Once, my grandmother and I disagreed. It was theological. The priest had told my high school religion class that marriage does not exist in heaven. He was citing Our Lord, of course. He went on to say that everyone in heaven loved everyone equally. My take on that, to Grandma, was that she would love everyone as much as she now loved Grandpa. That struck her as downright wrong. “I may love everyone in heaven but not as much as I love your grandfather.”
Back then, I did not know the depths from which she spoke. She had borne him 12 children and raised them in the Great Depression. When his diabetes put him on disability, she had to send some of them to work without high school. For many years, after he had lost the farm, she lived with the unfocused anger that would come over him if he drank too much. My grandmother knew of what she was speaking when she said that she was not ever going to love strangers as she much as she had loved him.
So which is it? Do our relationships on earth matter in eternity? Scripture only solves this type of question for those who pick a verse and ignore the rest. The martyred mother in Maccabees assures her sons that their family’s love will live on, in God.
But we began with Jesus, drawing an earthly line around the reality of marriage. So, the question is: Do our relationships matter in heaven?
In his own take on the afterlife, C.S. Lewis suggested that heaven and hell are continuations of what begins on earth. Those who open themselves to God will find that, in a way, they have always been in heaven. Conversely, those who are closed to God, will decide that they have never known anything but hell. In The Great Divorce, Lewis does not depict an ethereal realm. His heaven is much more solid, more beautiful—in short, more real—than anything that we experience here on earth, which he calls “the Grey Town.”
His earthly travelers are like ghosts in heaven compared to the solidly beautiful men and women who live there, and that, he says, is only the lowlands of heaven! The visitors from Grey Town cannot pick the flowers of heaven or tread easily upon its grasses because heaven is so substantial, so much more real than anything on earth.
Here is how Lewis comes at the question of earthly relationships. The visitors see a beautiful woman come toward them. She is surrounded in procession by spirits who dance and scatter flowers. Then come beautiful young men and women, singing with a loveliness that cannot be recorded in words.
Lewis’ travelers cannot help but think that they are in the presence of the Queen of Heaven. But they are told, no. This is Sarah Smith. Notice how common Lewis makes the name. She is “one of the great ones” because “fame in this country and fame on earth are two different things.”
Indeed, on earth, Sarah Smith was the most ordinary of women. She is who she is in heaven because of the way she loved on earth, the relationships that she nurtured and treasured, even though she herself appears never to have been married, at least, not happily. The beautiful young people who surround her are not her biological children. No.
Lewis is suggesting that Sarah Smith, unknown Sarah Smith, of Golders Green, has one of the highest places in heaven because of her relationships on earth. She deeply loved the people whom God brought into her life and that has fashioned who she is—her place and identity—in heaven.
There are those who would say that Lewis is as entitled to his opinion of the afterlife as the next person but that he knows no more about it than anyone else. But you see, church teaching about the afterlife is not simply speculation. It is deduction. It is drawn from what we know of the resurrection of Jesus. That is when we first learned of heaven, first discerned the possibility of hell.
The resurrection is all about the restoration of relationships. If Christ had simply gone to glory, we would know nothing of his resurrection, or our own. His humanity would have entered into a transformed, glorified life but all of those whom he had loved while on earth would be left in the dark night of their sadness. But in the resurrection, Christ returns to claim his own. That is why we can confidently say that heaven doesn’t cancel our relationships but, to the contrary, that it solidifies them, gives them a breadth they could never have had on earth. Or, as the catechism puts it, “To live in heaven is ‘to be with Christ.’ The elect live ‘in Christ,’ but they retain, or rather find, their true identity, their own name” (§1025).
We do not marry in heaven because we don’t need to. But that does not mean that earthly relationships disappear. No, they were the path to paradise. Love is the portal by which we enter heaven. Our relationships becomes pieces of our heavenly persons. Who we are in heaven is all about who we have loved on earth. Just ask Sarah Smith, or my Grandma, Anna Herrman.
2 Maccabees 7: 1-2, 9-14 2 Thessalonians 16:2 -3:5 Luke 20: 27-38