The experience of the saints in heaven is an amazing one, probably more so than we can understand.
If I understand Scripture and my own spiritual experiences correctly, the resurrected saints share many of the traits typically associated with God: they are holy, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, powerful, and perfect in their love. There seem to be few limits to their goodness and power.
What all of this seems to suggest is that the resurrected dead have actually become part of the godhead!
While such an idea has been considered heresy for most of Christian history, not all religions see it this way.
Hinduism, for example, teaches that after a series of reincarnations, people eventually merge into complete oneness with God. Once they have learned all the life lessons they need, people escape from the cycle of samsara (rebirth) and are no longer distinguishable from their source (God).
Some go a step further and say that everyone is already a part of God – since God, in this worldview, is synonymous with the universe itself. This philosophy is commonly known as pantheism, and it’s becoming more popular in the Western world.
Personally, I find pantheism troublesome, for a number of reasons. Probably the biggest of these is the fact that it erases all distinctions between good and evil.
If God is synonymous with the universe, then everything that happens is an expression of God’s will. Thus there’s no transcendent power to which we can appeal for spiritual and moral guidance.
In the words of C.S. Lewis, “If you do not take the distinction between good and bad very seriously, then it is easy to say that anything you find in this world is a part of God. But of course, if you think some things really bad, and God really good, then you cannot talk like that. You must believe that God is (in some sense) separate from the world and that some of the things we see in it are contrary to His will.
Confronted with a cancer or a slum the Pantheist can say, ‘If you could only see it from the divine point of view, you would realise that this also is God.’ The Christian replies, ‘Don’t talk damned nonsense!” (Lewis, Mere Christianity).
The God of pantheism, in my view, turns out to be no God at all. At the very least, this is not a God in the theistic sense (having a consciousness that transcends that of His or Her creation).
It’s hard for me to see any appeal in becoming one with a God that has no consciousness. I suppose one could learn to love such a God; but how fulfilling could a love be if it can’t be returned?
I find much appeal, however, in the idea of panentheism (the teaching that God is in all things, but also beyond them). This understanding of God resonates strongly with my personal experiences, finds much support in Scripture, and has been espoused by many throughout church history.
If the saints in heaven are one with God, it seems to me that it is this God (the panentheistic one) that they have merged with. They have become fully permeated by God’s presence, so much so that they act in perfect unity with God; and yet they retain their unique personalities, memories, and consciousness.
Thus when I experience the spiritual presence of Christina (my girlfriend in heaven), I am also experiencing the romantic love of God. When I experience the presence of my deceased grandparents, I am also experiencing the grandfatherly/grandmotherly love of God.
Conversely, whenever I experience God’s presence, I am also experiencing the presence of Christina, my grandparents, Jesus, and countless saints who I have never known in the flesh.
Just as in the doctrine of the Trinity, it’s one God, but manifested in several different ways.
All of the saints seem to be a part of God, acting in perfect unity with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – but they are each a unique spiritual presence as well. This is where the doctrine of theosis naturally leads.
While such an idea may seem shocking, even blasphemous, there’s actually a fair amount of support for it in Scripture, as the following verses show:
“I say, ‘You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you” (Psalm 82:6).
“He (God) has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature” (1 Peter 1:4).
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will trust in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:20-22).
All of these Scriptures hint at a deification that goes beyond merely being “like” God. St. Athanasius grasped this when he famously said that “God became man that man might become God.”
It is this process of becoming God that distinguishes Christian theosis from pantheism.
Human beings are not, in our limited and fallen nature, a part of the godhead; but we can attain to godhood as we allow God to progressively free us from evil, selfishness and the weaknesses of the flesh.
There are, of course, some limits to this. The glorified saints don’t become God in such a way as to depose (or take the place of) the members of the Trinity.
They don’t become God the Father, creating everything in the universe. They don’t take the place of Jesus, freeing us from the power of sin and vengeance. They don’t become the Holy Spirit, the very life force that sustains all things. Indeed, all of these spiritual essences remain unique and irreplaceable.
But it seems that the saints in heaven are, in all other ways, indistinguishable from God. They have attained divinity, while retaining their humanity. This is where we are all headed – provided we endure to the end.
(Coming Next – When We All Get to Heaven, Part Four: “Are We There Yet?”)