Thus, when we act well or poorly toward those creatures, we are, in that temporal moment, making a choice either for or against God. The eternal and the temporal, like righteousness and peace in the psalm, kiss.
As a final argument that this life is not just a test, I’ll point to the sacred wounds of the risen Christ. When Christ appeared, resurrected, before the apostles, He was so thoroughly wounded that St. Thomas could actually poke a finger into His bleeding side. What happened to Him in this life was irrevocable. There are no “do-overs”; there are no “give-backs.” Whatever healing or transformation of our wounds occurs in the next life, I suspect the wounds themselves will remain, just as Christ’s wounds remained. So think of the penitent centurion — think of his heaven. In his heaven, he is still the man who speared the side of Christ. His wrong action was not erased by God’s love — though it was transformed. His life was witness, not a test: In a test, all that matters is whether you pass. In witness, what matters is whether you live the unique and strange vocation you were given in a way that makes it possible for Christ’s fingerprints to be seen on your face.


Eve Tushnet was born in 1978 and grew up in Washington, D.C. She was received into the Catholic Church at Yale University in 1998. Her hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy. Her writing can be found on her blog http://eve-tushnet.blogspot.com and http://evesjournalismandstuff.blogspot.com. She writes a lot about being gay and Catholic. Her patron saint is Elizabeth of Hungary. She has worked full-time for the National Catholic Register and the Manhattan Institute (one year each), and part-time for the Institute on Marriage and Public Policy, the Bible Literacy Project, and the National Organization for Marriage. She has written for publications including Commonweal, the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Weekly Standard. Mostly she writes the art reviews for publications people don't read for the art reviews.

  • Pammie

    “A good child, should one exist….” Very funny and all too true. This is the best line I have see written in many a day. The modern day attitude that one’s child can do no wrong and is always the fount of wonderful goodness is the source of much misery in the world today. Not only for the child himself, but quite often for all those unfortunate enough to be in his vicinity. The reprecussions of this attitude are both temporal and eternal.This essay bears repeat readings.

  • Mother of Two Sons

    Heaven can’t wait for us dense humans to grasp the fullness of the possibilities of this life’s existence! The best analogy that I can come up with is as we matured in the womb, we took on more and more characteristics, facilities, abilities, likeness of the life we would relatively shortly, and most assuredly be thrusted into…. God always gives a sample a hint of what is coming….. The baby in the womb, I promise was not focused on all of the ugliness of his/her stages of growth…. he/she just embraced/surrendered/depended on the Womb-carrier for all he/she needed to progress to full development….and into this world he/she came….

    And this world was exponentially different than the womb… no ice cream in the womb smilies/smiley.gif no Bocelli LIVE in the womb smilies/smiley.gif no kisses in the womb smilies/smiley.gif

    And so I believe that we are to be developing ourselves more and more into the characteristics, faculties, abilities, likeness of HEAVEN…. I believe that if we would stop spending so much time on Kindergarten Christianity and spend the majority of our lives on Celestial Christianity… we would usher in an era of such breakthroughs of a scientific, relational, societal nature…not yet seen. Don’t know why the centuries of focus on our original sin nature instead of on the eschatalogical nature that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection brought to us!
    Hope I was able to express my thoughts clearly enough… this is an important paradigm shift of focus… back onto JESUS… what HIS PURPOSE and CALL is… I promise you it is not simply, going to Church on Sunday, putting money in the basket, and publicly backing the ROMAN Catholic CHURCH…. though all of these things can support our Christian Life… it is realizing the fullness of our individual call of Jesus’ on our lives…. in the end, we will meet HIM, our Creator, our Savior, face to face and how we lived this gift of life will matter…. and He isn’t going to count the number of Masses you went to, except perhaps if it didn’t impact your life one way or the other….

  • job

    Ms. Tushnet,
    A grand article with important distinctions not too many are making these days throughout. But at the risk of sounding like the proverbial turd in the punchbowl, I would direct your attention to a few canards to the doctrinal soundess of using the Fatima prayer as any kind of argument for a soft universalism in the Church.
    Since I am not a theologian, I would let those more theologically qualified speak to your point about the Fatima prayer

  • Patrick

    …isn’t it the case that the Fatima message itself specifically states that many souls are going to Hell? That seems to me to be precisely the reason for the message and the prayer in the first place! Souls go to Hell because there we are not praying and making sacrifices for them.

    I don’t think this reality undermines the valid point that souls are still ultimately free to reject or accept God’s mercy and thus, have a doorway into heaven. It would indeed be inconsistent with the rest of Catholic thought to hold that our prayers and sacrifices could save souls despite their desire to be saved. Perhaps it’s with our prayers and sacrifices that we call down greater graces from God for such souls, so that they may have the greater ease of responding to God’s grace and to see more clearly the error of their ways.

  • Darrel Hoerle

    “but the basic horror of wrongdoing is the action itself, not its consequences.”

    As a fairly recent convert, would I be right in thinking that this would be a good general rule of thumb to distinguish contrition and attrition? That one who is truly repentant would be horrified by his or her actions, by the simple fact of having displeased God?

  • Carlist

    In support of Job and Patrick, I would point out that the Blessed Mother provided a vision of Hell and its many occupants to the children at Fatima.

    I would also aver that the prayer that all souls be led into salvation, especially those most in need of mercy, applies to the living souls of today who have yet to be judged.

    Frankly, when viewed objectively, there is no concept more destructive to the Faith than the imiplied Origenism of “Universal Salvation” since it subtly obliviates the need for Faith to begin with!

  • I am not Spartacus

    While alive, one is either purifying or putrefying and, depending upon the state of one’s soul at death, one’s soul will either be quickened or not by Sanctifying Grace.

    If it is, one is Heaven bound. If not, one is Hell bound.

    Or, The Hokey Pokey song is right and your life is an inconsequential dance and the traditional Catholic Practice of keeping before our mind’s eye The Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell)was a cruel hoax.

    It’s all cool, baby. We’s all going to Heaven.

    In a sick twist on St. Augustine (God who created you without your permission will not save you without your cooperation), modernity now holds that because God created you without your permission He is obligated to save you.

  • Eve Tushnet

    Hello all, and thanks for reading! I really appreciate the comments on Fatima/the possibility of universal salvation. I’m still thinking about that stuff.

    I will note that the last two comments use precisely the argument I’m saying, in this piece, that Catholics should avoid: “If no humans go to Hell, then moral choices are meaningless.” Pretty much this entire piece is about why that isn’t true. Our actions have meaning in themselves, as choices for or against Jesus Christ in this moment, not solely because they affect our ultimate destination.

    Again, even if you knew for sure that your mom would always forgive you, a) you still wouldn’t slap her, and b) you would find the very thought of final separation from her love painful. Thus I think even a universalist (which I’m not–I hold open the possibility, but don’t think it’s necessary or even likely) can contemplate the Last Things and the final judgment with a degree of fruitful, love-inspired fear of the Lord. And as a matter of personal psychology, “What if I get hit by a car?” is often a more powerful motivation for me to go to Confession than “I’ve betrayed Christ Whom I should love above all else, and I need to get shriven right quick”–I’m really not a “good child”!

    But I think it’s important that Catholics not instrumentalize Heaven, or argue as though the threat of Hell is the only prop holding up our morality. Our morality would still be true even IF Hell were impossible, simply because it reflects the truth about God and ourselves. Our actions matter because they HAPPEN, because they’re real and irrevocable, not because they can never be redeemed or transformed in Christ.

  • I am not Spartacus

    You write; There’s a way of thinking about the afterlife that makes this life, here, irrelevant and even inexplicable. and my very first words in response are:

    While alive, one is either purifying or putrefying and, depending upon the state of one’s soul at death, one’s soul will either be quickened or not by Sanctifying Grace

    which is completely at odds with your assertion that I was making the very argument you warned against making.

    I am sorry, sister, but it is you who is making the wrong argument.

  • Carlist


    Of course we can be redeemed through Christ but our repentance is necessary!

    And the hope for “universal” salvation is an absurdity!

  • Camassia

    Your comment reminds me of a piece I read a little while ago on the site Pugio Fidei (I don’t know if they allow links in comments here, so I won’t attempt it) about errors Catholics sometimes make in debating Protestants. “Never ask, if a Protestant believes his salvation is eternally secure, what motivation he has to do good and avoid evil. The answer is obvious (and embarrassing to the Catholic who asked the question): the love of God. The love of God is sufficient motivation to pursue holiness with all vigor, absent any considerations of self interest. The most that a Catholic can argue in this respect is that Catholic theology, which furnishes men with both the baser motive of self interest and the loftier motive of the love of God, is superior in the practical order. For, in many cases, the baser motive will effectually turn a man from evil to good whereas the loftier motive, even though it should have, did not.”

  • Michael Mullins

    We may properly pray for the salvation of all, because, as Garrigou-Lagrange explains

  • TSO

    Very thought-provoking! I’ve long struggled with this notion of life-as-test with the ugly fallout that occurs when viewed through that prism.

    I’ve always thought that life was a test based on the fact that in Genesis there was the Tree of Good and Evil from which they could not eat. Adam and Eve were in Paradise, not Heaven (no Heaven would include the temptations of the devil) so there was inherently a probationary period and accompanying test?

    Scott Hahn, in his talk at the Coming Home Conference, said that the spiritual life is a war, a battlezone, but then added,

  • Pingback: Catholicism for Cutters()

  • Pingback: “Spiritual Unemployment”: Three Links on Pope Francis and Redemption()