A popular image of heaven as a place in the clouds is an image disputed by popular theology.
A popular image of heaven as a place in the clouds is an image disputed by popular theology.

Heaven is a place of angels and clouds, Hell a place of demons and fire. At least, that's what we think of when we think of those places. The theological facets are quite different than these conceptions though. We're going to explore the Catholic teachings on the matter.

Literalism Defined

This may boil down to semantics, but to address the question -- yes, heaven and hell are quite literal in the Catholic Catechism as states designated for those who have accepted God's love and those who have turned away from him. Both states are determined to be eternal -- that is, everlasting life or everlasting damnation. And heaven is regarded as a place. But it is not a place in our traditional thinking, as it sits outside time and space. However, theologically, the Church has distanced itself from the idea of our respective visions of each.

What is Heaven?

So if heaven isn't clouds, harps and angels, then what is it according to Catholicism? Oftentimes, the viewpoint is taken that it's all but impossible to know what Heaven is actually like until we enter there. However, generally, the past few popes have asserted that heaven is the state of being with God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it as a "communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed" and "true happiness." Pope John Paul II refined this, stating that it is a full communion with God, while his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, stated that it is a place within God.

What is Hell?

Nowhere in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is it stated that Satan is the ruler of hell. If the Catholic Church views heaven as communion with God, they equally view hell as permanent removal from him. The Catechism defines it as a "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed," a revision most recently made in 1999. Rather than a place of punishment by outside forces, it is seen as a state of self-punishment. John Paul II further said it is not a place, but that state of complete removal from God, done willfully by the sinner.

Where Did the Images Come From?

What we call "hell" is more accurately called "Gehenna," a place Jesus refers to as an "unquenchable fire" in Mark 9:43. However, this was regarded in John Paul II's address on the afterlife as figurative, rather than literal. Works like Dante Algheri's "The Divine Comedy" and John Milton's "The Paradise Lost" further built the mythos of hell, describing it as a place of fallen angels -- including Lucifer. Likewise, images of heaven are often drawn from art rather than theology.