Life events made me a questioner. A doubter. No doubt about it.
What I took for fact in my youth and young adulthood looks far from it today. While different faiths use different ways of referring to heaven and hell, my early experience included fiery sermons during summer revivals, Sunday school classes, scripture, and some family conversations. All of these drilled into my head the blissful heaven above the sky and the burning hell below the earth. Heaven was signified by sweet utterances of blissful everlasting life and an upward pointing index finger, and hell was signified by a jabbing finger pointing down to the inferno of writhing sinners, signified by damning words and voices.
Such formulations were part of my life, even as their intensity waned as I entered my early thirties. The waning began irrevocably with the tragic death of my mother at my father’s hands and the hell on earth that befell our family. Hell began for me when I picked up a newspaper late on the day she died, and continued the day after her death when I entered the home in which my older brother and I were born. Hell was kept alive by my brother’s accidental death a few years later. While some construed these tragedies as “God’s will,” neither of them was the will of any God I had worshipped. I could not believe in such senseless reasoning.
Now, decades later, I almost chuckle at the formulations of the heaven and hell of my youth, meant to govern my behavior, my thinking, and my being. What were foisted off as words to save souls were nothing more than attempts to control people, gain power, and build status. Maybe the proponents of heaven and hell thought they were doing good, improving humanity, and feeling proud of their place in it all. After all, that is what they were taught to believe in seminary.
Proponents of heaven and hell today really miss the point of life, in my view. They diminish humanity rather than enhance it. They promote denial and suffering in this life for the reward of a heavenly afterlife.
Life experiences have changed all those early conceptions of heaven and hell in my mind. The realities of life replaced dogmas of the past. Here’s what I now believe about heaven and hell, and why I believe it. No, my beliefs aren’t facts, except that they exist in my head and life.
- Heaven is happiness; hell is anguish. Heaven is the smile on the face of a happy child; hell is the stricken face of a child with a broken heart after parents divorce.
- Heaven is feeling worthy and useful to others; hell is feeling helpless, useless, and depressed. Heaven is making a positive difference in the lives of others; hell is dragging others down and tearing them apart.
- Heaven is love for others and from others we care about; hell is being ignored and treated as invisible and worthless. Heaven is feeling whole in the presence of people we care about; hell is feeling rejected by those people.
- Heaven is being free to think, speak, and live in comfort and safety; hell is a stifled spirit, a muzzled existence, and a life of grinding poverty and insecurity. Heaven is freedom in a world that values other lives and other ways of living and thinking; hell is oppression, hunger, and looming death at any moment.
- Heaven is a good life on earth; hell is misery and suffering on earth. Heaven and hell are not the old conceptions of sages, but the real life experiences of each of us.
Early conceptions of heaven and hell were centuries old before the age of science. Earth was conceived as the “only world,” and it was believed to be flat. In humanity’s grappling to understand life then, it seemed logical that heaven was beyond the sky and that evil resided in the hell beneath the earth.
Now we know that what is often called “the heavens” refers to planets, stars, galaxies—billions of them, and the universe. We are surrounded by the heavens above our heads, below our feet, and in all directions in between.
Today I live what I view as a heavenly life. Love is abundant in my marriage, family, and among my friends. I enjoy the freedom to think, say, and write what I like. I live in ample housing, have needed clothing, and plenty of food. My health permits me to have an active life. All of this is heaven and I am grateful every day. But hell could return at any time. Accidents, disease, natural disasters, and violence are part of life the world over.
All any of us can do is our best, take each day as it comes, and deal with whatever happens. Life does not come with a guarantee.