Sunday, April 24, 2016

Heaven and Hell

Have you noticed the second reading throughout the Easter season? The second reading all through the Easter season is from the book of Revelation. You know, that strange last book of the Bible that some Protestants take literally so we respond by ignoring the book completely. So the Book of Revelation was a series of visions given to John when he was exiled on the island of Patmos, a Greek island in the Mediterranean Sea near Turkey. So he was exiled there, he was given this series of visions, and he was told to write them down. Now, many of the images are just downright strange: multi-headed beasts and mountains falling out of the sky and lots of other stuff. Some Protestants try to interpret it as a literal explanation of what will happen at the end of the world, but the truth is that we simply don't know what to make of much of the imagery. So a lot of the Book of Revelation is indeed strange, but parts of it are beautiful. Parts of it have these beautiful visions of what heaven will be like after the trials of this life are over, and that's what I want to focus on today.

It occurs to me that we don't think enough about heaven and hell, and when we do, I think our vision of what they might be are a little underwhelming. So the Church traditionally teaches the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell, and each of us will experience three of them. We'll all experience death. We'll all experience judgment. Then some will go to heaven, and some will go to hell.

I think we all understand death, it's what comes afterwards that's important. If a person dies in unrepentant mortal sin, that person's soul goes to hell. If a person dies with no sin and no hurt from sin on their soul, that person is welcomed immediately in heaven. If I person dies with venial sin or the hurt from sin still on their soul, then first that person is purified in purgatory before being welcomed into heaven.

So let's talk about hell first. I worry that when we think of hell, we only think about a cave with flames in the distance where the thermostat is turned up a bit high. And we make all these jokes about hell, and I've done it too, like "if I end up in hell, that's ok, because at least all my friends will be there" or we like to say hell is going to be like a traffic jam or a DMV waiting room. I make these jokes too, but the danger is that we become numb to the real horror of hell. Because here's the thing: you are created for just one purpose: to know, love, and serve God in this life and to be happy with him forever in the next. So hell is a complete separation from God. You missed the whole point for which you were created. This isn't eternal unpleasantness, this is eternal agony, and the worst part would probably be knowing that you did it to yourself. God doesn't really send people to hell, they choose it for themselves by their actions.

And in just the same way that we don't recognize the full horror of hell, I don't think we recognize the full glory of heaven. Sometimes we have this really underwhelming idea of heaven where it's going to be just harps and clouds, or we come up with these really hedonistic visions of heaven, where heaven is where I can eat all the cookies I want and not get fat. And while that may be a very real desire, heaven is what we are made for so it's going to be the fulfillment of our deepest desire. We can't recognize what our deepest desire is because we're so mired in sin, but the deepest desire of our heart is God himself, so heaven is going to be perfect communion with him. It's what we are made for.

I think I understand why we make cheap jokes about heaven and hell. I think we do it because these realities of heaven and hell are so far beyond our comprehension and our day to day life that we try to put them into terms we can understand. We cant understand pure agony or pure bliss, so we compare them to the DMV or to cookies. But we want to make sure that we don't lose sight of the realities that we're talking about. Once in a while we have to affirm for ourselves that heaven is going to be so much bigger than our tiny vision of the world can even begin to acknowledge.

St. John in today's second reading is describing his vision of a new heaven and a new earth. He's describing what he's seeing at the end of time, after the earth is no more and all there is is heaven and hell. This is what the souls in heaven are already experiencing, where John says, "He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away." This is what we want. This is where we want to end up.

So spending a bit of time thinking about the reality of heaven, this place that we're aiming for, should do a couple of things for us. It should make us a bit more serious about the way we live our lives when we recognize that the decision that I make in life have eternal repercussions. And it should also give a lightness to our lives, because we know that this life of toil and drudgery is not the end. So if you don't ever think about or pray about heaven, go ahead and give it a try. It helps to put this whole life in perspective, to help us realize exactly what will get us there and what won't. Our God has a place prepared for us which is so much greater than we could ever ask for or imagine.

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