There was a very popular tale in ancient times that St. John the Evangelist was assumed bodily into heaven, not merely in the manner of Elijah and Enoch, but after the fashion of Mary. Many believed that St. John’s body was glorified, being perfectly united to his beatified soul, and enjoying the bliss of heaven proper.
St. Augustine had spoken against this myth in his Tractates on the Gospel according to John, but the legend of the assumption of John had persisted even into the fourteenth century, so that Dante also felt the need to correct the myth in his Divine Comedy.
The confusion arises from our Lord’s discussion about the Beloved Disciple with St. Peter in John 21:20-23, specifically, “Jesus saith to him: ‘So I will have him to remain till I come, what is it to thee? Follow thou me.’ This saying therefore went abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die. And Jesus did not say to him: ‘He should not die;’ but, ‘So I will have him remain till I come, what is it to thee?’”
St. John’s appearance in the Divine Comedy
From Canto XXV of the Paradiso: When Dante has finished speaking with St. James, he receives the vision of St. John the Evangelist. Beatrice introduces the Beloved, then the Disciple speaks for himself.
“This is the one who lay upon the breast
Of him our Pelican; and this is he
To the great office from the cross elected.”
My Lady thus; but therefore none the more
Did move her sight from its attentive gaze
Before or afterward these words of hers.
Even as a man who gazes, and endeavours
To see the eclipsing of the sun a little,
And who, by seeing, sightless doth become,
So I became before that latest fire,
While it was said, “Why dost thou daze thyself
To see a thing which here hath no existence?
Earth in the earth my body is, and shall be
With all the others there, until our number
With the eternal position tallies.
With the two garments in the blessed cloister
Are the two lights alone that have ascended:
And this shalt thou take back into your world.”
While Dante seeks to see the matter of John’s body passing in front of the glory of his soul – after the fashion of the moon eclipsing the sun – the Evangelist explains that his body is “earth in the earth” and that only his soul is in heaven. In other words, St. John is truly dead, his soul separated from his body – his body awaits the general resurrection. Moreover, St. John tells Dante that only two bodies are now in heaven, “the two lights alone that have ascended” – these, of course, are the bodies of Jesus and Mary. But what of Enoch and Elijah (and perhaps Moses)? We will discuss them at the end.
St. Augustine corrects the legend
In the 124th Tractate of his Commentary on John, St. Augustine discusses a similar legend about the Beloved Disciple. It seems that a myth had grown up according to which John was not really dead and had never really died, but was only asleep in his tomb – hence the Lord said, “So I will have him remain till I come.” There was even a rumor, supported by what St. Augustine calls “not unreliable witnesses,” that the ground in Ephesus where St. John was buried would rise and fall as though someone were breathing, or even snoring.
In this final homily on John’s Gospel, St. Augustine insists that the Beloved Disciple has indeed died and that his body lies dead in the ground. What is also most interesting, St. Augustine discusses the question of Moses’ death as well – since many in his time, and not a few today even, held that Moses’ body was not dead in the ground but had been re-united to his soul. The principle text regarding the state of Moses body is the Transfiguration, since Moses seems to appear in his proper body to witness to the Christ. St. Augustine maintains Moses’ body was temporarily re-united to his soul, for the time of the apparition, but that it was separated again immediately afterward and returned to the dust (hence, Moses rose and died again). It is good to note, none have been so bold as to claim that either Moses’ body or Elijah’s have yet been glorified – I have written on this question here.
Tractate 124 is quite simply the greatest homily ever given on St. John’s Gospel – in it, St. Augustine contrasts the active and contemplative lives by comparing John and Peter. If you have not yet taken the opportunity to read it, you can find it here.
What about Enoch and Elijah?
The bodies of Enoch and Elijah have indeed been “taken up,” but they do not yet enjoy complete beatitude, they have not yet been glorified. If by “heaven,” we mean some place “up there” or “out there,” we can say that the bodies of Enoch and Elijah are “heaven” – meaning that they are not on this earth, but have been taken away to some other place, we know not where. However, when we speak of “heaven,” we usually mean the state of eternal bliss, complete union with God – in this sense, the bodies of Enoch and Elijah are not in heaven; only the bodies of Jesus and Mary are there. [as to the question of whether a body can be in heaven, since heaven is not primarily a place, please consider my earlier article on Mary’s Assumption – simply put, heaven is a place insofar as considered in relation to the two bodies of Jesus and Mary, but there is no “containing place” or “region” of heaven]
Both Enoch and Elijah enjoy beatitude of soul, hence we must admit that their soul’s are “in heaven,” insofar as they enjoy the vision of God. Nevertheless, though their souls are still united to their bodies – they have not yet died – their bodies do not enjoy the perfect beatitude which will be given in the resurrection of the dead. The bodies of Enoch and Elijah have not yet been glorified, this is a grace given only to Jesus and Mary. Thus, we say that Enoch and Elijah are in heaven in regard to their souls, but are in a sort of “paradise” in regard to their bodies.
Why did Jesus say that John would remain?
Jesus said this not as speaking of John in his proper person, but of the life which John symbolized – the contemplative life. The contemplative life (as opposed to the active life) will remain, for it is already a participation in the life of heaven. The active life, on the other hand, is of this world and will pass away together with this world. When we die, the active life ceases completely; but the contemplative life is brought to perfection in heaven. This is the interpretation given by St. Augustine, it was highly influential on St. Thomas’ discussion of the active and contemplative lives in ST II-II, qq.179-182.
St. John the Evangelist, pray for us!