A curious path now leads us away from hell and punishment. It skirts nimbly heaven and reward, then ends in the ephemeral cloud of heaven on earth. Its achievements are stupefying. They are nothing less than a repudiation of the afterlife’s heaven and hell plus the relocation of heaven uniquely on earth.
Some generations ago, many who claimed Christianity as their faith also subscribed to the tenet that disbelief would subject them to unending punishment in a fiery hell. Espousing the dictum to do unto others as to themselves, these folks endorsed belief and exhorted all others to believe. Such was the impetus for evangelization.
Intervening generations progressively coupled the divine attributes of mercy and justice and soon concluded that no god worthy of our love ever could dispatch a non-believer to eternal punishment. That just wouldn’t be fair. At least, commute the sentence. Better still, gut the whole concept of punishment by eradicating hell.
One result of hell’s eradication was to make heaven accessible to all without regard to disbelief or spiritual disability. Everyone was going to glory.
Another was to transform mockery of heaven’s hyperbolic nomenclature into a rejection of heaven. Though gold would not rust and diamonds may not be forever, preacher after preacher rose to declaim that neither he nor his spouse ever had much of either. Their sparse hoard was limited to their wedding bands. Since neither ever had much and further could see no use for them in heaven, the gleaming attraction of heaven plastered with gems itself grew dull.
Bang! Hell was banished; heaven, blown away! What remained? Only the relocation of heaven to earth. Slithering around this change of venue was the mighty serpent of vanity. Why, we, Homo sapiens, alone make our heaven. We’re fully capable. Just ask us! We’ve no need of a god—puerile or powerful.
Now, the unalloyed manifestation of this sly relocation frequently must wait until folks, such as an aging couple, approach death. With the arrival of the hospice teams comes the rite of mutual consolation. Rather than anxiety about heaven or agony about hell, our couple seeks solace in remembrance of a carefully winnowed trove of happy experiences.
However, the relocation is manifested abundantly by (1) the brand of memorial service (2) its tenor, and (3) the surviving spouse’s observations.
Nowadays, the memorial service often is called a celebration of life. It is a very public thing. Newspaper ads supplement obituaries and the family’s invitation. All are welcome, not merely neighbors or co-workers but also those who never met or saw the deceased. Of course, there is no mention of the dead or dying. Rather, current polite discourse alludes to the late life that merely passed, departed, or slipped away.
This celebratory service supersedes the practice of burial and eulogy. That older practice was a private affair, meant for family and friends, and often a solemn thing despite the clergy member’s promise of hope and assurance.
The tenor of the current service is light and carefree. It may even be jocular or outrageously humorous. If a minister participates (rarely will one officiate), then he or she will avoid, scrupulously, any suggestion that the departed now enjoys greater happiness and better company. His or her silence about heaven acquiesces in the implication that heaven is nowhere. How could there be comfort if the dead depart into nowhere? Perhaps the minister even speculates silently that just as heaven is nowhere God is not at all.
The surviving spouse embraces wholeheartedly the party line that he (or she) and the late, dearly beloved made their own heaven on earth. It was the only heaven they ever knew. He might add tearfully that it was the only one he ever expects to know.
Only days after the celebration (the send-off to nowhere), several disturbing doubts arrive. Quite personally, if the departed and I experienced here this unique heaven, what’s left for me now? She’s gone, and I’m alone.
Further, recalling what enlarged or shrank our heaven, don’t I have cause to blame as well as to praise? If only that bastard or bitch hadn’t interfered, wouldn’t we have had a richer heaven? Who’s at fault for the crib death of our only child? If our presidents had not sent my wife’s brother, and mine, to kill both the alleged guilty as well as the assured innocent, wouldn’t our heaven have been fuller?
In addition to the doubts engendered by aloneness and blame from cause comes the doubt birthed by chance. Suppose that we primarily derived our heaven from our skin’s tinge, our family’s wealth, and our country’s power to rain bombs, hurl drones, and assassinate opponents. Suppose we ourselves barely made our heaven. Suppose we chanced to have it merely because we were born white, affluent, and American?
Blessedly, there is another path that avoids the certain isolation and pitiless desolation that attend the transport of heaven to earth. This other path neither explodes hell nor populates heaven. Rather, it guides us to understand the vitalizing link between created and Creator and the indissoluble bond between preparation and sanctification.
This path blends harmoniously two perspectives. The first acknowledges that, during our earthly sojourn, we experience God’s bounty in a mediated degree. Only occasionally do our wills, minds, and bodies approach together a perfect resonance with God. The second perspective affirms that a changed way of living alone can prove our professed beliefs. Our new way of living authenticates our faith. We show that we really do believe by our desires and actions, our wills and souls. Those who do not change their lives render themselves unable to enjoy the heavenly banquet. They flub the dub, fail the grade, and miss the mark.
So, what is this heavenly banquet? Where is it? The banquet is precisely the direct, immediate exposure to God’s bounty joined with the capacity to appreciate it. That means to taste it, drink it, and revel in it. Sort of like St. Theresa’s prayerful admonition to allow our souls the freedom to sing, praise, dance and love. Where is it? In and with God.
Taking this second path allows the Christian to see that, first, heaven is not on earth, and second, each’s ability to gain admission is conditioned upon a life that authenticates one’s faith. The process is altogether logical. How could we ever savor a spiritual banquet’s entrée and dessert if we never developed a spiritual appetite at least fit for tasting the hors’oeuvres?
Along the path’s way, the Christian begins to realize that faith is exposed and enhanced in all the big and little things done in Christ’s name—from the cup of cool water to the binding up of wounds in a battered, cast-off body. This faith is refined by restraint of debilitating desires— from lust and gluttony through anger and abuse. This faith is integrated into all the healthy desires—from patience and sharing of means through sacrifice and sharing of suffering. All such acts and wishes witness to our belief.
Those who claim Christ but live unchanged lives deceive themselves. They are hypocrites because they only play at believing. The awful truth is that they do not believe. Their unchanged lives prove their disbelief.
Those who dare preach that a public confession and baptism alone vouchsafe admission to heaven are ignorant. Their minds are shallow, and their words, hollow. They already merit reproach even while they risk damnation. Their preaching is vain and leads astray the flock entrusted to them.
If to be with God is to be able to enjoy the banquet, then to be without God is ravenously hellacious. Shakespeare’s line—to be or not to be—acquires new force. There are but two choices—to be with or without. The first yields the assurance of joy. The second decrees the certainty of despair.