This last week on “Stump the Pastor” Sunday, I received simply spectacular questions, many from our deep thinking youth group.
A number of the questions revolved around the themes of heaven and hell. What are the characteristics of such places or destinies?
Much literature drags us into hell with a red devil and pitchfork, riddled with physical torture and everyone sweating from the eternal fires. Contrastingly, heaven floats on fluffy clouds with people placidly (and with boredom?) sitting around playing harps.
Why harps? Never have known.
Personally, I think hell will look like this: Every single person will focus on one thing only, which is his or her own needs and wants. No one and nothing else matters but that individual demands be met.
Of course, it is impossible for individual demands to be met because every individual refuses to set his or her demands aside in order to meet the demands of another. Pure selfishness rules.
Every person functions as an emotional black hole, sucking all life and light into the abyss of bottomless needs. No one takes personal responsibility for his or her own well-being or happiness. Instead, all blame is laid on the feet of others in endless rounds of quarrels, backstabbing, and the poison of never-ending bitterness.
I suspect all of us have already had moments of tasting this hell. That may be why it is easy to describe.
Heaven has more challenges to envision. One anxious question that surfaced several times, both by youth and adults: “Will pets go to heaven?”
Reading a bit between the lines here leads me to expand the question this way: “My pet has shown me more unconditional love that anything else I’ve experienced. How can heaven possibly be good without that kind of loving companionship?”
Seems to me to be fair and reasonable questions. Especially so because I’ve heard it said that only humans can be “saved” since humans are the only ones who can pray a sinner’s prayer and get into heaven.
Let me just say this: I find no biblical justification for that statement. The idea of “inviting Jesus into your heart” is a modern and overly simplistic take on a far more complex process. It ignores the historical and necessary tools of instruction, shaping, formation, repentance, confession and forgiveness that underlie true conversion.
So consider the opposite of my description above of hell as a lightless place of utter selfishness. What would a place of light-filled generosity look like?
Could we imagine a place where genuine care for one another combines with holy care for the self? A place where respect for all of life holds hands with the harmonious resonance of the natural world?
If so, how would that natural world work without animals, both as pets and as part of the environment?
I admit it is nearly impossible for me to visualize “heaven” without life other than humans. Surely we will be more than disembodied, passionless spirits! Surely heaven contains the delight that comes from unfettered worship of God, the joy of relationship and silent awe at the mysterious living, pulsing, majesty of the universe.
All sorts of living beings seem to be an integral part of this “re-creation” that would have to happen for heaven to fully come about.
Now, I still don’t know how mosquitoes, cockroaches and chiggers can be redeemed. I also wonder if we will age in heaven. If so, how does that happen? Does the cycle of life and death still come into play?
These questions remind me that I am limited by human experience and language. I do not possess eyes big enough to be able to comprehend a place where only goodness reigns.
But here is the real question: When I look in the mirror . . . do I see someone who intentionally pursues heaven or hell? Am I walking toward light-filled generosity or toward light-sucking self abyss where I, and only I, am god?
Our choices very much matter here.