For many Catholics accustomed to thinking about eternal life in heaven, Revelation’s picture of the new Jerusalem descending to a re-created earth may come as a surprise. However, a close look at the Catechism shows that it devotes one section to “Heaven” (1023–29), and after the section on the “Last Judgment” (1038–41) comes a separate section on “The Hope of the New Heaven and the New Earth” (1042–50).
Summing up the Catechism, heaven is where “those who die in God’s grace and friendship” go to live with Christ immediately after death (or after their purification is complete in Purgatory), before the resurrection of their bodies (1023). They live there in a “communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed” (1024), a reality beyond human understanding. In heaven, God gives human beings the ability to see him in his heavenly †glory, what theologians describe as “the †beatific vision” (1028).
However, turning now to Catechism 1042–48, the ultimate future of God’s people—after the resurrection and the last judgment—is to reign with Christ in a re-created cosmos. Then “the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. . . . the righteous will reign forever with Christ, glorified in body and soul. The universe itself will be renewed” (1042). “In this new universe, the heavenly Jerusalem, God will have his dwelling among men [cf. Rev 21:5]” (1044). “We know neither the moment of the consummation of the earth and of man, nor the way in which the universe will be transformed” (1048, emphasis original).
So what’s the difference? When the kingdom of God comes in its fullness, God’s people will have new bodies and live on a renewed earth. Nevertheless, there is continuity between heaven now and the new creation in the future age: in both, human beings enjoy the beatific vision; in both, they reign with Christ; in both, they are freed from all suffering and sorrow. If heaven is defined as where God is present and reigns completely, it is clear that when the new heaven and the new earth are created, heaven comes to earth.
For many centuries Christian hope has focused on heaven. In contrast, the hope of the early Christians centered on the return of Christ (Titus 2:13), the resurrection of the dead, and the full establishment of God’s kingdom as expressed in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Without lessening our desire to go to heaven when we die, we Christians would do well to set our hope on the full and final establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth.