Q: I was raised in a church that emphasized heaven and hell, and how we need to be “good” so we don’t go to hell. Then they throw in the concept of purgatory, and I’m all confused. Not much of it makes sense to me. Thoughts?
A:Oh great—another big question! I’ll give you a little trip down my personal memory lane as regards religion/heaven/hell. I was raised Episcopalian and don’t remember them talking about heaven or hell too much.
In high school I got into the David Wilkerson thing, and spent much time looking up, waiting for the second coming of Christ. I sure as heck didn’t want to be left behind. Hell was very real for me during those years, and I was scared most of the time.
Then on to the Lutherans. Loved the Lutherans—all that tater tot hot dish and strong coffee (seriously), and don’t remember anything (again) about heaven or hell.
Now I’m Presbyterian, and I love those guys! All about God being everywhere, no mention of hell (that I’m aware of), and very loving. What a journey, right? And I even left out the Baptists and Assemblies of God experiences!
The good part about attending several different churches has been that it’s given me the chance to see what other religions believe, and to weigh that against what I believe. I think that’s always the main thing, anyway - having your own personal beliefs, separate from any organized group of people. Besides, no group is going to agree on every single point for every single person - we’re just too diverse.
So, back to heaven and hell. We watched “Bedazzled” last week, with Elizabeth Hurley and Brandon Fraser. One of the last scenes is God’s messenger telling Brandon Fraser that it’s impossible to sell your soul to the Devil, because your soul belongs to God. Each person creates their own heaven or hell right here on Earth.
That viewpoint is echoed in “What Dreams May Come”—Robin Williams’s wife commits suicide, so she is relegated to the hell that’s in her own head. She thinks it’s real, just as Robin thinks his heaven is real. We each see what we want to see. Could it be that simple?
We are affected by our experiences every moment of our lives. We see the world in a certain way, with a certain slant, or perspective. Some people think the world is a horrible place, and that’s what they see. Others see the beauty and love and gentleness, and that’s what they see.
Try it for a day. In the morning, tell yourself that no matter what happens, it’s going to be a great day. Try it the opposite way the next day (if you want)—no matter what happens, today is going to be a horrible day. See if you can tell the difference in your days. I’m trusting that you’ll notice a distinct difference.
Now imagine that you live your entire life with that viewpoint—wouldn’t you build up those experiences into your brain and your psyche, so that they’ll become reinforced and stronger all the time?
At this point, it’s necessary to take a leap of faith and say that there’s something after this one life, whatever you may believe that to be. Some think we have one life, then we go hang out in that place called heaven (maybe throw in some cherubs playing harps, sitting on fluffy clouds). Some think this is it—after this one life, nothing. Maybe we get absorbed back into the Universe. Some think if you don’t do what’s right (and there’s always someone out there that will be telling you what’s right), then you’ll go to hell, a bad place with pitchforks and fires and monsters (ala “Dante’s Inferno” complete with the various circles of hell).
Then comes the idea of purgatory, a nowhere place, really, where we just float around. I looked up “purgatory” on Wikipedia, and they say, “In addition to accepting the states of heaven and hell, Roman Catholicism envisages a third state before being admitted to heaven. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, some souls are not sufficiently free from sin and its consequences to enter the state of heaven immediately, nor are they so sinful as to be destined for hell either. Such souls, ultimately destined to be united with God in heaven, must first endure purgatory, a state of purification. There, souls ‘achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.’ ” So maybe it’s kind of like a spiritual boot camp.
Personally, I can’t envision a God to be anything but all-loving, supportive and life-affirming. Why would there be such a thing as a punishing God? What purpose would that serve? To keep us in line? We’ve got those systems built-in to our societies already. When you were a child, did you do better when your parents told you that they loved you no matter what, and that they believed in you, or if they told you that you were evil and sinful and should be ashamed of yourself for doing something they thought you shouldn’t have done? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.
When I was younger, I read C.S. Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters,” and it was all about the correspondence between a head devil and his nephew. Those who were in hell actually lived in a garbage can (they were very small), but could take buses to “heaven” every now and then, and could make the choice to be in that expanded, glorious place if they so chose. Many, however, could not make it past their hellish experiences, and so mostly chose to stay in the garbage can. Interesting.
I also think it’s important to think about why you believe what you believe; what motivates you.
If it’s fear (I don’t want to go to hell) that’s making you “do good things,” then I suggest looking into that. I don’t think fear is a good motivator for anything.
If it’s habit (I was raised to believe that—my mom and dad believe that, so I believe that), then it may be time to really dig into discovering what you believe. It’s easy just to go along with the crowd. It’s a lot harder to delve into your own psyche and reside in your center, even if it goes against friends, family, or society, but I think it’s necessary for growing a mature faith.
I certainly don’t believe the same things that I believed as a child, or in my 20’s, or 30’s, or even 5 years ago. My faith is constantly changing, based on my experiences. God used to be a huge white guy with a long white flowing beard, wearing a long white gown, sitting on a big throne (sort of like Zeus). Now it’s more of a feeling of love that permeates and animates everything in the whole Universe. I still call it God, but it really goes beyond definition, in my world.
I think heaven is firmly here on earth. I know it, because I see it in my beautiful silver maple tree in our backyard, I taste it in my grandmother’s oatmeal cookies, and I feel it in my eight-year-old’s hugs, and I’m not trying to be trite or glib—I’m perfectly serious. Heaven is everywhere, and there’s no room for hell in my world.
Those unpleasant, awful things that happen? Probably billions of people feel living hell on earth, and I acknowledge that. I don’t know why we all have different experiences and life situations—maybe we all have unique lessons in our lives, and we can’t really compare ourselves to anyone else.
Maybe the most important thing is to concentrate on how we can love and support each other, and how we can each make the world a heaven on earth for the rest of the people. Is that a naïve thought? Perhaps. Is that what I believe? Most definitely.
P.S. After I wrote this column, I started a new book called ” The Tao of Healing” by Haven Trevino. And what was on the very first page?
People abide on the Earth
Earth abides in the Heavens
The Heavens abide in Love.
Love abides in us all.
This is what makes us One.
That pretty much sums it up right there.
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