Are Heaven and hell real? If so, what are they? Places, states, or something else? The common depictions of places where people either float around on clouds or burn in eternal fire are very far from a true and sophisticated Christian understanding of Heaven and hell.
According to our Christian faith, Heaven or hell are the only two ultimate destinations or states of being for us after this lifetime. Our belief and faith in Christ and our growth in Hislikeness during our lifetime determines our destination to be either Heaven, which is to be present with God and have union with Him, or hell, which is not having union with God due to our rejection of Him.
As Christians, we don’t believe God rejects us, confines us to hell and withdraws His love; rather we confine ourselvesthere by our refusal to accept Hislove in which case Hislove becomessomething we hate instead of want. Hell is state of self-centeredness and mindset that makes it impossible – by our own thoughts, choices and actions – to be reached, even by God. Being in hell doesn’t mean that God is no longer present or that He has ceased offering love to those who reject Him. It just means that in our rejection of God, His love becomes something painful to us instead of something blissful.
Think of the sun. It brings light, warmth and life. If we prepare properly, put on sunscreen and/or cover ourselves appropriately, we can enjoy the sunlight and all it brings. But if we go out into the sun without sunscreen and get bad sunburn, we didn’t get it because the sun’s light is evil or its nature changed; we got sunburn because we were foolish.
A life not centered on God, a self-centered life, is indeed foolish. The Greek word Hades, often used in the New Testament to describe a form of hell, means emptiness. When we are self-centered, self-absorbed to the point where we are consumed with ourselves, there is no room for God and we are indeed empty and beyond all help because we can no longer even see or acknowledge the truth – all by our own choice. This is hell and we begin to experience it in this lifetime to the measure we reject God’s love.
Jesus expresses Hissorrow for people that make this type of choice and lead lives apart from God in Matthew 23:37 when He pines:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”
Jesus, the Son of God and God in the flesh, longed for the love of the people of Jerusalem but they were not willing to accept it. He did not stop loving them and wept over them out of love.
Heaven is also not just some future place or state and it is a big mistake to think of it as so. Too often we seem to fall into false thinking concerning the present and the future, and life and death. Death is often discussed (and portrayed in books, TV, and movies) as liberation from the prison of the body; and that a future state is a goal that is more important than our present state. Both of these teachings are false according to our Christian faith. Christ, who often referred to the kingdom of Heaven or the kingdom of God said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). What separates the Christian faith from other faiths is that we believe in this life, the here and now, we can experience a foretaste of Heaven.
The danger in adhering to the false thinking of Heaven assomething in the future is that we can fall into the trap of thinking we have tomorrow to be doing what we should today – namely leading a prayerful and sacramental life on a daily basisfor our Christlike growth as human beings. Since God exists in the ever present now, the most important part of our lives is every present moment. Christ emphasizes this repeatedly. He states in Matthew 24:44, “Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” He said this near the end of a long set of teaching and prophecies about the end times and His message issimply to turn your heart towards God now, not tomorrow. He also taught us the same thing in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), the wise and foolish builders (Matthew 7:24- 29), and several other places. In the parables, the people that ended up with God were those who were prepared through their continual focus on God and living rightly.
The Pharisees and other people in the Bible missed the entire significance of Jesus’ presence among them and that the kingdom of Heaven was already beginning to be here. They kept looking toward some future state of when God’s kingdom would arrive not knowing it was among them already. People think and act like this today.
Does this mean we can create a utopia, a place of complete perfection, a literal Heaven on earth? The answer is no. The kingdom of Heaven on earth is not like an earthly kingdom with some geographic boundaries. Instead it begins with the work of God’s Spirit in people’s lives and in relationships. The kingdom of Heaven is a spiritual reality present with the Christian believer and within the community of the Church. It is what God is doing within our hearts and manifests in how we act towards each other. By embracing the divine presence within us, the kingdom has already come to us and we become citizens of the kingdom. We transform ourselves within and the collective transformation of each of us transforms the world without. Therefore, what we create here on earth through our devotion to Christ is a glimpse, or manifestation of what is to come but it is still a valid present reality that God expects us to create.
When we pray, fast, give to the less fortunate, go to Church and do everything else the Church advocates we should do, we embrace the kingdom of God within us and therefore, if done with a sincere heart, we begin to transform into becoming more and more Christ-like. We thus begin to collectively usher in the kingdom of Heaven among us through our Christ-like thoughts, actions and behaviors. This is both what Jesus wants us to do and also the point He was making about the kingdom of Heaven.
The bottom line so to speak, is this: the direction we are moving in now in this life, either toward God as we die slowly to self and live for Him, or away from God, as we become more and more self-centered, is the direction we will move after we die and are in eternity.
This article as original published in The National Herald Religion and Spirituality Special Issue June 20, 2015.