There’s an old debate among Christian theologians about the life of the world to come. Is it a life in which there’s no more to be had, no more to want, no progress to be made, nothing new to come? In which you’ve finally and fully become, without possibility of further growth, what you always already were? Or is it a life in which there’s always more—more understanding, more delight, more intensity, more intimacy with God?
There are eminent voices on both sides of the question, and no magisterial teaching that gets close to resolving it. Augustine is an advocate of the first; he’s a poet of quietus, persuaded to that position, I think, by the depth of his understanding of the disquiet that mars all our lives here below, and by his sense that this disquiet is the thing about us that most needs to be remedied. Gregory of Nyssa is perhaps an advocate of the second, persuaded that the inexhaustibility of God’s goodness requires that our capacity to see and to relate to that goodness should also be inexhaustible, and that we will, therefore, always progress in understanding and love, even in the world to come.
Since I first came to think about this issue about thirty years ago, it’s always seemed to me that of course Augustine is right: when we say of the dead “requiescat in pace,” we’re expressing the hope that they’ll find their rest in peace, as well as our intuition that their peace is only to be had in rest. The other view seems confused about the difference between the order of being, in which God’s goodness is inexhaustible, and the order of knowing, in which we, being finite, are neither capable of endless growth in apprehension of that goodness nor in need of such growth.
The endless-progress view also seems tiring, at least to me. I think I know what disquiet is from having been a human creature in a fallen world for almost seven decades. I don’t need more of it, and to think of the life of the world to come as one new vista after another feels like an exhausting extension of the life I already know. I’d like to be a clear glass filled with God’s light. To be told that, no, I’ll never be filled (or fulfilled) engenders in me a heavy weight of gloom. It would be purgatory without end.
The life of the world to come, I’d prefer to think, is not the provision of ever more goods. Rather, it’s the definitive removal of lacks. Death is a lack that the life of the world to come removes and replaces, finally and fully, with life. So ignorance, another lack, will be replaced by knowledge; desire by fulfillment; pain by delight; and so on. All these absences will be replaced by a presence. We will then be able to live quietly and fully, with nothing more to want. That is, so far as I can see, the content of the Christian hope.
Some, perhaps most, Christians will disagree with me. Some will think that there’s never an end to increase, and that there shouldn’t be. This disagreement persists because Scripture and tradition contain threads that support both views, but also because there are very different understandings of what’s wrong with us. My own sense is that the most fundamental evidence of our condition as fallen is unrest. What we fell from when we fell was precisely the ability to rest in peace. Simone Weil writes somewhere that we have a regrettable tendency to try to eat what we should instead look at—that is an elegant and suggestive summary of the nature of our disquieting desires, and of the way they can never be satisfied. Consuming beauty won’t work, and also won’t end: there’s always more of it to put in your mouth. Repose, by contrast, permits contemplation of what’s there to be seen and calms the desire to consume it.
There are those who think that our problem is not the disquiet of desire but rather being disquieted by the wrong things, and that when we turn our eyes and minds to God we’ll find that we do want—and can have—ever more of the one we love. It’s tempting to depict this view as a half-Christianized version of the American dream, according to which it’s never possible to have enough of a good thing: more is always better. But that analogy isn’t quite fair. Better simply to say that this disagreement about the world to come is one of some moment for Christians, and that we’ve not yet learned how to resolve it.