The Melancholy of Heaven

Jun 6, 2016 | Thoughts, Writings | 0 comments

Are martyrs sad?

Standard answer: no. They are in Heaven by definition, and “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.” Any suffering they may have experienced is over, forever. Further, they will bear no ill will towards their tormentors, but rather pray for their conversion.

I agree. Generally.

Fifteen chapters earlier in Revelation, we read a less famous verse. “…I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony they had upheld. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge those who live on the earth” and avenge our blood. 11 Then each of them was given a white robe and told to rest a little while longer…” This is hardly the ideal of kind, forgiving martyrs, who have forgotten that nasty business about horribly dying in torture.

(Thus the hazard of reading the Bible. It may contradict one’s beliefs.)

The same question applies to God in a similar fashion. Strictly speaking, God the Father does not have passions as we do.There is no variation or shifting shadows of the Father of Lights. If we say that God is angry, it is merely metaphorical, or a poetic shorthand for the more complicated concept of God choosing His decisions based on the situation at hand. God is not angered as we would be at the sins of Sodom and Gomorra, but neither were there ten honest men therein.

Yet the Bible, let alone Christian literary tradition throughout the ages, describes of God the Father having emotions. This is entirely comforting if those emotions are passionate romantic love for us, or enjoying His Creation, or even sympathy for our ills. It is not quite so comforting if those emotions are wrath, disappointment, or the enjoyment of seeing justice done. “Jacob have I loved”, yes, but let’s not talk about Esau here.

“But the Incarnation!” Yes, God the Son has every passion we do, being as human as we are. But now that He is in Heaven, does He feel those natural passions we often wish we did not have–anger, grief, judgment?

The answer, hopefully, is yes, because one would much rather have a Savior that still grieves for sinners rather than a Savior who got that all done with a couple millenia back. Yet this logically implies that Jesus Christ would in fact be feeling grief in Eternal Life, and ergo, we co-heirs to the same would follow where the Head has gone. On second thought…

But what does it matter if martyrs, or any saint at all, or God Himself feel negative emotions? It is not as if our own emotions on the matter mean anything.

But in a sense, they do. Offering one’s sufferings mixed with that of Christ is a long-standing tradition (c.f. Colossians 1:24), and we papists can mix it with Mary’s, too (c.f. Stabat Mater).^1 For this to be any more than empty words, one must feel the same, and not merely assent to some mechanical process.

OK, but we can say that there’s some kind of time travel going on, and we’re just offering it in unison as the actual event. Right? …That’s not really how actual suffering works, though. Remembering a past pain is a pain in the moment.^2 Are we feeling a pain for something that no longer pains the one who suffered?

Indeed, perhaps that is why the subject remains. It hardly does justice to martyrs for them to have simply forgotten what happened. The “saint” that would care so little for what happened would be as phony as a passion play directed and performed by robots. If they are human, indeed transhuman^3, they must they not have feelings, true feelings, of sorrow and pain? Christ bore no ill-will against his murderers, yet even after his resurrection he bore five wounds. Perhaps some members of his Body are those scarred hands, feet, and side.

But as pithy as it would be to end on that line, that’s not the end of the story, either. The point of the the Crucifixion was that it was once, and all done with not merely for two millenia in the future but for all time. Further, for the present world to grieve the next world would be a kind of invasion of Heaven. Hardly the place of endless peace.

I do not think it is is right to attempt to give a definite answer on this question. Nonetheless, I will offer an indefinite one.

If our actions are not merely independent entities leaving ourselves untouched, but rather changes of our very selves, then the concept of Heaven and Hell becomes less an infinite repayment for apparently finite actions, but merely the result of our own altered natures. (c.f. C. S. Lewis) If we dare rip the libertarianism out from our spirituality, perhaps this, too, suffices. If others’ actions can affect ourselves and alter our natures, then the natures of martyrs, or indeed everyone who has suffered, has been changed by their lives on this Earth. Their subjective beatific vision could not help but differ from those who had not suffered, be it that their object is unchanged. They would feel perhaps not earthly pain, but what in God would be the like passion; not suffering, but the pure, richer melancholy of Heaven.



1: As an aside, is there any tradition of doing this for a saint other than the Blessed Virgin? Some saints had some pretty horrible sufferings.

2: I wouldn’t object the concept of some psychic transtemporal connection, but that’s hardly enough to explain the nature of present pain.

3: Dante reference!


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