Heaven and Hell: Up, Down, or Right Here?

April 1, 2011 - 1:20 pm 76 Comments
When people mention the concepts of Heaven and Hell to you, how do you react? Depending on your current theological beliefs, and what you were previously taught, your response could range from laughter to outrage, from curiosity to horror.

Much of how we respond implies our past religious education or indoctrination. When we combine those largely emotional remembrances with our present day adult reasoning and life experience, the result can confuse or be unsettling to us. Because the age-old beliefs about Heaven and Hell die hard, and the fears and uncertainties surrounding them tend to linger as theological pessimism- if not personally, then we can see evidence of their impact definitely in our culture.
The ideas that formed our understanding about “where the soul goes” or “what happens to us after we die,” find their beginnings in ancient Semitic cultures of the Middle East.
In the Hebrew belief system, some 4000 years ago, the hard and harsh realities of life experience was all that a human being could trust. Life was life, and death was just that, death- the end of our existence. The body, now dead, would be disposed of and the incomplete Hebrew notion of soul that is connected to a land somewhere under the earth, the valley of the shadows call Sheol. Heaven, where the Lord God resided, was totally above and beyond the human dimension, thereby unapproachable. The soul in Sheol- or translated literally as being in the Pits- was a suspended state, where the entity known as you would remain in a suspended, passive state- Nothing else was ever considered or proposed for some two thousand years!
It wasn’t until the distinctly Persian or the Zoroastrian belief were made known to us that we received most of our modern conceptions of a Heaven and a Hell. While the Hebrews were held captive in Babylon, they were exposed to the teachings of Zoroaster that postulated that there was a life for one’s essence or one’s soul that was beyond bodily physical death.
By the way, the Zoroastrian philosophers, priests and magicians were very generous to the Hebrews, who in turn passed these ideas down to the Christians and subsequently they became rooted into the larger Western religious culture. In addition to their teachings about Heaven and Hell, they also gave us the delightful concept of angels and then,just for balance, the concept of The Devil who would tempt, torture or torment us… They forwarded the idea of a Heaven as a place of eternal sweetness and light, and that Hell was everlasting fire and suffering… To this kind of gift I say- Thanks  a lot!
The next major influence on our development of these places for the soul came from the influences of Greco-Roman thought on Jewish religion. As we approach the time of the writing of the Christian Testament in the Bible, we can see the influence of certain Greek Platonic thought and Roman mythology. These influences shaped and refined the Zoroastrian teachings by giving the revised Jewish religion the belief in an immortal soul; The belief in some form of resurrection from the dead, and eventually ushered in all those countless debates over the nature of human will, responsibility, moral rules, and temple authority.
All these early adaptations and accretions set the stage for Christianity. Early presiders and bishops took these accumulated beliefs and tried to unify them into a cogent and consistent theology. After three centuries of debate, discussions, and even out and out brawls among contending points of view, orthodoxy was devised and established, and they formulated in their ancient creeds that Heaven and Hell are two separate contrasting  realities- that they were actual physical locations above and below the Earthly realm, and that all souls would, upon physical death, the soul would go to one place or the other…
When these conjectures and assumptions took on the influence of official church doctrine and therefore unquestioned teachings, whatever glimmer of truth they might have contained became laden with the burdens of fear, guilt, depression and anxiety. With certain minor doctrinal modifications, these definitions and assumptions about Heaven and Hell have come down to us as a part of our current religious culture- ironically, they are often beautifully depicted in some of the West’s greatest art, literature, and music.
To encapsulate elaborate and complex theology is a difficult task- but I will try to give you a synopsis of what is still generally accepted and widely taught:
1) Historical or traditional Roman Catholic and it is somewhat the same in the Eastern or Orthodox churches: There is a Heaven above and a Hell below; there is also an intermediary state called Purgatory, and until recently, there used to be a suspended state for the unbaptised called Limbo.(Gailieo!)
All souls are required to pass through life’s trials and with the mandatory assistance of the church, its clergy, its sacraments, teachings, and discipline. All these rules and behavioral tasks would guide your faith, and outline your good works, and then based on your observance and obedience, your soul after death would head directly toward one or the other!
2) Protestants, in the Reformation, reacted to all this elaborate doctrine and its subsequent ecclesiastical abuses. Luther and Calvin both cut out the classical details and elaborate schemes for salvation. They reduced their teachings to rather austere pronouncements. They were:
First The Bible, not the church, was to be the chief interpreter of the whole and literal truth. Thus it was the belief in its words as having power and that the words The Bible contained held sufficient information that would guide one to eternal salvation.
Secondly, only your faith saves you- not your good works! And if you don’t believe this,then you all can go to Hell!
3) Among religious liberals who are our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors vehemently disagreed with many of predominate doctrines and their conclusions. The Unitarians came to teach that they could not believe in such a negative image or destiny for humankind, and that under God’s guidance and principally through our endowed gifts of free will and reason, we are infinitely capable of change and willingly encourage transformation for the greater good of humanity!
Our Universalist ancestors took the doctrines on directly; they stated that the whole notion of a Heaven and a Hell as Reward and Punishment was obscene, and had nothing to do with the God of Love they found in the Scriptures.
Contrast this to what timeless religious commentators such as Dante and Milton declared when they described how they got their notions about Heaven and Hell. John Milton said of Heaven in Paradise Lost: People make their own Heaven or Hell”, and Dante patterned his Divine Comedy and the teachings about the Inferno on his contemporary culture! Truly, without actually claiming it, these are Universalist points of view! Now, I have to wonder, IF Dante were alive today, what ring of Hell would we, in this culture, occupy?
Hell, Michigan; Purgatory in Utah and MA; and heaven is in Iowa)
It is central to Universalism that the full and rightful salvation of our souls can be found in building for one another, a heaven on earth. Heaven, then, is defined as the human state of existence that is guided by the motives of compassion, kindness, justice, mercy, and peace, made manifest among us.
Furthermore, Universalism can be seen as actively disbelieving in a Hell as the traditional Christian describes it; it neither truly exists nor is it spiritually valid. The belief in Hell is a delusion of personal or self-righteous power. It can only be employed by those who wish to strike fear into a person’s heart or to try to coerce obedience by the threat of punishment.
Psychologically speaking, we only lose God, or any sustaining sense of good, when we give credence to our fears; we only lose sight of God or good when we lose sight of ourselves as being created in the image and likeness; We feel God’s absence whenever we refuse to forgive or be forgiven.
As I see it, Heaven and Hell exist as states of our minds, and are found within the feelings of our hearts, and shown to exist by the motives or the aspirations of our human spirits …. Heavenly or Hellish attitudes and emotions can be seen or found through the decisions we make, the quality of relationships we keep, and depth of the community that we create.
In this way, Universalism, is generally an uplifting religion and it is one that offers any of us a sustaining relationship that is based in the here and now- partly because living in the past can only prejudice our future, and living in the future, can make us forget our current responsibilities to daily life. Our central concern focusses on cultivating those qualities and capacities it takes to create a caring community, and to act personally through our  commitments to make our principles visible and active in our larger world.
Heaven, then, is found in the faces of our children and our seniors, in those timeless smiles of recognition and affection among our members. It is found in the laughs we share and the burdens we bear for one another.
Hell, conversely, is experienced whenever we feel an icy loneliness, when we feel isolated, deprived, or when we remain antagonistic, spiteful or aloof. However, we do believe that there is a kind of Hell that others have experienced in their childhood or in their early religious life before they found a more Universalist point of view.
Community for the religious liberal is our most cherished possession- at its margins are the hellish feelings any person can have. At its height and depth, there are the inspirations and consolations we can give to one another…
Today and everyday, the promise of a Heaven is held out to you. Today and everyday we can decide the extent of our hope, the depth of our love, the breadth of our caring as our community decides whether we will work together; whether we will choose to create either a pit or a paradise for each other. The choice is daily and perpetually yours….
As individuals, and as members of this larger liberal religious community, we can determine how much truth, life, and love our world and our church can contain. I believe that through the active support of a compassionate community that inspires you, you can learn the true meaning of Heaven and Hell. From our sincere Universalism we can come to fully experience the gifts of grace and togetherness we have to share, and then be able to meet each experience in our lives with an open, courageous, and loving heart.  AMEN, SO BE IT.

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