Some of my recent free study has been directed at the study of heaven and hell. So, my plan is to right a series of posts exploring some what heaven and hell are, and possibly more importantly, what effect, if any, they will have on the way we currently live our lives. A few years ago, I was a part of a basketball program who used as a motto for the year, “Live with the end in sight,” which, of course, was in reference to a shot at playing for the national championship. What’s the telos, the goal, that we are living for in the end? That’s why our views of heaven and hell and the afterlife are things we must contemplate.
Typically, our view of heaven has been a place with streets covered in jewels, up in the clouds, with brights lights, everybody singing to God, with no tears, no death, just joy. Heaven is somewhere ‘up there’ wherever ‘up there’ is. It is the place where Christians go when we die after having lived a good life. On the other hand, we commonly view hell as a place of fire, of gnashing of teeth, of a little diabolical figure with a trident running around somewhere ‘down there’ (once again, wherever ‘down there’ may be referring to). But what if heaven or hell are not heaven and hell because of some physical location they may hold or certain characteristics that they contain? What if heaven and hell are made heaven and hell because of the presence (or lack of presence) of a certain being? What I am trying to get at can probably be summed up in a couple of succinct sentences:
Heaven is where the presence of God abides. Hell is the absence of God.
Thus, heaven is not heaven because of the clouds, or the jewel-laden streets or even because St. Peter stands at the gate. Heaven is not heaven because it is a safe-haven for Christians or because it is a Christian’s reward at the end of a good life. Heaven is not heaven because there is not death or because there are no tears or because it is everlasting. Heaven is heaven simply because the presence of God is there. In a similar fashion, hell is hell not because of the flames, or because it is the dwelling place of sinners after death, or because of the little red-figure frolicking about. Hell is hell because it is the absence of God.
In ancient Jewish thought, heaven was not some distant destination we travel to after we die. It was where God and earth intersected. Divinity meeting his (or her) creation. Heaven was and is where God is. A common adage utilized in war-torn or poverty-ridden areas is that they are ‘living hells’. Hope has been lost. But more significantly, God has been lost in the wreckage, in the devastation. Hell can be a place on earth. We see it all the time (well, maybe not us in America, especially those of us who come from middle-class, Midwestern America), but it does cover the news. But there are also times when we see glimpses of heaven here on earth. We see joy and unity and peace. Thus, heaven and hell are not just travel destinations into the next life. Because if heaven is seen as the place where God is and hell as the place where God is not, heaven and hell can and do exist here on earth.