Thursday, January 15, 2009

Heaven & Hell

Last night while I was waiting to fall back asleep after one of Maggie's wakings, I suddenly thought of something: heaven is going to be populated with human beings.

I know it seems obvious. But think about this: all my life I've kind of had this assumption that everything would be perfect in heaven. But how could it be, when it's all full of humankind? The Bible (if we go by that, which actually doesn't have that much hard data) talks about us getting new bodies that don't decay, but it doesn't say anything about new souls. If our souls are who we really are - and as near as I can tell they are fairly sick in this world - then will they instantly be healed, or will we have work to do in the afterlife? I mean, God is perfect, but why do we assume humans will be, even in God's presence?

I never read the Left Behind books (I got about 50 pages in the first one and had to stop for fear of losing my lunch), but I did scan the last page of the last novel, and I remember the characters were in heaven and were saying something about how their past differences didn't matter anymore in the light of God's love. I would hope that would be the case, but why are we so sure? Plus, in the novel's world I assume all the "sinners" have been destroyed by that point, so maybe all the Christians living together is assumed to be just perfect.

But wait just a damn minute - since when have Christians living together ever been able to get along?! I mean, even with Daddy God looking over our shoulders - literally - why do we think we'll suddenly be all sweetness and light to each other?

This all kind of arose because I was thinking about whether I'd continue to be sarcastic and snarky in my afterlife. Will we have the capacity to say hurtful things to one another, even innocently? How could we not - I mean, if we're not going to be puppet-mastered by God, then it seems like mistakes (if not outright sins) could still happen.

I'm totally flabbergasted by all of this. It's so against everything I've ever thought, yet it kind of seems possible. I'm not talking about direct defiance of God (although we have actual precedent for that taking place in heaven - see Lucifer's story), but just being our regular ol' broken messed up human selves. Is that possible in heaven? And if so, is it even heaven anymore?

Or I am so trapped in the idea that we cannot overcome our brokenness that I am neglecting the hope that, in the presence of God's love, we will perhaps instantly change into better people? Will the abundant life come easy? I do not know. I don't know who has thought about this stuff. I just don't quite believe that we would instantly change...even the change that is supposed to happen "in the blink of an eye" is physical, from what I understand, not psychological or spiritual. Or is it? Maybe I'm forgetting or missing something.

All this afterlife thought has come up because I came to a head with some relatives during Christmas about our differing conceptions of hell. As you may know, I'm not even sure I believe in hell, at least not as a literal place. I jive with CS Lewis' idea of it from The Great Divorce, that it's the turning-in-on-yourself of humans who cannot or will not accept God's love and therefore are doomed to myopic self-centeredness for eternity. I also love the image from an Orthodox church in Orange County, which has as its ceiling mosaic Christ the Judge in the center, with those on one side turning towards his glory with joy and awe on their faces, and those on the other side hiding their faces and grimacing in the presence of his love. I could see how being stuck with God for all eternity, if you didn't like God, would be a sort of hell. And I can see how being stuck with yourself could be hellish as well.

But the whole devils and fire thing just doesn't do it for me. I realize there are metaphors from Scripture that are (mis?)used (literally) to support these images. I just can't imagine that Matt Groening - or, God help us, Trey Parker & Matt Stone - have really given us the true picture.

Being a universalist - or at least an optimist (see also here) - I can really only conceive of hell (if it is necessary at all) as a kind of holding pen for those who aren't ready for God's presence yet, for whatever reason (their own or God's). And since I figure God's love, mercy, and patience are eternal, I have the optimistic view that everyone eventually will come around. I realize this is not orthodox. But I don't think it lessens the seriousness of sin, or the importance of God's sacrifice on the cross, or any of the other protestations people make about why hell is important.

Anyway, I was going to write all about hell, but at this point, I'm way more interested in thinking about the reality of heaven - the way it could be if it weren't full of angels, but people. And not only people, but Christians. (ha ha) Seriously, what do you think about this? If the way we treat one another here on earth is any indication (we could start and stop just with my denomination...or even, my own personal church experiences!), it's going to take a while for heaven to be very heavenly.


Wormwood's Doxy said...

A few Bible verses to the contrary notwithstanding, I tend to think of "heaven" as just being absorbed into the light of God, rather than having a physical body in the afterlife.

Where could a physical heaven be? The Hubble Telescope has some really great photos of the universe--but "heaven," at least as pearly gates and streets of gold, doesn't seem to be among them.

I think whatever comes next will not be like anything we have imagined. I trust that it will be good.


Anonymous said...

I'd respond in a couple of ways. First of all, the soul is not the same as a personality, which is a function of materiality--ie brain, body, genes, environment. You take that personality and stick it in a physical world which is a tough place to be, and naturally there are conflicts. The world of form, by its very nature, is a world of choice. Every quality can be used to help or to harm--for example, sharp, as in sharp knife, to do surgery or to cut material or to hurt a person. But in my own view, when we leave this world, we go away from the physical world of form to the world of light and love, which is our essence. The problem in this world is that the physicality of it, the ambiguity of it, and the struggle to live in it and thrive in it makes us forget who we really are, love and light. When we leave the physicality and come into that other place, then love meets love and light meets light and why would there be any of the difficulties that characterize this physical world?

JTB said...

a dissenting voice from a theologian who thinks materiality is important: Over time I've evolved away from the notion that there is a nonphysical essence to who we are as human beings/children of God. So the problems you present remain problems for me, as my theological anthropology precludes the solution that comes with an eternal disembodiment. I'm not at all sure what is meant by "heaven" or what it will be like, but I think it's important that the NT takes about glorified, resurrected bodies rather than immortal souls. It also strikes me that free will--so important to our theological understandings of the problem of evil and sin--must be preserved in heaven as well...if the whole point of the creation experiment is to remove or radically modify our will so we'll be good (I'm thinking of Augustine here) then what was the point of creating free human beings to begin with? And because free will is so central to most formulations of what it means to be human, it seems doubly necessary to preserve it.

I'm actually sort of reminded of John Hick's eschatology--which I only vaguely remember since it's been years since I read him--where heaven/afterlife is another stage of growing into spiritual maturity, and he postulates several of these...perhaps even going so far as to rehabilitate Origen's notion that even the devil shall be saved, in the end.

I suppose my eschatological trust takes the form of presuming that there is a state of existence--something currently unimaginable--in which bodily, creaturely life does not imply conflict, want, injustice, pain, suffering; that these bodily realities are not necessary realities.