A Special insert in the June 20-26 edition of The National Herald
Inevitably and intricately intertwined with the study of religion and spirituality is the self-interest of one’s afterlife. It is food for thought, indeed, to wonder how – and if – people would worship and practice religion if science and medicine figured out ways to keep us alive virtually forever.
In other words, if life on earth would go on forever, how many people currently interested, as they might put it, in having “a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” or those wishing to meet 72 virgins in heaven upon their death, would really care? By the same token, those who fear about “burning in hell” would be far less concerned if modern medicine could save them from the jaws of death.
But that is another question for another time, as our civilization in 2015 is nowhere near the point of achieving immortality. And so, questions about the afterlife remain.
In this edition of Religion & Spirituality, we asked our contributors to tell us if they believe heaven and hell exist and, if so, what are they?
THE GREATEST PARTY EVER?
When people speak about “heaven on earth,” they are usually referring to conditions being as good as they can possibly be. “This is paradise,” used to describe an ideal location or environment, is a similar reference. But is heaven really like that? Is it the greatest party we could ever imagine? Does it contain all the pleasures of our earthly life we so cherish? Are there big-screen TVs and football games, an endless feast of our favorite foods and drinks? Spectacular beaches? Ample opportunity to partake in any activity we desire – from bowling to gardening to mountain-climbing to skydiving?
What about the music, and the books? Do we have an endless “hard drive” of any song, any film, or any literary work we could possibly desire? Is that what heaven is, or is it something else? And if those things are not available to us in heaven, is it because once we get there, we will have attained full growth as God’s creation that we would find those things utterly trivial – much like an adult has no desire to play with a baby’s rattle?
GRANDMA AND GEORGE WASHINGTON?
Few thoughts make us happier – cause us to feel safer and reassured – then the notion that one day we will be reunited with our loved ones in heaven. The people near and dear to our hearts that we have lost. Will we ever see them again? Are they saving a place at the table somewhere up there – ready to welcome us with open arms when we arrive? Will we get there and say, with unspeakable joy: “wow – this is really true, it’s really happening! We’re all together again, forever and ever and ever, and this time, with no anxieties, problems, or tragedies whatsoever!” Will we see our loved ones again (and while we’re on the topic, any of our non-human loved ones, like a pet dog, cat, or bird) or is all that another “baby rattle” of our earthly life that we won’t care about when we travel to the great beyond? That one is harder to imagine: that the people who meant so much to us here on earth will somehow merely be an afterthought in another realm.
Beyond our family and friends – the people we knew personally – what about others who have died and gone to heaven – will we see them, too? George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Jack Dempsey, Frank Sinatra…etc.? Would we all be in the same place? Surely there wouldn’t be a “VIP” section in heaven, where we’d have to get security clearance to talk to them, would there? Or will what they did here on earth simply not matter to us once we’re “up” there?
BURNING IN HELL
Exactly where did this notion of eternal damnation come from? Is that what the Bible really says? Do “bad” people, once they die, go to a place where they are eternally tortured? Are they subjected to the type of torment that our own Constitution prohibits, as being “cruel and unusual punishment”? If so, does that make our Founding Fathers more compassionate and enlightened than God?
What are the reasons we might be sent to such a place? Committing mass murder or genocide certainly might seem as if they’d top the list, but what about simply not being able to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ? Does this mean that if one day you and your Jewish, Muslim, or atheist friend or relative die at the same time, you will be thrust to heaven while he/she will be cast into hell? Especially if you’ve both been “model citizens” here on earth, your only difference being that you believe in Jesus’ divinity and the other person simply could never come to grips with that intellectually?
And what about the sentence length – eternity? Have we really stopped to think what eternity means? For those supposedly writhing in agony amid the fire and brimstone, who cry out “I’m sorry, dear God, please give me another chance!” does God simply say “Nope! You had your chance, my ‘no’ is final!” What if they ask every day – would God change His mind after a million years? Two million? A billion? A trillion? A trillion trillion?
SIX FEET UNDER
Then, of course, there are those who maintain that heaven and hell do not exist at all. You live, you die, and they put you in the ground – and that’s it. You stop existing, you stop thinking, you stop feeling, you stop being.
It is hard to imagine disbelief of an afterlife without disbelief in God. In other words, even as we do not fully understand the point of our earthly life, at least we can intellectually grasp the concept that maybe when we get to the next life it will all make more sense to us. But if God created us to live 80 or 90 years on this planet and then that’s it – what would be the point?
Accordingly, to believe that heaven and hell do not exist probably goes hand-in-hand with the viewpoint that God does not exist, either.
Surely, the theories stated herein do not constitute the universe of views on the topic of heaven and hell. Surely there are other ways to explain them. Just because they may not exist in a particular way (for example, playing gin rummy with grandma and George Washington in heaven, or screaming over the hot flames of hell) does not mean they do not exist at all.
We hope, then, that the thinkers we have invited to participate in this edition can shed more light on this.