Is This It?

Seems that not a day goes by anymore which does not contain some message about death. Recently I have heard about the deaths of individuals who I attended worship alongside. There have been deaths of celebrities. Tragic deaths such as the ones occurring in California at a garlic festival and those of hikers in Canada have made the national news. Locally, living in a large metroplex, death from accidents and violent acts of humans are daily mentioned on the television or in the newspaper. At times, it seems that death surrounds us all the time. Actually, that is more accurate than we may wish to acknowledge.

I have been thinking about how we respond to death. These thoughts have included both our societal responses and the responses we have as individuals, specifically in regard to our faith. I worry occasionally that as a society we have become so accustomed to death that we hardly even notice it anymore. Yet, I also am aware that some of our apathy towards death stems not solely from the frequency of encounter but also from our unwillingness to look at it honestly. We do not wish to affirm the reality of death because in doing so we have to face our own mortality.

Facing our mortality requires us to think about what we concern regarding the afterlife. Since there is no solid proof about the afterlife, we are afraid. For a large number of people, this fear leads us to ignore or push thoughts of death out of our thinking. We adopt an attitude of if we do not confront death, we do not have to think about death. Death seems too unknown to us and the fear is overwhelming, so we attempt to push it aside.

As a society and as individuals, we often want to hide death. One example is in how we talk about death when a person is deceased. We use phrases such as, “He has passed on,” or “She has parted.” Our avoidance of using the word death is a way to lessen the reality. By reducing the finality of death, we can evade dealing with it.

I have a much different view towards death. My view of death is very dependent upon my understanding of my faith. Through my reading of the Scriptures, the development of my beliefs, and my own experiences, I see death as a transition. There is no finality in death for me. Instead, there exists a belief that at death a person transitions from an earthly existence into a spiritual realm. Since I believe in a bodily resurrection, this does not mean that a person only exists as a spirit in this spiritual realm but that the same joining of the body and spirit which occurred during our earthly birth happens within the spiritual realm. I also believe that in this spiritual realm a person experiences the fullness of God.

Due to my understandings and beliefs in regard to death, death is not something I fear either for myself or those whom I love. Just because I do not fear death does not mean that I do not grieve when a person dies. I grieve though not because I fear what happens at the point of death and after, I grieve because I know that for a period of time I will be separated from that person. Once fear has been removed, the grief is a little easier to bear. Once fear is removed, you can talk honestly about death and the afterlife.

Going To Hell

One of the most important realizations which I came to after spending some years studying the Bible is that the Bible is written with a lot of imagery. This is understandable for various reasons. First, the accounts which we find in the Bible today came to us from an oral tradition. Second, the telling of these experiences and stories happened when there was no such thing as a printing press, motion pictures, televisions, or computers. Third, as humans, we try to relate events, experiences, and complex thoughts to something which helps us to make sense of whatever we are discussing. Together, these lend themselves to the use of imagery. The speakers and eventually, the authors of the Bible relied heavily on imagery. This is an important fact when people of the 21st century attempt to interpret Scripture. (For more thoughts about interpreting Scripture, see my post Word by Word.) It is also important when dealing with this post’s subject matter.

Last week I wrote a post regarding my understanding of heaven. (See Is This Heaven.) I thought that it made sense to follow up that post with one on my understanding of hell. Much of what I communicated in last week’s post applies to hell as well. I do not believe hell is a physical location. Hell is not the place of eternal punishment. There is no being in a red suit with a forked tail holding a trident or pitchfork. There are no boiling pots of hot lava with stone walkways running through them. There are no endless torments designed specifically for the person who is supposed to be sent to hell. All these are images which have been created over time based on someone’s interpretation of Scripture (often the book of Revelation) or through horror stories passed down through generations.

My understanding of hell and any Scripture which may lend itself to the concept of hell is that this is truly a human construct. The details of hell and evil lie within the human spiritual and psychological components. Let me try to unpack that a little for you. For me, hell is living without God. The only way that this reality could ever be (if it truly could ever be) is because a person has totally rejected the existence of a supreme spiritual being. God is the English name given to the supreme spiritual being which Christians, Jews, and Muslims acknowledge but is not the sole name humans give to this being. Therefore, I am not saying that using a different name for the supreme spiritual being other than God is the qualifier here but instead that a person rejects that there even is such a being.

It is also important to note here that I do not believe that God (which is the name I will use throughout this post since I am a Christian) EVER rejects ANY human. Why this is important is because it means the action is taken by a human and not God. This also means that God never leaves the person but that the person lives as if God does not exist. For me, living as if God never exists would be hell.

I think it is also important to deal with the misconception that God created a location labeled hell as a place for eternal punishment. Again, imagery used in the Bible has led to this interpretation. But when you truly study the passages containing such imagery (example: Matthew 13), you see that the issue being addressed is a person or persons who have chosen to reject God. The imagery is to help people understand what the life experience would be like if a person chooses to deny God’s existence and design for life.

In summary, my understanding of hell is that it is not a place but more a description of a person’s possible spiritual and psychological state. A state which we have been fully released from by the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection if we will accept the new status which God has given freely to each of us.

Is This Heaven?

Thirty years ago, a movie was released which starred Kevin Costner and told the story of a man who built a baseball field in the middle of his Iowa farmland because a voice had told him that if he built it, all the great baseball stars would come and play there. One small piece of dialogue from the movie Field of Dreams became famous, especially in Iowa:

“Is this heaven?”

“No, this is Iowa.”

One of the “ghost players” arrived at the newly constructed baseball diamond and asks the question. Costner’s character provides the response.

I am prompted by this movie scene to consider the question, “What is heaven?” In the movie, the baseball diamond seemed to the ghost baseball player like it might be heaven. A lot of people refer to a certain setting as being like heaven. Images of golden streets and angels with harps are presented as ways heaven may look. While these images and settings my bring comfort and give us a sense of something grand, I am not certain that they truly are heaven.

At the start, I have to be honest and state there is no concrete proof of what heaven is or is not. Jesus tells stories that give us more a concept of the nature of heaven and not a physical description. People recorded in the Bible speak of visions which are often associated with heaven but are not intended to give us a physical description. I think there is a significant reason for this vagueness. In fact, this vagueness is part of what creates an image of heaven for me.

I am convinced that heaven is not an actual location. While we are accustomed to looking toward the sky when referencing heaven, this comes more out of Greek and Roman cultures and their mythology than any theological understanding. Heaven is a spiritual reality which cannot be understood fully in our physical nature. This prompts us to create images in our mind, so we are able to gain some type of grasp on the concept of heaven. Creating physical images to understand spiritual realities is common among humans.

My belief is that heaven should be understood as being present with the fullness of God. While we are physically alive on earth, we get glimpses what heaven is because we receive glimpses of the presence of God. When the fullness of our spiritual being is unbound at the time of our physical death, then we will experience the fullness of God who is spiritual. Becoming aware of the fullness of God which already surrounds us now, though we are incapable of fully experiencing this fullness, is to me experiencing heaven.

As wonderful as Iowa is and a baseball field may be, it is not heaven. Heaven is present in those places but heaven is not a place of itself.

How does this align with your understanding of heaven? How do you disagree with my understanding of heaven?