Just returned from a drive to Fingal Headland in New South Wales. There was no particular reason to go, other than to get out of the house for a while. It was a good opportunity to do some photography, so why not?
I've also just finished reading a second book by Rob Bell, titled “Love Wins”. It left me with lots to think over about the way I understand heaven and hell. You might think this is a strange coupling: Not heaven with hell so much, but beach photography with either of them.
Well, I think it's a perfectly natural combination. But first I should explain.
Rob Bell has a lot to answer for. He has started me thinking about the heaven and the hell I believe in, and reminded me of the heaven and hell I do not.
The heaven I understand and believe in is not a place up in the sky. It is not full of clouds, angels playing harps, or where an old man with a white beard sits at a set of pearly gates deciding whom to allow inside. That, in my humble opinion, is a childish understanding that has no basis in reality. It is a heaven that is very popular mainly with people who do not believe in the idea of a heaven at all. It is a heaven that is easy to poke fun at and dismiss as having any relevance. It is not part of Christian faith or belief and I very much doubt that it is the type of heaven anyone much over nine years of age could believe in.
My heaven is nothing like that. Not even close. It is not bound in place or time, yet it can be found anywhere and anytime; especially on a visit to the beach, but really, anytime and anywhere at all. This morning, walking up the sand path through brush and palms, listening to the roar of the surf, I had no doubt at all that I was experiencing heaven. When my wife arrives home, and I've remembered to do all the chores and she is smiling, heaven touches me. When the grandchildren run to me; when I know the love of friends; when I am out walking; heaven is more real to me than I can express. I can touch heaven in the trust of a child, the smile of a passerby, and even sometimes even when I worship in church. Once in a special while I feel God's presence and am in no doubt at all about what heaven feels like.
Heaven is a spiritual reality to me. It could not be more real if it were made of concrete and I tripped over it.
Now . . . hell. Will I surprise you be saying that red devils holding pitchforks and tending furnaces are a complete nonsense to me? Hellfire and brimstone might once have been useful for keeping ignorant people in line, stopping them stealing, raping and treating each other badly, but that never was very effective as a deterent and it has nothing to do with reality in my humble opinion. Once again, such a vision is not in any sense one I could imagine many, if any, people over the age of nine believing in. I do not believe in such a hell and I am not worried in the least about going to such a place.
The hell I believe in is much worse.
Just as I believe heaven is not a place as we know it (but is real), so I understand hell is not a place but is just as real. I believe it is where we find ourselves when we have no hope, no love and where we have lost our connection to our creator. Too airy fairy? Well then I imagine hell is not so hard to believe in when you've been betrayed, abused, bullied or excluded and feel like a worthless piece of shit. I imagine hell is an ever present reality for someone who no longer believes they are worth anything, or for someone who is in the midst of a war, is drug addicted, has a wasting disease, watches their child die, or when for whatever reason beauty, joy, love and happiness have departed.
Get the picture?
Hell is real enough.
Now, having written this stuff, and I just had to after reading Rob Bell's book, it may be that I have given the impression that I think heaven and hell are really only just concepts for the here and now; this present life. I don't believe that. Yes, I am sure they are real and present here in this life, but that's a long way from the full story.
I believe heaven and hell are timeless realities extending beyond death, and I cannot even begin to explain why, except that I know it in the depths of my being. I should say that I agree with Rob Bell when he argues that a loving God does not and can not banish anyone beyond his love and so I guess also that I will make more than a few Christians angry with me when I say this. After all, a whole lot of people have spent a whole lot of time and effort praying earnestly, doing good works, and considering themselves more worthy of heaven than others who do not do these things. If those 'others' do not go to hell when they die, that doesn't sound fair. I understand that.
I don't believe there are no consequences for people who reject God. However I believe that no one is beyond God's love, whether alive or dead. To explain why I believe this would take far too much space but I didn't want you to think I was one of those who took delight in the thought of all those nasty non believers, back sliders, sinners and assorted unworthies being shunted off to eternal hell after death. I just can't believe God does that. For a start, if that were to be true then where does a recalcitrant sinner like me stand?
Like I said, if I were to try and tidy up all the loose ends I have unravelled, we would be here too long.
Sorry, that's the best I can do, but Rob Bell makes a good attempt in his book and it is well worth reading (available on Amazon Kindle).
We can be aware of heaven anywhere and anytime yet our own private hell may be very real too.