Living in a Crowded Heaven


There is an old joke in which some member of some religious group, dies and goes to heaven. He passes by various rooms and is told who is there. When he comes to one particular room he is told to be very quiet for he is not to disturb those in that room. When the newly deceased asks, “Why?” the response is: “They think they’re the only ones here.”

You can fill in the name of various groups and the joke still works. There are problems, at least as we conceive things, of living in a crowded heaven.

But the very disturbing truth is that we already live in a very crowded heaven. We should not make such strong distinctions between the life we now live and the life we shall live. To do so can be very misleading. The difference may be qualitative, in some important senses, but not qualitative in others.

To love God now is already to anticipate the joys of heaven – for though the veil will be removed and we shall “know Him even as we are known,” that knowledge will not have a radical discontinuity with the knowledge we now have. And so I write of a crowded heaven.

The disciples once asked Jesus:

Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them, “Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able” (Luke 13:23-24).

There is here no answer to the quantitative question, only an admonition to “strive to enter in at the narrow gate.” The difficulty with heaven now, in the diminished manner that we experience it, lies not in its diminished quality, but in the company we are asked to keep. If you had the ability to say who would not be allowed in heaven, who would you put on the list?

This is a revealing question, telling us nothing about other people, but much about the state of our own heart. Whose presence in heaven would change heaven into hell for us? Again, this tells us nothing about the state of the person whose presence we abhor, but much about the state of a heart that so abhors the presence of another.

If the presence of such persons is unthinkable to us now, how will be bear their presence later? Are we to assume that God will have fixed all those people such that they will no longer be abhorable? Or are we to assume that God will have fixed us such that we will no longer abhor others? And what if it is the case that the only problem that truly exists in many cases is not the other person but our willingness to so abhor others?

All such questions bring us to the proper question: how will we endure a crowded heaven?

The appropriateness of such a question is the sure testimony of Scripture that relates the image of God in heaven only as a God who rules in a crowd. He is the Lord God of Sabbaoth (“hosts” – let’s say “crowds”). What are we to do with a God who so loves those whom we hate? What do you do with a God who loves Hitler as much as He loves you? What kind of God can do such a thing and do you want a relationship with Him?

All of which brings us to proper questions about ourselves and our spiritual life. The commandments to forgive our enemies and to love our neighbors are so much more than God wanting us to be nice and get along with each other. It may be a matter of heaven and hell. Sometimes it may be the only difference between heaven and hell.

And thus it is that Christianity inherently involves Church. There is no salvation as a Christian that is simply between us and God, because the immediate question and commandment given to us as Christians always directs us to our neighbors. The Church is perhaps one of the lesser tests of the love of neighbor. Here we are keeping company with those who, on some level, believe as we do. Like those outside the Church they come complete with personalities and issues that we will either like or dislike. We love many people for the wrong reason in the wrong way, and dislike others for the wrong reason in the wrong way. But from the very inception of our relationship with God through Christ we are confronted with “the crowd.” There is no relationship with God that excludes anyone else.

The greatest of our spiritual battles will always be with these crowded relationships. We are created for love by a God “who is love.” And thus the Christian faith is a crowded faith. Ours is a sociological mysticism if you will allow me to coin a phrase. There is no private mysticism, no private relationship, no God apart from His creation. The desire to have such a relationship is demonic in its essence. Lucifer wanted to be like God (if you will, he was very religious). But he wanted such a divine aspiration at the expense of God Himself and certainly at the expense of creation. Thus Scripture calls him a “murderer from the beginning.” We would do well to remember that the demons are quite religious (almost by definition) but they hate God and His creation.

There is a legend among the stories of Orthodoxy that when God was sharing His plan to the angels in the councils of heaven, the sight of the Theotokos, and the glory given to her, was the occasion of Lucifer’s first anger. The thought of mere mud being exalted to such a place: “more glorious than the cherubim and beyond compare than the seraphim.” All of this was unbearable to his pride. The crowd of heaven could not include humanity in such an exalted position.

There is much of the same attitude to be found in the Pharisees and their judgment of Publicans and harlots. There is very much of the same attitude to be found in us towards – well – fill in the blank. Thus we are called not only to love God and to forgive our enemies but to refrain from judging everyone. These are not only “moral” commandments, but are descriptions of the very heart of salvation itself. If they are not present, then we are not doing well spiritually, whatever else we may think. And their presence in many whom we would consider unfit for heaven is a testament of judgment against us.

It’s a crowd. By the grace of God, get used to it. If it is a problem go to confession and pray.

But do not despair. Most of us in the crowd are wrestling with the same thing.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.






12 responses to “Living in a Crowded Heaven”

  1. Meg Avatar

    As I grow older I think about this kind of thing more and more. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    On this Ancestor Sunday I rejoice to think that heaven is crowded with those faithful who have gone before!

  3. Ezekiel Avatar

    I was thinking of such things this morning in Divine Liturgy. It was “crowded” in spite of the fact that the weather here (or whatever) kept many from attending.

  4. kevinburt Avatar

    Wonderful! Thank you, Father! You have mentioned once or twice the Stone-Campbell movement (Churches of Christ) on your blog, which is my heritage. Though mostly wonderful people, there is an underlying problem of what could be called “righteousness by dissociation.” Point out the sins and wrongs of the other for long enough, and I begin to look all the more righteous. Orthodoxy has taught me to refrain from judging, to be at peace in this “crowded” church. I imagine others have been forced to learn that, too, when they see me…

    Thanks again,
    Thomas Kevin

  5. fatherstephen Avatar


    There was a rumor of snow in East Tennessee. Such storms can close stores, schools, churches (not Orthodox) and make bread and milk futures to soar.

    Last February I was guest preacher for the Sunday of Orthodoxy in Minneapolis. Saturday night, there was 20 inches of snow. But, next morning, my ride was waiting outside the hotel. The liturgy was a little light at first, but faithful kept showing up (we put the sermon at the end to help a bit). By that evening the Cathedral had a good sized congregation. Of course, Minneapolis is flat and East Tennessee is not, thus snow is a different event. But, I must admit, they really impressed me with their heartiness.

  6. David Avatar

    There is only one person I’d put on that list. Me.

    Sometimes when I read Paul in Romans about how he’d give up salvation if Israel would repent, I can almost taste the dust he’s stirring off the floor pacing back and forth.

    I delayed my looking into Orthodoxy so that I could continue to try to save a dying church of Christ in my town. People that I love. They are part of a dying movement (oh I’m sure that churches with that name will be around for some long time, but few are apart of that idea anymore).

    Some days I think I’m a selfish man for inquiring into Orthodoxy, but I realized that I can’t fix their problems for them. Even if they took my advice, well, advice is dangerous even from the wise to the wise (and I’m not wise).

  7. Pastor Chad Avatar

    Thank you for this post. It is good to be reminded of our commonalities as we all too often focus on our differences. Sometimes I wonder why God has created so much variety. I think it is his greatest tool of sanctification. When we learn to live in the rich variety he has gifted us, we learn more about the people God is creating us to be.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Pastor Chad,

    I willing to say that certain diversities are because of sin, etc. (denominationalism) but that what God does with another man, and the state of his heart, I cannot know, and am commanded to love and forgive, anyway. Though I have an obedience to teach the Orthodox faith and defend it. But that teaching and obedience are not a license to condemn another to hell. May God be merciful to all, especially to a sinner like me.

  9. John Avatar

    This post is simply wonderful. Thank you, Fr. Stephen. I particularly like this: “There is no salvation as a Christian that is simply between us and God, because the immediate question and commandment given to us as Christians always directs us to our neighbors.”

    I had to laugh at your joke–that is the old joke that, back in the day, the Baptists always told about us Church of Christ-types. I always saw the humor in it, as it poked holes in our unwarranted presumptions. My father-in-law, a CoC preacher, decidedly did NOT think it funny!

  10. Samuel Laurence Guzman Avatar

    Hi Father Stephen:
    I just discovered your blog. I am not on the same page as you theologically. I will say that immediately. However, I share your belief that souls from many denominations will be in heaven praising God. I believe that before the throne there will be saints from every “people, tongue, tribe, nation, and denomination.” What is the common bond? A common love for the Lord and a faith in his Son, Jesus Christ, whom he has chosen as the mediator between God and man.

  11. ochlophobist Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    On behalf of all ochlophobists I have to ask for a semantic clarification. The OED lists several (noun) definitions of the word “crowd.” The third is “the people who throng the streets and populous centres; the masses; the multitude.” The first, however, is “a large number of persons gathered so closely together as to press upon or impede each other; a throng; a dense multitude.”

    That first definition conveys something of the determinism which I believe infects “crowd culture” and “mass culture” today. Modern technologies and the ubiquitous presence of media allow “the crowd” to press upon the human psyche in a manner and to a degree previously unknown. One might say that the contemporary process of politics in America is so based on pop marketing (crowd culture and forms) that it impedes the ability of persons to act as persons in the political process. Thus we have so many politicians who believe what their marketers tell them to believe, and voters who vote for reasons they are not even aware of.

    Thus when I think of the word “crowd” I think of social phenomena that is anti-personal, that causes a person to forget himself in a bad way. But this, in my mind, has nothing to do with numbers. Let us say that a given region becomes Orthodox and the churches are all full and thriving. That can happen and yet there is no sense of the Church being based in popularity or crowd culture. But there could also be a context in which a Christian group makes up 15% of a culture but is very much popular and crowd culture based – say, Willow Creek style seeker sensitive mega-churches.

    In heaven, there will be no sense that one is impeded by another or pressed in a manner which denies human freedom. I assume that when you speak of heaven being crowded you speak in the manner of one who might refer to the dinner table of a family with 14 kids as crowded. There is no individuality, but there is also not the anonymity of the modern crowd. One is a brother or a sister, a son or a daughter, even if in the company of so many others.

    Your post also brings to mind something I have been thinking of lately. It seems to me that Orthodoxy is simply contrary to much of contemporary norms of living (as, I imagine, it has been contrary to normative forms of living in the past). There are many aspects of modern life that I find simply irreconcilable with Orthodoxy. But, it seems to me, Orthodoxy is at the same time decidedly not separatist. It is not Amish with icons, believing the true faith in the hills while the rest of the world is left to go to hell. We have certain strands of this in Orthodoxy, broadly speaking, (Old Believers, certain extreme fringe groups, etc.), but it is not a proper Orthodox sentiment. It seems to me that, from an Orthodox perspective, it is too easy and too given to spiritual delusion to run away from confrontation with the world and seek some religious utopia through separation for separation’s sake.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar


    In light of your nuanced treatment of the word “crowd”, I’m sure heaven will be filled with Ocholophobists. 🙂 Surely, not a rabble, or a group milling about whose name you do not know. Forgive my choice of “crowd” as a manner of translating “Sabbaoth.” It’s a bit of “preachers license” in order to make a small point. Of course, if crowd carried its negative meanings, there would be no crowd at all. Pherhaps the crowd must undergo the work of salvation so that it may attain to the status of Sabbaoth. That would be correct, I think. Many blessings!

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