Over the past few months, I've been thinking quite a bit about the Earth, life in the present, and hereafter. It's dawned on me just how much our beliefs about the afterlife affect the way we live, move, and have our being right now. I wanted to take a little bit of time to write about heaven, hell, and things of the like. For the sake of time and energy, I'm not going to go too much into why I believe what I believe or how I came to these conclusions. There are plenty of other folks who've written blogs and books about the topic. I'll spend much of this post talking about the rapture and hell. Next week I'll delve into heaven.
I grew up believing in the rapture. (Up until about a year and a half ago, I thought all Christians believed in the rapture.) Yes-- I read all but one or two of the books in the "Left Behind" series. Every now and then my parents would walk out of the house without me noticing and I would get frightened and wonder for a few moments if they had been taken away by the Lord. I worried that I was not only in the house alone but in the world alone. Abandoned. Awaiting tribulation. I believed that my sole purpose in life was to make other Christians. Everyone had to believe like me, lest they be left behind when Jesus descended on a cloud, sucked the righteous from the face of the Earth, and took us all "home." Heaven was a little bit more fuzzy for me. I wasn't sure what to expect there, but I certainly believed it were elsewhere. And it was a toss up whether or not my pet cat, Panther, who had to be put down due to Leukemia, would be there. But probably not. Because he didn't have a soul. (But more on heaven in part Deux of this post!)
For those folks who did get left behind, I believed there would be a seven-year tribulation period where literal hell broke out and an anti-Christ established his or her reign. By the end of the tribulation period, if folks on Earth repented and wanted to come to Jesus, they'd then be able to join the rest of the party in heaven. And if they died before they had a chance to repent or never repented at all, they'd go to Hell. This is what I believed hell was: eternal, conscious torment. A place of separation from God and from all that is good, beautiful, or life-giving. In my mind's eye I imagined snakes crawling the underworld while humans cried out in pain as they lay, ever-suffering, in a lake of fire.
How nice, right? Needless to say, I don't believe in a rapture anymore.
But they say: "God's ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts. Perhaps he has a greater sense of justice than us? Who are we to question the whole heaven and hell thing?"
I understand the reverence and humility implied in that statement, but what worries me is the lack of thought behind it. When someone makes that sort of statement, I wonder whether or not the breaker has been tripped in their brain. When videos of ISIS burning people alive circulate the web, no one says "well-- who knows...perhaps ISIS has a greater sense of justice than us." Most people in their right mind would unanimously agree that burning people alive is hellacious and evil. But when your god routinely burns people alive for having the wrong theology, "his ways are just higher than our ways."
You see, if you believe this is who God is, you'll structure you whole life around avoiding hell. I've watched people live their lives in fear and I'm convinced it's at least partly due to their concept of hell. When you believe in a god who sends people to hell for the wrong theology, you're careful not to hang around with people who understand the divine differently than you do. It's okay to love them, but you should do so primarily for the purpose of converting them so they don't burn in hell either. And God forbid you open up your heart to someone who believes differently from you. Or else you might become like them.
I've learned this from experience. I've literally had friends who have felt the need to distance themselves from me, lest they become like me. In all honesty, I feel for folks who believe like this because from what I can tell, it comes from a place of fear.
You might be wondering "well what the hell DO you believe about hell?"
I don't know. If we're all honest with ourselves, nobody knows. We don't even know if there's an afterlife or not.
If hell is an actual, literal place, we don't know if there's anyone there now and we don't know if there ever will be. If it's possible for someone to come face to face with the God of love and not want to fall at his feet and surrender, perhaps there's a place for them. But I don't think that place would be the hell of my childhood. It's my perspective that if anyone is going to hell, it's not because they believed the wrong things and God is smiting them, but because they have chosen to not submit to the ways of a loving, grace-filled God.
If hell is anywhere, it’s primarily something created on Earth. When people are burned alive, that’s hell. When a life is taken, by any means and for any reason at all, that’s hell. When we refuse to lay down our arms and wage war against our enemies, that’s hell. When we discriminate against others because of their race, ethnicity, sexuality, age, belief system, or socioeconomic status, that’s hell. When we open our mouths and spew hate, we are literally joining with the Enemy to create hell on Earth. That, to me, is hell. And if you ask me, that’s a hell worth keeping people out of!
I believe in a God who draws all people to himself (or herself, but that's whole other post!). I believe in a God whose judgement is love. I believe that all who seek God will find him. I believe that even those who aren't necessarily seeking will still be found by him. In other words: I'm not so sure that Christians will be the only ones in heaven. Don't get me wrong, I believe that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, but I'm not so sure that it's going to happen on this side of heaven.
I love this verse from Revelation 21: "And her gates shall never be shut by day; for there shall be no night there."
The gates of heaven are open now and will be forever. The lights have even been left on for us.
Here's why I'm taking my time to tackle eschatology: because some folks just aren't aware that their unique understanding of heaven and hell isn't held by all Christians everywhere. Some folks are afraid to admit that their understanding of the afterlife isn't exactly appealing. So if your perspective of the afterlife is one that turns your stomach a little bit, I think it's okay to call that into question.