The atheist Jean Paul Sartre once wrote that if heaven exists, he doesn’t want to go there. That’s understandable because Sartre denied the existence of God during his lifetime. So, if ever he got there, he would certainly be miserable. Imagine living forever with a complete stranger!
But I think Sartre misunderstood the meaning of heaven. It is not a place where we go after we die. In fact, we begin to experience heaven after we are born.
Heaven is sharing in God’s life and being friends with Him. Before He suffered and died on the cross, Jesus told His disciples: “No longer do I call you slaves, for a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
God gave us our lifetime to develop, nurture, and enjoy an intimate familiarity with Him. As His friends, we don’t need to feel alone, anonymous, or abandoned because God has written our names in the palm of His hand. He knows us better than we know ourselves, and He loves us more deeply than anyone else ever could.
This is why I envision death and the Last Judgment, not as a horrible, cataclysmic events, as depicted in today’s Gospel reading (Luke 25:15-26). I see it as a joyfully anticipated event and a most exhilarating encounter with a real friend.” They will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is close at hand” (Luke 25:17).
God offers us friendship. But like Sartre, the atheist, we can reject it. Or, we can take it lightly, not appreciating its value. Many of us look at friendship as a project or worse, a commercial transaction. We enter into it hoping to get some benefits, measuring our friends in terms of their usefulness.
How does an acquaintance become a friend? The answer is simple. We invest time to get to know him. I remember my childhood friends with whom I spent long hours. We played together, told stories, shared our dreams. We sometimes quarreled, but always found ways to reconcile. Our close familiarity with one another became part of the fabric of our lives. So even when we parted ways to pursue our goals in life, we remained friends.
Investing time with God is the best way to develop our friendship with Him. If we remember God only on Sundays, then we do not really consider Him as a friend. Remember Jesus said: “Abide with me. I am the vine and you are the branches” (John 15:5). He did not say: “Look me up every-so-often when you feel like it.” He wants us to spend time with Him every day in prayer to tell Him not only our problems and worries, but also our joys and hopes.
But lest we forget: God is not our equal. Yes, He is a friend, but He is our Lord and King too. Being friends with Jesus does not mean being buddy-buddy with Him, or seeing Him as a sentimental soul mate. As King and Lord, He has the right to demand something from us. Jesus said: “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).
He commands us this: To embody in ourselves the love that enabled Him to prove His friendship by laying down His life for us. “Greater love has no one than this, that a man lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). If we do this, then at the Last Judgment, we shall not find ourselves in the presence of a stranger, but a friend whom we have known and loved all along.