Heaven and Hell

Is there anything in Christianity more clearly the invention of human imagination than Heaven? I mean, come on. Streets of gold, mansions for everyone, up in the clouds, wings and harps, fluffy angels, meeting all of your loved ones, an eternal orgasm, spending eternity playing shuffleboard with Jesus…it looks so much like all of our petty desires made eternal. Its just like our physical life now, but you get a perfect body and all of your problems go away and you just get to do whatever you want forever. Its beautiful beyond compare, but really, if we’re honest, not at all transcendent. Its just taking the things we love about this life, this world, and extending them in the fourth dimension as far as we can imagine.

What we forget is the source of the joys here in life. Beauty is meaningful because it isn’t ever-present – it is beautiful because it stands out from the mundane. It reaches toward the sublime because so much of life just…doesn’t. Mansions are nice to have because they aren’t the norm. Other people don’t have them, so you can feel superior to them in your little heart of hearts, and if you didn’t grow up in one, its really exciting to move up in the world. If you did grow up in one, then its just what is familliar, what you’ve been taught to believe you somehow deserve.

Can you really imagine spending, say, a hundred years in Heaven? A thousand? A million? Of course not. We take the pleasures of this life, the ones we aren’t ashamed of at least (no liquor or gambling or drugs up there), and just pretend like we’d want to experience them forever, without any respite or differentiation. Heaven as an afterlife is clearly not God’s idea. Its grandiose wish-fulfillment on our part, a way of dealing with the world as we experience it – ugly, briefly known, painful, unjust.

Heaven is the measure of our hope, and it really leaves something to be desired.

And then there’s Hell. I won’t hesitate to say that a God who prepares Hell as an eternal tormen for sinners is a monstrous God who deserves contempt and should be resisted and not worshipped. That God is a sick, evil overlord. I mean, Hitler did some awful things to people, but at least those things eventually ended in death. Hell is worse than a gas-chamber or a furnace, and there is no end to it. I think if you preach an eternal Hell, you preach a monstrosity.

Right now, there is so much suffering in the world. It is impossible to contemplate. More people than I can ever meet personally are enduring suffering like I cannot even imagine. Hundreds of millions are hungry, and I get weak if I skip a few meals. Billions have no clean water, and I take Pepto-Bismol for my tummy aches. Many of the people on Earth at any given time will suffer most of their lives and die in a state of oppression from which there is no hope of escape. Just trying to think about this aspect of the world is enough to grind all of my thoughts to a halt, to stop my heart for a moment beneath the weight of it.

***

And if you think you have nothing to do with that, you’re kidding yourself. Keep paying taxes, keep participating in an economic system founded on externalizing suffering, (white guys) keep earning more than women and minorities in your position will earn for the same job, keep voting for the next in an endless parade of worthless, vapid, corrupt politicians who are the servants of billionaires and special interests who have nothing to do with what is right, what is just, what is merciful, or the common good.

We have all the Hell we’ll ever need right here on Earth. We create it over and over again, in every time and place, blindly replicating the villainy and wretchedness of past generations. You can spend every moment of your life fighting it and die poor, tired, and defeated. Better people than me have done so throughout history.

Hell is the measure of our humanity, and it is a terrible mirror to find oneself reflected in.

3 thoughts on “Heaven and Hell

  1. This is the most moving and eloquent prose I have read of yours yet. Great, I mean, great material here for the first half of a sermon.However, you certainly can’t end it where you did. Not because everything has to have a Hollywood happy-ending. Not to turn religion into an opiate, but because where you’ve ended is absolutely grace-free. That isn’t a problem with this posting. We can all be realists from time to time, but Christianity is about finding the sublime amidst the shit.So I’d love to see a second posting where you reverse what you’ve said in a way you find meaningful… what’s the good news, here?

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  2. The Bible doesn’t actually say we’ll all go to Heaven, though. The actual promise is a new heaven and a new earth, yeah? I’ve always liked C.S. Lewis’s take on the subject (as best illustrated in ‘The Great Divorce’). Where hell is not so much a place God sentences people to, but almost, at the risk of treading very close to heresy, a state of mind, and that if you cannot give up even your most cherished treasures of hell, you shall not see heaven. In any case, whatever ‘heaven’ may be, I am sure it is more than we think it is. Surely a heavenly existence is more interesting than what we imagine it to be, more interesting than golden streets and grand celebrations. And, “if there are pains in heaven, if we understood them, we would all desire them.”

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