Hell and Heaven

This post is long – experience shows it is much less likely to be read as a result. If you do find your way to the end I hope you enjoy the experience. If not I am none the wiser 🙂

I believe in both Heaven and Hell. I recently had reason to re-evaluate my perspective. Two things happened to cause this re-evaluation. One was reading the blog of a kindred (I believe) spirit at evangelicaliberal and the other was a discussion at the men’s breakfast meeting I attend at my church where someone raised a question about the group’s primarily Calvinistic perspective on Hell.

In a nutshell the question is: “Why would a loving God create a system that consigned the majority of his creatures to endless agonizing torment?” The popular road leads to destruction, but the path is narrow to life and only a few find it (Matt 17:13-14). Add that He chooses us and, as Paul rhetorically writes in Romans 9:19, “who has resisted his will”, then it might seem like our “loving God” is a bit of a bastard (no reference to his paternity 😉

The other tulips in the room were quick to point out that part of being God is that He gets to make that call, and I wholeheartedly agree. Still I also agree that His nature is not malicious, mean-spirited or unfair. In fact for heaven to be what I believe it is He can be none of those things. So how can this be?

What follows is my rationale, a way for me to understand the quandary and the meaning of these things. If you want a theologically comprehensive or complete perspective you need to look elsewhere.

You’ve got no friends in Hell

Some people have said they would rather go to hell with their friends than sit on a cloud in heaven. I don’t think those folks have any understanding of what hell might be. Leaving aside the question of forever I don’t imagine it as the kind of place I would want to spend any time at all in. I think of hell as the place where there is no care, concern, compassion, hope, love, peace, contentment, joy, communion. In short none of the characteristics that make life in this world bearable, what the bible refers to as salt. The essential description of hell in my mind is selfish. I found the depiction of hell in the movie What Dreams May Come to be consistent with my mental imagery. A place that was crammed with people so wrapped up in their own misery they were virtually alone.

The theme of spiritual life is consistent in all the great religions. The Hindu knows that “the self is too small an object for perpetual enthusiasm”. The Buddha teaches in the third noble truth that we must be “released from the narrow limits of self-interest into the vast expanse of universal life”. Confucius taught men to esteem each other through the principle of Jen – goodness, benevolence and love. The Taoist learns that to truly understand the fullness of what the self might be we must “reverse all self-seeking”. The Jew, Christian and Muslim share the same religious ancestry which teaches to Love God and your neighbor as yourself.

It is a universal principle that spiritual awareness, spiritual life, requires the soul to move beyond the limitations of the self. As Christ said in Luke 17:33 you must loose your life to keep it.

I believe hell is a choice we make to hold onto our self above all else. There can be only one Omni-being, God cannot remain God and abdicate His throne to us. There are several passages where Christ teaches that if our hand causes us to stumble we should cut it off rather than be thrown into hell whole. This puts me in mind of a monkey trap. Hell is where we must be consigned if we cannot let go of the equality with God promised by the serpent in the Garden. It isn’t so much we are thrown into hell as that we won’t let go of that part which cannot remain in His presence.

It seems to me that if our love of God and our fellow man is to be genuine it may not be coerced but must flow willingly from our soul. We must give up our selfish life to have the capacity for Love. The misery of the possibility of that capacity is that we may choose not to let it flow. God is not responsible for this and is far more grieved than we could ever be by those choices. If we cannot be forced into Heaven then the only place left in eternity is Not Heaven and if Heaven includes the fullness of God and His presence then Not Heaven is the absence of those characteristics. All that is left of life, when the things that make it livable are removed, is the self. What is important to see is that the torment here is not mean spirited punishment but the only possible consequence of the absence of God (the salt of the Holy Spirit). This is hell and its misery is as unfathomable and unrelenting as our own selfish nature, but no one ends up there by accident.

The arguments for choice and predestination fill centuries of discourse. It seems easy enough to my simple mind that God must provide the opportunity and we must take it. It also seems the height of folly to assume that because we accept the gift we are somehow better than our companion who does not (beyond of course the gift itself). Maybe Chevy Chase was right when he said, “Its a floor wax and a desert topping.”

The question of eternal awareness in this condition remains. I cannot answer that question but I can imagine that to create a being with the capacity for heaven also requires that capacity to continue regardless of circumstance. Some rubbish when burned maintains chemical associations if the energy of the fire cannot overcome those chemical bonds. This idea of continuance is also a universal echo in men’s insight of the divine.

Heaven is not boring

I have heard people say they can’t imagine sitting on a cloud all day playing a harp, that it sounds more like a description of hell to them. I believe it is a description of hell because the object of focus is the person sitting on the cloud. When we love we are never the focus of our interest, it is the other participant in the experience that our interest and focus are centered on.

As Christians we know when we experience the presence of God, and no matter how often or how small a glimpse we get it is both completely and never enough. Sensing God’s love defies our ability to express it. It is simultaneously exhilarating and sublime. All of the genuine love, care and concern we give or get in this world is a shadow of the fullness of His presence. That is the overwhelming joy of heaven (IMO).

Will that be enough for eternity? Are we doomed to experience in heaven the erosion of our infatuation as we do on earth?

My answer is to remind us that Hope is one of the three eternal gifts. Hope is anticipation, expectation, life. Hope is the promise of good to be revealed. In short God is bigger, richer and more complex than anything we can comprehend now, and it will take eternity for the fullness of His love to be experienced. We will not grow tired or weary of His presence because He is life itself. Everything we experience in this world that is truly satisfying is an echo of His love. The sum of the experiences of all humanity in the divine presence are just the beginning, and we will continue to have that Hope for eternity.

Lets revisit Chaos Theory for those who may have read the post Fractals and Faith. One of the beauties of Chaos Theory is that simple deterministic systems (i.e. a small set of equations) are capable of producing infinite complexity. In simple terms they never return the same result, they never repeat. Heaven is not boring because the nature of God as revealed in his creation is not boring. Heaven is full of life.

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