Tuesday, December 29, 2009


No one knows what happens when we die, except those people who have died, and they are dead, unless they have come back to life, which does happen sometime. Still, I wonder if saying one does not 'believe' in heaven or hell is akin to saying one does not believe in gravity, or the existence of subatomic particles. We speculate. It's as silly not to believe in heaven and hell as it is to believe. But it's also absurd to talk about these states as if we know what they are, and if they exist, definitively, unless one has been there.

I can't help thinking we are all hell-bound. For all the times I have forgotten God, hell is where I belong. Salvation is not a guarantee, not something to be counted on. My belief in Jesus Christ as Savior would be severely compromised if there was nothing for us to be saved from. If I believe in Jesus, I believe what he says, including his talk of the the afterlife and the last judgment and the 'wailing and gnashing of teeth.' My Christian faith comes with some conditions, and belief in the afterlife is one of them.

But it is just that--a belief. If someone asks me, 'Is there a heaven? Is there a hell?' I will continue to answer, 'I don't know.' But if someone asks me, 'Do you believe in heaven and hell?' I will continue to answer, 'yes,' because I do. My belief is not proof of existence. Still, I would rather live as if there were a hell than die and find out I was wrong.

So, I try to live as if heaven and hell exist, as if my actions in this life have some consequence beyond this life, as if we are playing for keeps, and every play counts. If this life is all there is, I would cash in my chips now.

1 comment:

Rob Peach said...

Interesting take on the difference between "knowledge" and "belief". We can never fully know just as we can never fully not know. We can only believe or not believe. And even to say, "I don't believe" is to subtly acknowledge the existence of possibility. In possibility, then, is the spark of life and death; heaven and hell.

As for me, I see "heaven" and "hell" from a more Eastern perspective despite--or in conjunction, rather--with my Roman Catholic, Western upbringing. That is, I see "heaven" and "hell" as states of being we can only know for sure in the here and now. Thus, when Christ came that we might have life is to say that Christ came to open our eyes again to the pardisal awareness of eternity that we knew before the figurative "fall"--the split in consciousness between who we are and what we think we are supposed to be in the "not now". So long as we see "heaven" and "hell" as something beyond, as something in the future, like a pending judgment, we live in a divided consciousness that takes the present for granted, while focusing too much on the past and the future, when, indeed, they are all ONE. We can only know the "now" and the "now" is ever-changing. That is the nature of redemption in God, which the incarnation of Christ taught us. Through the example of Christ, which we are capable of cultivating in our own lives, we are ever at the disposal of renewal. Not only is Christ the "New Adam" but we are too! Somewhere in Western (Judaic) history, we forgot that, and took the Biblical Fall to mean a definitive break between God and man. But then the moral of the story gets thrown out the window in such a dualistic understanding. God IS man!

So long as we forget this, we will continue to spin in ever-widening circles away from our original identity, which is the source of our salvation--an event towards which we are working RIGHT NOW, not in some afterlife that, as you say, we cannot know, but in the very essence of THIS moment which is as much the past as it is the present and the future.

Biblical terminology, like poetry--which is what the Scripture essentially is--is rife with figurative language. In this way, it can't easily be taken so literal. But because it is so coded in difficult, sometimes undecipherable sub-text, we take its poetry for granted and just accept what is being told to us as literally true.

Yet the literal interpretation, simple though it may be, falls short of actually serving the purpose of divine revelation. The literal interpretation gives us easy answers and formulaic prescriptions on how to live, much like the lists of laws in Deuteronomy or Leviticus. But that is not faith. It is mere automation. It is the doing without the understanding. Real wisdom is knowledge in action. We have the lives of the prophets--Christ included--to teach us that faith is nothing without an honest search for God as God exists in the circumstances of everyday life.

And everyday life is really all we can know. Its challenges present us with the fiery pains of hell not without, of course, the in-born potential for a psychic release from "Gahenna" which we--as the New Adams and New Eves--have only to recognize as part of our innate goodness, nay, God-ness.

Whew. All this to say that I feel what you're writing.

However, I agree only insofar as "heaven" and "hell" are two existential facts that we can only know for certain, or believe in, rather, in this moment's "isness".