Will We Know Each Other in Heaven?
All the blessed, admitted into heaven, know each other perfectly, even before the general resurrection. This is proved by Scripture as well as by tradition.
I shall confine myself to quoting the New Testament to you; I shall content myself, too, with the parable of the rich man, and with some words that have reference to the Last Judgment.
This parable is so fine that I cannot resist the pleasure of placing some of its leading points before you.
There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and feasted sumptuously every day; and there was a certain beggar named Lazarus who lay at his gate, full of sores, desiring to be filled with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table — but none were given to him; moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died, and he was buried in hell. And, when he was in torments, lifting up his eyes, he saw Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom, and he cried and said: “Father, Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame.”
And Abraham said to him: “Son, remember that thou didst receive good things in thy lifetime, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. . . .
And the rich man said: “Father, I beseech thee that thou wouldst send him to my father’s house, for I have five brethren, that he may testify unto them, lest they come also in this place of torment.” (Luke 16:19-31)
In the eighth century, the Venerable Bede put this question to himself: “Do the good know each other in the kingdom of heaven, and do the bad know the bad in hell?” He answered in the affirmative:
I see a proof of it, clearer than day, in the parable of the bad rich man. Does not our Lord there openly declare that the good know each other, and the wicked also? For if Abraham did not know Lazarus, how could he speak of his past misfortunes to the bad rich man who is in the midst of torments? And how could this rich man not know those who are present, since he is mindful to pray for those who are absent? We see, besides, that the good know the wicked, and the wicked the good. In fact, the rich man is known to Abraham; and Lazarus, in the ranks of the elect, is recognized by the rich man, who is among the number of the reprobate.
This knowledge fills up the measure of what each shall receive; it causes the just to rejoice the more, because they see those they have loved rejoice with them; it makes the wicked suffer not only their own pains, but also in some sort the pains of others, since they are tormented in company with those whom they loved in this world to the exclusion of God. There is, even for the blessed, something more admirable still. Beyond the recognition of those whom they have known in this world they recognize also, as if they had seen them and previously known them, the good whom they never saw. For of what can they be ignorant in heaven, since all there behold, in the plenitude of light, the God who knows all?
On the Last Judgment, we have these words of Jesus Christ to his disciples: “Amen, I say to you, that you who have followed me in the regeneration, when the Son of Man shall sit in the seat of his majesty, you also shall sit on twelve seats judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28). We have these words of St. Paul to the Corinthians: “Know you not that the saints shall judge this world? Know you not that we shall judge angels?” (1 Cor. 6:2, 3).
Such is the basis of the argument of St. Theodore Studites (d. 826), in a discourse that he composed at the end of the eighth or the commencement of the ninth century, to refute the error that we are here combating. He said:
Some deceive their hearers by maintaining that the men who rise again will not recognize each other when the Son of God comes to judge us all. How, they exclaim, when from perishable we become incorruptible and immortal — when there will no longer be Greek or Jew, barbarian or Scythian, slave or freeman, husband or wife — when we shall all be as spirits, how could we recognize each other?
Let us, in the first place, reply that that which is impossible to man is possible to God; otherwise, blinded by human reasons, we should even disbelieve the resurrection. How, in fact, can a body already in a state of corruption — perhaps devoured by wild beasts, by birds, or by fishes, themselves devoured by others — and that in several ways and at various times successively, be reunited or gathered together on the last day? It will be thus, however, and the hidden power of God will reunite all its scattered parts and raise it up. Then each soul will recognize the body in which it lived.
But will every soul recognize also the body of its neighbor? We cannot doubt it, unless, at the same time, we doubt the general judgment. For no one can be summoned to judgment without being known, and a person must be known to be judged, according to this expression of Scripture: “I will reprove thee and set [thy own transgressions] before thy face” (Ps. 49:21 [RSV = Ps. 50:21]).
The value of this reasoning depends upon the following distinction: in the private judgment, we are judged by God alone, but in the general judgment we shall be, in some measure, judged by one another. Whilst the former will manifest the justice of God only to the soul that is judged, the latter will make it evident to every creature. Therefore, all await that great day for “the revelation of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19), which will alter all the estimations of men.
The saint continues in these terms:
This is why, if we do not recognize one another, we shall not be judged; if we are not judged, we shall not be rewarded or punished for that which we shall have done and suffered while we were of the number of the living. If the apostles are not to recognize those whom they will judge, will they see the accomplishment of this promise of the Lord: “You shall sit on twelve seats, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28)? If he is not to recognize them in the kingdom of heaven, will the blessed Job be able to receive twice as many children (Job 42:10-13)? For here below he received only a part, and in order that the promise made to him may be fully accomplished, is it not a necessity that he should receive the remainder in the life to come? Besides, from these words: “No brother can redeem, nor shall man redeem” (Ps. 48:8 [RSV = Ps. 49:7]), does not the holy king David suppose a brother to know his brother?
From all quarters we can collect arguments and authorities against those who assert that we do not recognize one another in heaven — a senseless assertion, whose impiety may be compared to the fables of Origen. For us, my brethren, let us believe still and ever that we shall rise again, we shall be incorruptible, and that we shall know one another, as our first parents knew each other in the earthly paradise, before the existence of sin, when they were yet exempt from all corruption. Yes, it must be believed — the brother will know his brother, the father his children, the wife her husband, the friend his friend. I will even add, the religious will know the religious, the confessor will know the confessor, the martyr his fellow soldier, the apostle his colleague in the apostleship — we shall all know one another, in order that the habitation of all in God may be rendered more joyous by this blessing, added to so many others — the blessing of mutual recognition!
The light thrown by Catholic tradition upon this subject is so vivid and constant that it dissipates all the clouds of sophistry and prejudice.
The testimonies from tradition may be divided into two classes — those that simply affirm the fact and those that draw consolation from it.
Among the works commonly attributed to St. Athanasius (c. 297-373), that pure glory of the fourth century, is one that has for its title Necessary Questions of Which No Christian Should Be Ignorant. Now, in reply to the twenty-second question we read, “To the souls of the just in heaven God grants a great gift, which is mutual recognition.”
In the seventh century Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), after having related that a religious saw, when dying, the prophets come toward him, and that he addressed them by their names, added: “This example makes us clearly understand how great will be the knowledge which we shall have of one another in the incorruptible life of heaven, since this religious, though still in a corruptible flesh, seemed to recognize the holy prophets, whom, however, he had never seen.”
The most illustrious of the abbots of Clairvaux, St. Bernard (1090-1153), also said in the twelfth century: “The blessed are united among themselves by a charity which is so much the greater as they are the nearer to God, who is charity. No envy can throw suspicion into their ranks, for there is nothing in one which is concealed from the other; the all-pervading light of truth permits it not.”
Have you lost a brother or a sister? Console yourself, then, as St. Ambrose (c. 340-397) did:
Brother, since you have preceded me thither, prepare for me a place in that common abode of all, which is for me henceforward the most desirable; and as, here below, everything was in common between us, so in heaven let us remain ignorant of any law of division. I conjure you, keep me not waiting long, so pressing is the desire I experience of rejoining you, help me who am hastening forward, and if I seem to you still to tarry, make me advance; we have never been long separated, but it is you who were in the habit of returning to me. Now that you can no longer return, I will go to you. O my brother! What comfort remains to me but the hope of soon meeting you again? Yes, I comfort myself with the hope that the separation that your departure has caused will not be of long duration, and that by your prayers you will obtain the grace to hasten the coming of him whose regrets for you are so bitter.
Have you lost a son or a daughter? Receive the consolations of a patriarch of Constantinople addressed to a bereft father. This patriarch, Photius, can no more be counted among great men than among saints, as he was the author of the cruel schism that separates the East and the West. Nevertheless, his opinions only prove the better that, on this point, the Greeks and the Latins entertain the same views. Photius says:
If your daughter were to appear to you, and, placing her face, resplendent with glory, against your face and her hand within yours, thus were to speak to you, would it not be to describe the joys of heaven? Then she would add: “Why do you grieve, father? I am in paradise, where felicity is unbounded. You will come someday with my beloved mother, and then you will find that I have not exaggerated the delights of this place, so far will the reality exceed my description. O dearly beloved father, detain me no longer in your arms, but be pleased to permit me to return whither the intensity of my love attracts me.” Let us then banish sorrow, for now your daughter is happy in Abraham’s bosom. Let us banish sorrow; for it is there that, after a very little time, we shall see her in the ecstasy of joy and delight.
Have you lost your husband? Alas! The mourning garments you so constantly wear show plainly the misfortune that you have sustained; they show, also, how affection has survived the tie broken by death. Seek aid, then, in the consolations so frequently presented by the Church to Christian widows.
St. Jerome (c. 347-420) wrote to a widow:
Regret your Lucinius as a brother; but rejoice that he reigns with Christ. Victorious and secure of his glory, he looks down upon you from the heights of heaven; he is your support in your works and woes, and he prepares for you a place by his side, ever preserving for you the same love and charity that, making him forget the names of husband and of wife, compelled him, during his life, to love you as his sister, and to live with you as a brother. For, in the pure union that chastity forms between two hearts, the difference of sex that constitutes marriage is unknown.
St. John Chrysostom (c. 349-407), in a homily on St. Matthew, said, as if to each of his hearers individually:
Do you wish to behold him whom death has snatched from you? Lead, then, the same life as he in the path of virtue, and you will soon enjoy that blessed sight. But you would wish to see him even here. Ah! Who prevents you? It is both easy and allowable, if you are virtuous; for the hope of future goods is clearer than the possession itself.
This sublime orator found, in his own history, all that could make him sympathize with the sorrows of the wife who has lost her husband. The only son of a young woman, weak alike from her age and her sex, and early left a widow to struggle with the world, he had been the confidant of her tears and of her grief, when he made her as though a second time a widow, by escaping from her love to plunge into solitude. He has himself related to us that the pagan rhetorician Libanius, learning that his mother had been bereft of her husband from the age of twenty, and would never be induced to contract another marriage, exclaimed, turning toward his idolatrous hearers: “O ye gods of Greece! What women there are among those Christians!”
Divine Providence found means to supply Chrysostom with an opportunity of exercising the compassionate feelings of his heart toward the widowed, by consoling another young woman who had passed only five years of her life with her husband, Therasius, one of the principal personages of his time. He wrote two treatises for her, and they are among his most remarkable productions. He says to her, among other comforting things:
If you desire to see your husband, if you wish to enjoy each other’s presence, let your life shine with purity like his, and be assured that you will thus enter into the same angelic choir that he has already reached. You will abide with him, not only during five years, as on earth — not only during twenty, a hundred, a thousand, two thousand, ten thousand, or many more years, but during ages without end. Then you will once more find your husband, no longer with that corporal beauty with which he was gifted when he departed, but with a different splendor — beauty of another sort, which will surpass in brilliancy the rays of the sun.
If it had been promised to you that the empire of the whole earth should be given to your husband, on condition that during twenty years you should be separated from him, and if, in addition, you had received a pledge that after those twenty years, your Therasius should be restored to you, adorned with the diadem and the purple, and you yourself placed in the same rank of honor as he, would you not have resigned yourself to this separation, and easily have preserved continence? You would even have seen in this offer a signal favor, and something worthy of all your desires. Now, therefore, bear with patience the separation which gives your husband the kingdom, not of earth, but of heaven; bear it, that you may find him among the blessed inhabitants of paradise, clad, not with a vesture of gold, but with one of glory and immortality.
This is why, in thinking of the honors that Therasius enjoys in heaven, you must cease to weep and lament. Live as he lived, and even with more perfection. By this means, after having practiced the same virtues, you will be received into the same tabernacles, and you can once more be united to him in the eternal ages, not by the tie of marriage, but by another and a better tie. The first unites bodies only, while the second, more pure, more blissful, and more holy, unites soul to soul.
image: © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / , via Wikimedia Commons
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter from In Heaven We’ll Meet Again: The Saints and Scripture on our Heavenly Reunion, which is available through Sophia Institute Press.