Little is said in the bible concerning heaven and hell. All we know is that the righteous go to one and the wicked go to the other. Most artistic renderings depict hell as the pit of an active volcano where the bad people live for ever and ever, with Satan and his minions in charge to torture and harass them. It is an unimaginably horrifying place that the vilest among us could not conjure up. It is, in my opinion, a place so counter to the God of the New Testament that I am rather confused why anyone would believe such a place exists.
Of course, we have descriptions such as this:
Ps 9:17 wicked shall be turned into hell
Prov 27:20 hell and destruction are never full
Mark 9:43 go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched
Rev 19:20 cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone
The imagery is very dramatic. But we have to also consider the following:
Rev 20:13 death and hell delivered up the dead
Rev 1:18 I have the keys of hell
2 Peter 2:4 cast them down to hell and delivered them
On the one hand, hell is described as an eternal burning pit that is never quenched, but on the other hand, those who go there may be delivered. In other words, the imagery describes the nature of the place, not how long someone remains there. But it still begs the question, how could a loving God be so cruel to his children who do not live up to his standards even if it is temporary?
I like what Isaiah says 14:15″didst debase thyself even unto hell.”
This suggests that hell is of our own making. It is not a location, but a state we choose. Consider the word damnation. The word dam means to block or obstruct. Someone who is damned is someone who is blocked from progressing, but they are blocked by their own choices. The question that arises, and the question that is not answered in the bible to my satisfaction, is our eternal destiny sealed once we die? Are the damned damned forever no matter what choices they may make one hundred, one thousand or one million years from now? Would a loving parent reject a child who has a limited understanding forever no matter what changes they make later in life? If God is such a god, then I would not worship him.
But what about heaven? If hell is described as a place of torment, how is heaven described?
Isaiah 66:1 heaven is my throne
Matt 19:21 have treasure in heaven
Basically, we don’t learn anything. Some Christians argue that we are not to know all the mysteries; we just have faith that heaven is where we want to go. Some suggest that we will spend all eternity praising God. We will join a celestial choir, and sing. Or perhaps we will be in the orchestra of harps. From my perspective, heaven sounds like one hell of a place. There must be something missing.
John 14:2-3 describes it as a place having many mansions and one will be prepared for each of us. 1 Corinthians 2:9 says ‘ no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what god has prepared for those who love him”
In short, relying on the bible alone, we are left to speculate as to what the eternities will be like. From my perspective however, if we don’t know what we are shooting for it becomes difficult to aim. But there is a more pressing concern. If there is a single and common place for the righteous and for the wicked respectively, what is the dividing line? At what point do you cross the line from being a citizen of heaven to being a prisoner of sheol? Is it fair if someone lives their entire life in the service of others but never gets the chance to learn about Jesus ends up in hell, where another person who is apathetic, impatient and a glutton but believes in Jesus ends up in sitting beside God at his throne? What of those who believe in a so-called ‘other Jesus’ such as the Mormons, 7th day Adventists, Jehovah Witnesses or even Catholics? Do they miss the mark because their interpretation of scripture is apparently wrong?
But What About…
What of the billions of people who lived and died and never heard of Christianity. The child born in Scandinavia when Christ was preaching on the mount, or in Australia when Paul was writing to the Corinthians. What about the murderer who had fetal alcohol syndrome and did not grasp the severity of their actions? Where do all they end up, never having heard of Jesus or never being capable of following his teachings?
From the LDS perspective, the gates of heaven are wide open for all who wish to enter. Revelation 3 explains that Jesus ‘stands at the door and knocks, he who opens the door may enter’. There is no guard at the door and the realm of God is structured to accommodate everyone. The more noble and christlike you seek to be, the greater the glory (Revelation 22:12, 14), but nobody is sent to the vision of hell that emerged in the dark ages. Nobody. Not even the vilest of criminals. Why? Because God is our father and he loves us and he wants all of us to inherit all that he possesses. Would any loving parent have it any other way?
Certainly we will have to face the consequences of our choices, but for countless trillions of years? What would be the point? I suspect that the story of the prodigal son applies as much to this life as to the next.
I accept that there are people who love evil, who take great pleasure in inflicting agony on others. Such people would not want to live in the presence of God any more than a 6 year old would enjoy spending an afternoon playing bridge with a group of senior citizens. Such a person would exclude themselves. They would not be able to endure the glory of God. They would prefer to be as far away as possible. They would, as the revelatory says, debase themselves unto hell. No unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of Heaven, and no unclean thing would want to be there. Gods glory requires spiritual purity.
I like the example, be it ever so flawed, of physical fitness. Spiritual fitness, like physical fitness, requires effort. Those who are physically fit take great pleasure in long hikes up a mountain side. Those who are not fit would see this as hell. They simply would not be able to participate.
But that is ok. They have all eternity to come to their senses and turn their life around.This give me hope not only for any of my children who may stray, but for myself as well.
The Labourer is worthy of his Reward
What are the blessings we receive in heaven? I do not think we can compare it to winning a prize in a competition. It is not a matter of living a good life and being rewarded with a nice mansion, servants, and all the leisure we could ever dream of. Mortality, according to this model, would be our time of employment and heaven is retirement. Something we earn of our own accord. This, to me, is unmeasurably unfair for those who either did not know the rules of the game or those who did not have opportunity to play along. It also turns heaven into a place of stagnation, a place of no hope. The sum total of your eternal condition will be handed to you at the pearly gates. You receive your prize when you enter and you have trillions of years to learn to fight off boredom.
The rewards in heaven are the same to everyone and are free, how much they bless our eternal lives is only limited by our effort to purify ourselves. Let’s return to my analogy of physical fitness. We have all joined a running proverbial clinic with a promise of a reward at the end. As I explained in an earlier blog: “Imagine if a group of people join a jogging club because they are told that if they jog every day for a year, they will be rewarded. Some love it, others hate it. At the end of the year, the reward is announced: you all get to enter a race – your choice 5k, 10k or a full marathon and the club is covering all the costs! It is all free! Some will be delighted, others will be completely unimpressed. The question I would have to ask the disenchanted: what the heck did you expect the reward would be when you joined a jogging club!!”
We are blessed with opportunities
The purpose of this life is to prepare us for the lifestyle of heaven, not to oppress us with onerous and restrictive commandments for the pleasure of some egotistical being who will reward us if we show him enough respect. The latter sounds more like North Korea to me. We are blessed with opportunities and the rewards in heaven are opportunities that can be enjoyed predicated on the purity of our hearts. The more Christ-like we are, the more willing we are to work, the greater we can take advantage of the opportunities God has in store. (Luke 23:41; 1 Cor 3:8; Rev 22:12) The reward is not of gold or silver which moth doth corrupt, but of applying our spiritual skills to help others enjoy the abundant life, and to continue to improve ourselves to be joint heirs with Christ.
As my analogy of fitness, we would be rewarded with long hikes, bike rides, activities that require physical fitness. Those who are not physically fit would not be able to participate due to lack of physical strength and stamina. More importantly, there are many who do not enjoy rigorous exercise, or any type of exercise for that matter. Their hell would be self-imposed because they failed to prepare. Think of the parable of the 10 virgins. Those who did not have oil could not join the feast, and those that did have oil could not share because the oil was the accumulation of spiritual discipline. The doors of heaven are open; those who choose not to prepare would not be able to enjoy the many opportunities that heaven will afford us. But the reality is, many of those who will not be able to participate will not want to. If they did not want to do it here, they would not want to do it there.
And what about those who did not know the rules or did not have the opportunity such as the mentally ill, physically abused? I suspect that those who followed the gospel of Christ with a willing heart will be tasked with helping those who would have followed if they had the opportunity. Those who do not enjoy serving others, learning new skills to light another’s load, or controlling their impulses would not be happy following God’s standards. The playing field is somewhat leveled in that we all have the light of Christ. All are born with a spiritual awareness. Those who nurture it come closer to God, those who smother it deprive themselves of an opportunity to become like God. Infinity kind, infinity wise, infinitely knowledgeable, infinitely disciplined and so forth.
Learn to Love to Serve
Retirement is a death sentence. Those who transition from employment to relying on their savings do so by maintaining their schedule. They replace driving a bus for the city to driving a bus for disabled children. They replace providing investment vehicles for the rich to preparing financial plans for the poor. They put their skills to use by volunteering their time to those in need. Those who define ‘rest’ as napping have it all wrong. When God rested from his labours, he presided. He stopped his preparing and got to work. This life is the time to prepare to meet God, the next life is the time to put our preparations to good use.
The line between heaven and hell is of our own making. Salvation is free, but we control what we can do with the free gift. In LDS thought heaven is symbolically divided into three realms, but of course having three literal places is just as problematic as having one. Just imagine being one act of service short of making it to the top level. In reality, it is a spectrum as diverse as there are people. But the condition is about abiding the law of a kingdom. We will enjoy that which we are willing to receive (D&C 88:32) If you cannot abide the law, you cannot abide the glory.
There will always be someone more compassionate than you, and you will always be more disciplined than someone else. We will be given opportunities that we are able to bear and there will not be a single person who does not have a failing that requires fixing. And there will always be those who are quite content not to make any improvements.