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Eternal Well: My View of Heaven and Hell
So a man dies and finds himself in a small room that has a couch and a TV set. Theres another fellow sitting on the couch watching TV. The new arrival asks the man on the couch, "So is this is heaven or hell?"
The man looks up and says, "Well, theres no windows or doors, and no apparent way out."
"Oh," says the first guy. "So its hell?"
"Well," says the other guy, without looking up from the screen, "but they did give us a this nice big TV set."
"I see. So maybe its heaven?"
"Yeah, but the TV has only one channel."
"Oh, so maybe its hell?
"Oh, so maybe it is heaven after all?"
"Yes except for one thing " the other fellow says, sadly "Its ALWAYS pledge week."
Okay, thats a view of hell we can resonate with. Compare that with the classic sermon of Jonathan Edwards, preached during the Great Awakening in 1741, at the First Congregational Church in Enfield, Connecticut, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; and he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the Fire; and yet tis nothing but his Hand that holds you from falling into the Fire every Moment "
O Sinner! Consider the fearful Danger you are in: Tis a great Furnace of Wrath, a wide and bottomless Pit, full of the Fire of Wrath, that you are held over in the Hand of that God, whose Wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the Damned in Hell: You hang by a slender Thread, with the Flames of divine Wrath flashing about, and ready every Moment to singe it, and burn it asunder "
There you have two examples of hell, the fire of eternal physical pain, and Public Television during an endless pledge week - the eighteenth century, and the twenty-first century. According to a survey by U.S. News and World Report, more Americans believe in hell today than did in the 1950s or even ten years ago. No matter how enlightened we get, we carry within us a persistent sense that at some point there is a reckoning, there is divine justice.
Im talking about heaven and hell today because I believe that our deepest sense of who we are is in some way determined by where we believe we are going in the end. I dont believe that we should live so we will be rewarded and not be punished in the afterlife. Thats a "making a list, checking it twice" ethic that has never had impact for more than two weeks before Christmas at any age.
Our deepest decisions, our dreams and goals for life, the way we treat those we love and those we hate, go back to what kind of God we pray to. And the kind of God we pray to shapes our view of heaven and hell.
I find it interesting that Hebrew Scripture, what we call the Old Testament, says very little about hell. The dead, both good and the bad go to Sheol, a morally neutral place, to await a group resurrection. When Hebrew scriptures were translated to Greek in the second century, BCE, Sheol was translated into the Greek concept of Hades, still a place to wait for resurrection.
The final judgment for the wicked in Christian teaching was Gehenna, the name of the valley outside of Jerusalem where trash fires burned incessantly. English bibles tend to translate Sheol, Hades and Gehenna, interchangeably, as hell.
Sometimes Jesus talks about evil people being cast into a place of outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of death. But the early church did more to paint the vivid images of hell than Jesus did. Dantes Inferno, with its seven levels of punishment is probably the source of most pictures we carry of hell.
I think it is clear that the old images of hell as a fiery furnace dont make sense to us any more. They are not even biblical. Yet every age does develop its own way of understanding hell. Even in our modern era, among those of us who focus more on Gods love than on Gods wrath and punishment, there is a belief that at some level that we do indeed reap what we sow.
I believe this too. I believe that God is just, and that somewhere God balances the injustice that thrives in this world. But I also believe that God is love, redeeming us all. So how can the two go together? If there is a heaven and hell in eternity, how does God, who makes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust and sends the rain on the good and evil alike, fix the final dividing line? So Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Theresa are way over on the top side of heaven and Adolf Hitler and Eichmann are way down in the deep end of hell. But what about all those people, like us for example, right near the middle?
I keep thinking of that thin line that divides heaven and hell. Dividing lines have always bothered me. That one point makes the difference between an A and a B. Or the person with 1000 on the SAT gets into the college of choice. The candidate with 999 does not. It doesnt matter where you draw the line; every line comes down to one point that separates those who are in from those who are out.
So if heavens here and hell is there, how does a loving God draw the line between them and still love? And if theres no line, how is God just?
Heres how I think it might just work. Imagine for a moment going to a classical music concert. Those who have studied music, collected recordings of your favorite classics, and learned to lose yourself in Mozart would experience this concert as heaven. Those of you who turn off public radio as quickly as possible after the news ends and the music begins would find it hell. Those of you who dont even turn on public radio ever would find it the deepest pit of hell. Then there would be many others who would be sort of in the middle, liking some classical music, but not thrilled with a whole concert.
Im not saying heaven and hell are classic music. Thats just a metaphor, an example. You could substitute rock music, ballet, a football game, or any other intense experience that you either love or hate. My point is that heaven and hell are one place. Heaven is a new plane of existence, and in that existence, unlike this life, love is the dominant value. Love rules.
So if you move into an existence for which you have prepared yourself by living all the qualities of loves gifts- honesty, faithfulness, gentleness, forgiveness, kindness, friendship, healing, sharing and the like it will be heaven. If on the other hand you have lived all that is opposite of love deceit, cruelty, stubborn grudges, isolation, abandonment, greed, and the like - it will be hell. For those whose lives are a mixture of both, which is probably most of us, eternity will be a mixture of heaven and hell. And here the third element comes in to play. Eternity is a place where we grow and learn. Gods will in eternity remains our wholeness and healing.
In this eternity, where good has indeed triumphed over evil, Gods mercy and justice meet.
St. John the Divine, the legendary author of the book of Revelation says, in the new heaven "there will be no more tears I make all things new."
This is how this idea of heaven works for me in life. On the mens overnight, we talked about our grandfathers. Some of us knew our grandfathers. Others only heard stories. And those grandfathers were a motley crew, some downright mean, some mixed up, and others who were sheer blessings. My fathers father, from all the stories I have heard, was a talented and bright man who was crushed by loss from his immigration to this country, to farming in Kansas through the depression and the dust bowl. He became hard, and I dont think he was kind to my father. In contrast, my mothers father, though strict, was clearly a man of compassion.
At our communion that night of the mens retreat, we summoned up the spirit of our grandfathers. I had this strong sense that ancestors who had been dead twenty, forty, sixty or more years had indeed gone through healing in eternity. They were now part of our communion of saints. The old things were no more. I had a strong sense that my fathers father, with all his cruelty and meanness, had not been sentenced to eternal hell. I had a sense that he had joined my mothers father, who already knew kindness and compassion on this earth. They were both surrounding me in that moment. I felt that some of my fathers pain, in his distance from his own father, was being healed.
With this picture of all of them together, I sensed that in Gods community of love our relationship with those who have died, changes. As the book of Revelation says, the old things pass away. Wrong is not sloughed over or denied. Nor are wrongdoers forever on the hellish side of the fence. All are changed.
This to me makes sense. In eternity, love and justice meet, shake hands. Oh heck, they hug and kiss. What is true in eternity guides us also in life.
I have one PS here.
This sense of Gods justice and love meeting in one place in heaven helped me understand one verse of scripture that has always confused me. It is from one of the most eloquent passages on love in Pauls letter to the Romans chapter 12. The chapter ends with this plea, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; (and heres the key statement) for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads."
That idea of loving someone to make them burn always seemed a little contradictory to me. But I think it is a glimpse of heaven. Where love prevails, its like burning coals of hell for one who has lived by cruelty. Love is like a refining fire, because it ultimately burns through hate and produces love again. I feel that happened for my grandfather. I think its how heaven works. And I think its a lesson for all of us to begin learning here on earth.
O God you bring us into this world, in birth, from who knows where. We cry out in confusion. We have no idea what to expect. And here is our life.
O God, you give us children, from who knows where. We bring them to birth. We have no idea what to expect, and here is another life.
O God, you give us death, from who knows where. We have no idea what to expect. And this is just the point. Here is another life. You call to us from the other side through all the holy people of all faiths, begging us to believe, that like our first birth, there is a new life coming.
So we simply pray, for glimpses of heaven. And more we pray that these glimpses of heaven will change the way we life here.