The infamous B52’s (no, not the bomber) had a song on one of their first albums entitled, “53 Miles West of Venus.” Frankly, it’s not much of a song, even though I liked it. As a tune, it is raw but simple rock-n-roll, a very basic example of the early B52's punk genre. It is mainly an instrumental, and the only lyric in the song is that of the title, “fifty-three miles west of Venus.” Interestingly, I often think of that song when I hear people talking about human spirits – the spirits of the human dead. I’ve even begun to use that concept - of being fifty-three miles west of Venus - in my lectures and teaching on the subject of the afterlife, as an object lesson for the mistake that I believe many make: that of mistaking “state” with “place.”
Obviously then, as a disembodied soul the human now exists in a “state,” not in a place. It is a physical body that occupies space or place - as it indeed does in this world in the here and now. A spiritual "body" (better said to be "an entity"), such as an angel, demon, or the spirit of a dead person, exists rather in a state. These entities do not occupy space. As exorcist and hagiographer Father Jose Antonio Fortea has said, it also does not mean that they are in some other physical dimension. Fortea says, “They are not anywhere. They exist, but they are not “here” or “there” in a physical sense.”
I agree. I further agree with Fortea’s conception that spirits (angels and demons) are properly said to be in a place when it acts in that place. If a human spirit manifests over by the door, then that is where that human spirit is at that point, in the state of being that it happens to be in – a deceased human soul/spirit who has left its physical body and exists in a non-material state and happens to be over by the door in that particular moment in time and space. It also, in the case of a deceased human spirit, is either in a blessed state (bound for heaven) or in an unblessed state and bound for hell. Another way of putting it, in a Roman Catholic sense, is that the soul is either in a state of grace when it dies or it is not (the particular judgment - Catholics will know what I am talking about here). The Catholic Church teaches, and I believe, that one day, Christ will return again and the blessed in Christ (those that died in a state of grace) will receive a new body – a resurrected body at the Last Judgment– and at that point will once again be united with a material - physical human body. Then, at that time, those persons who receive such a body, will exist in the new heaven and the new earth and have geographical locality in a “concrete place.” In other words, they will occupy a place. But, that is then, in the meantime, they exist in a state of being - not in a place of being.
The catechism of the Church states that heaven, hell, and purgatory exist now only as states of being (see CCC 650, 1005). In the eschaton, after the Last Judgment, heaven and hell will be physical, material realities, but not until then. This fact escapes even many Christians, and thus, we fall into error when trying to understand or explain the afterlife (and manifestation of the afterlife into our present physical - material reality). As it is, the dead are all around us, in the state of being alive, but not in a physical sense. I love what one Church Father once said (I’m sorry but I can’t recall his name): “All who ever lived, are still alive.” We die physically, but we live on, just not like before. So, these humans live on in either a state of grace or not. Also, as a Catholic who believes in purgatory, I believe that some exist in a third state, a purgatorial state. Technically, purgatory is a part of that group of people who have died in a state of grace, just not in the fullness of grace. This is because they, while not evil, are not yet perfected in the sense that they can immediately enjoy God's closeness upon death. Their souls have to be refined more - perfected - before they can enjoy His close presence. Those in this state of purgation are people who will one day end up in heaven but first have some work to do in their spirit/souls in order to be holy enough to enter into the very presence of God. In other words, they are in the state of purgatory.
So, when a person dies in a state of grace and is blessed (like Grandma, for example) she exists in the "state" of paradise. That is "where" Grandma is right now - in a state, not a place. Later, after Christ's return, she will have a resurrected physical body and exist in and on a new earth and a new heaven. If Uncle Bill believed in God but really didn't live quite right - had committed no mortal sin but plenty of venial ones - he exists in a "state" of purgatory right now, but one day like Grandma will be in heaven with a resurrected body. Stalin and Hitler will one day be "in" hell (assuming they died without conversion). Right now they are said to be in a "state" of sheol, or hades.
Heaven and hell, biblically, are much more relational concepts than geographical or locational ones. Again, we have traded a state of relationship for a cheaper, reductive place of gaudy physicality. How tragic and absurd. For an example of what I am talking about, read Christ's prayer to the Father in John 17, which includes, "...this is eternal life: that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." Notice he did NOT say that eternal life was Graceland times 1000 - a place with gold faucets and an awesome jungle room and streets of alabaster...no, rather than some gaudy place or location, he describes eternal life as knowing the Father and the Son...as a close, intimate relationship with Himself and the Father. In the Greek, the word for "knowing" that he uses here is genosko - to know experientially and closely, not just a head knowing. There is another word for knowing in the sense of knowing data, such as "I know the Great Wall of China exists because I was told that." In contrast, genosko is a knowing like you grew up right beside it, played on it every day and crawled all over it or even help build it, so you know every nook and cranny of it - you don't just "know" it as a piece of information in your head as data...you truly know it. To know Christ and the Father that way, and them to know you that way, is truly relational, intimate and "paradise." That is what eternal life is.
The bottom line, as human beings our physical bodies die and what is left - our spirit and soul - enters a state of existence wherein we are still "alive" - just not in the physical sense. The dead are simply wherever they are, and that can be anywhere. This does not mean that those who are dead in Christ are not happy, or in a state of grace with Christ - they are - they are just not located and tied down to some specific location. The same is true for those in purgatory or hades. Sometimes, they are very close by and we catch “glimpses” and “evidences” of them – whether it is a sound, a slight touch, a smell, an intuitive impression that cuts through the chatter of the mundane…or for those of us who are most lucky and blessed, it is allowed for us to actually see them.
Grandma is not “53 miles west of Venus”...she may be right beside you.
The Holy Bible, RSV Catholic Version
The Catechism of the Catholic Church
Interview with an Exorcist, by Jose Antonio Fortea