Philip Jose Farmer was one of those rare science fiction writers who could do it all: think up a truly original and mind-blowing premise, devise an exciting plot that revolved around the main concept and people it with charismatic characters. He also created worlds and societies that operated according to their own rules. One of my favorites is Riverworld. It begins when everybody who has ever lived on earth finds himself resurrected on a world encircled by one river that spirals from one pole to the other. Each person has tethered to his or her wrist a canister, which fits into niches in these giant mushroom-like structures. At regular intervals the mushrooms discharge energy that fills the canisters with food, towels and necessities. Who resurrected all of humanity and why? We follow a motley crew of historical figures including Sir Richard Francis Burton, Tom Mix, Jack London, Mark Twain, and Herman Goering as they travel up the world-spanning river to find its source and the beings who accomplished this.
It's a great idea and makes for a rousing series of adventure books. The SyFy channel has twice tried and failed to make a good pilot based on the books. But it does make for a horrible afterlife. Though everyone is provided for and anyone killed on the world is resurrected somewhere else on the river the next day, the fact is that everyone is pretty much as he was in life. So evil people are not only present but act as they did on earth. Dictators create their own kingdoms, people are enslaved, their food and goods seized or controlled and though metal is rare on Riverworld, human beings are, as usual, extremely creative in making weapons. Religions, like the Church of the Second Chance, arise but there is no heaven to anticipate. There is no ultimate justice or reckoning for the wicked. The suffering receive no recompense nor protection against aggressors. Imagine an afterlife in which is pretty much like earth, just reshuffled and tweaked a bit.
The first conceptions of the afterlife seem to be like Riverworld, an extension of life on earth. Thus the earliest humanoid burials contain valuable tools and weapons left for the dead in the apparent belief that they will have to hunt or toil for their food in the afterlife as well. Even in the Old Testament, all the dead go to Sheol, a shadowy place under the earth where the dead sleep. It sounds dreary but it is not hell or purgatory.
This brings us to the slip drawn from our sermon suggestion box. It reads: "Heaven and Hell--What are they? Where are they? And how do we end up in one or the other?"
As we've seen, originally humans did not express the idea of justice being meted out to the dead for their deeds in this life. That may have been because the gods were seen as powerful but capricious and not necessarily moral. If, however, God reveals himself to be good and just, then the concept arises naturally. In this life, evil deeds can go unpunished and innocent people suffer. If there is an afterlife, that would be an ideal place to even things up and dispense justice. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the deceased person's heart is weighed to see if it is heavy with sins. If it is lighter than the feather of truth and justice, the person can pass on to his reward. Those with heavy hearts are eaten by a demon.
By the time of Jesus, the Jews had a fairly well developed eschatology, or theology of the last things. When the current evil age ended and the Messianic kingdom began, the dead would all be resurrected and then judged. The evil would go to hell and the righteous would be with God in heaven. Because the criteria was obeying God's law, generally speaking, the Gentiles went to hell and the Jews, for the most part, entered God's kingdom. The problem was that wealth and success were used as yardsticks for God's favor. It looked as if the rich who gave lots of money to the local synagogue or temple were shoo-ins for heaven. The poor had obviously done something to tick God off. This is why Jesus' telling the poor that they were blessed and warning the rich that their selfishness would cost them eternal life caused people to marvel. He was turning the accepted standards of the day on their head, though what he taught was in line with the prophets of the Old Testament. Jesus was saying that God would judge fairly, without reference to one's social standing. God would judge on the basis of one's deeds and one's heart, from which those deeds originated.
Of course, any honest person knows that he falls short of God's standards as set down in his law. Is such a person condemned to hell? No, said Jesus, God forgives those who repent, who turn the direction of their life around and change the way they think about this world. And if a person sinned seventy times seven, and repented, he should still be forgiven by his brother and by God.
Those who ask for forgiveness must also forgive those who sin against them. And this is an important point. Being good is not a matter of superficial observance of the law; otherwise, the Pharisees, who were meticulous in observing the letter of the law and knew therefore how to game the system, would be considered righteous in God's eyes. But God is more interested in those who grasp and act on the spirit of the law. Goodness must be internal, an organic part of who the person is, or who they are becoming. Paul later articulated this by saying that God considered a trusting attitude towards him as righteousness. Trust is the basis of any good relationship. If we don't trust God and in his goodness, we can't have a real relationship with him. Trust is essential as a channel for God to work with us and in us. Thus we are saved from the effects of our sins by God's grace working through our faith in him. No one is good enough that he can stand before God as flawless and not needing God's help. God is gracious in that he sent that help in the person of Jesus Christ. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us, Paul reminds us. So the criteria for entering God's kingdom is a trusting willingness to follow Christ. Anybody trying to enter the kingdom on the basis of his own flawed efforts to do it alone is doomed to fail.
So what does this have to do with our questions? Where are heaven and hell? To paraphrase what Jesus said about the Kingdom of God, they are within you. Where God is, heaven is. If you are the right kind of person, or on your way to becoming the right kind of person, you will be able to experience the love and presence of God even in the worst place or circumstances. Thus Paul and Silas, after being beaten with rods and chained up in the prison at Philippi, were able to sing hymns and remain joyful. But if you are the kind of person who does not trust God or believe in his love, forgiveness and healing, you can be miserable despite being wealthy, powerful and famous. Herod the Great ruled Judea for Rome. He was rich and powerful as only a king of that time could be. Yet his paranoia was such that he killed 3 sons and even his wife out of suspicion. Towards the end of his life, he was so worried that Rome would come to depose him he built an impregnable fortress in the desert to escape to. As he lay dying, knowing that the Jews would not mourn for his passing, he had left orders for a massacre of the top Jewish leaders. He was determined that somehow a lot of people would be sorry at the time of his death. Herod's earthly life was pretty much a descent into hell.
C. S. Lewis said that the kind of person you are becoming is not so important if you are only going to live for 7 or 8 decades and then die. But if you are immortal then the trajectory of who you are developing into is crucial. If you are becoming a more selfish, resentful, arrogant, vindictive, envious, hateful and angry person, then eternity will turn you into a monster. If you are altruistic, loving, forgiving, humble, content and peaceful person, then eternity will see you becoming ever more Christ-like. So heaven and hell are not places you are arbitrarily assigned to based on some legalities and theological slight of hand. They are the diverging destinies that we will see realized in ourselves.
Let's put it this way: can you think of any way to create a heaven for Hitler that would not be a hell for others? Can you see Hitler settling happily into God's heaven? No, because no one would be worshiping him and there would be entirely too many Jews there for his taste. (Not to mention Slavs, gypsies, Africans, Russians and other people he regarded as sub-human vermin.) You cannot put Hitler in heaven because it would be hell to him. On the other hand, you drop St. Francis in hell and he would be hugging the outcasts and singing hymns which would irritate the denizens of hell all the more. The Kingdom of Heaven is in you. Or it can be, if you can make room for God, whose presence is the essence of heaven.
Hell is a self-imposed exile from God. It is rejection of him or the substitution of something else as the most important thing in your life, which amounts to the same thing. People sometimes substitute their own version of God, one who always agrees with them and would never ask them to change their attitudes or lifestyle or step out of their comfort zone. Thus there are white supremacists who think that God, who so loved the world that he sent Jesus to die for everyone in it, somehow hates Jews and non-whites. There are people who think you can mix Ayn Rand's philosophy, in which religion is a fraud, sacrifice is a despicable weakness and selfishness is a virtue, with Christ's call to take up one's cross and treat the weak and poor as we would him. There are people who, despite the fact that God says he does not desire the death of any sinner, nevertheless say that some people are beyond forgiveness and gleefully pray for their destruction. Will these people be able to look the real Jesus in the eye and still call him Lord? Will they be able to see him in others and love them as he loves them? Are they growing into the image of the God who is love or into some devilish parody of him?
Heaven is being with God and the only way to do so is to be in harmony with him. Unless we are like him, how can we bear the brilliance of his light, the radiance of his presence? How can we love God's kingdom if we hate our fellow citizens? How can we find joy in God's house if we can not enjoy our housemates? How can we find everlasting peace in his new creation if we are in a never-ending war with his creatures?
The key to becoming a heavenly creature is changing your heart and mind. Let God in and let him go to town on you. It doesn't matter if you are not perfect. Imperfect people are all God has to work on. He is merciful and forgiving. But you must be willing to trust and cooperate with him. Just as it would be foolish to see a cardiologist and keep smoking and eating lots of fatty and salty foods and refusing to exercise, it doesn't make sense to go to God and then decide which sinful acts and attitudes to keep indulging in. Just as a person following her doctor's orders will, after a while, find her once new healthy habits have become natural to her, so, too, the mental, spiritual, moral and physical disciplines you adopt in following Jesus will eventually become part of you. The new you, the new creation in Christ.
But we don't do it on our own. We can't. Jesus promised us a comforter, a councilor, an advocate: the Holy Spirit. He is God in us. He remakes us. He sanctifies us so we will one day be complete as our Father is. But that will take more time than we have in this life. It will take an eternity. An eternity to change we who are finite into an ever-closer image of the infinite God.
But he will not force us. True love is uncoerced. The choice is ours. Every moment we have a choice. Any point in time is a departure point. Every second is a second chance. Which do you want to be: worse than you could imagine or the best you could be? Do you turn towards the light of God or turn away, towards the darkness? Trust the judge of all the world to do right or trust in your fallible self? Trust the source of all goodness or put your trust in lesser things? God respects our choice so much he will let us choose even the worst option--the option to reject him, to distrust him, to put something other than God in the center of our lives. Hell is the consequence of God giving us free will and a real choice. A universe in which there is no hell is one in which we have no choice when it comes to God, which means no real love, which means no heaven. Hell is the shadow of heaven. Shadows are the inevitable consequence of light. Shadows do give contrast. But light reveals the truth. It shows us where to go.
Choose the light.