I suppose for most of my life I have considered heaven to be a somewhat similar experience. It was to be a fantastic and mystical place, streets of gold, big pillared buildings, and large mansions that you could live in with beautiful, well manicured hedges and lawns. It was to be a dignified place, very prim and proper - rather stuffy, actually. Most likely, there would be a lot of recreational joggers in heaven. The music would be symphonic. All in all, although it would be a "nice" place, heaven would be a place of hard work and sacrifice, and it really wouldn't be any fun.
Hell, on the other hand, would be a place where you got to indulge all your whims. All the "guilty pleasures" that were prohibited on earth would be allowed in hell. There would be spent beer bottles and cigarette butts on the floor, parties complete with cheap sex and big-busted, scantily clad floozies. The music would of course be rock music. Your parents wouldn't approve of hell, but it would be fun.
Some people believe that to get to heaven your good deeds are weighed against your bad deeds on some sort of a supernatural scale. If the good deeds outweigh the bad deeds then the pearly gates would open for you. If the reverse was true, the trap door would open up and the devil would be awaiting you in a fiery lake of sulphur and a pitchfork to your butt. Of course, with all my biblical training, I "knew" that the proper answer was that you also had to say those magic words when St. Peter greeted you. "I accept Jesus as my saviour." That way, even if your scale was tilted waaaaaaay too strongly to the bad deed side, the door to heaven would still open up and you would be granted entry. Many would say "by the skin of your teeth."
Recently, however, I have begun to question the whole concept of what heaven is and who God is. In my old way of thinking, God and the devil were both cosmic puppeteers who were fighting with each other, each wanting to control people and get them to behave certain ways. God, even though he created pleasure and laughter, wanted us to "sacrifice" these things to please him. Pleasure was a fleshly thing and experiencing it was not godly. In fact, the more of it that we would deny for him, the more spiritual he would consider us and the more proud of us he would be. In fact, if we did a lot of fun things, conventional religious wisdom said that we needed to make sure we prayed even more and had longer quiet times alone with him each day, I guess to balance everything out. We needed to hand out more tracts, knock on more doors, boycott more holidays, businesses or television shows, have religious conversations more often and convince more people to think the way that we thought so that they, too, could be "saved". There was always plenty of guilt to go around, and never much peace.
But my trek through the scriptures did not bear any of this out to be true. To get a complete understanding of heaven, I believe that one must have a more complete understanding of who God is. Scriptures explain him in a lot of ways, but his basic characteristics are found in Paul's letter to the Galatians. They are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. Furthermore, the prophet Micah said that God desires us to "act justly, to love mercy, and walk in humility". When I began meditating on these things, I came to the conclusion that THAT is what heaven is. An eternal life where these attributes would be fully present, all the time, with everyone. It really doesn't matter if heaven is a specific place in the clouds or if it merely encompasses the vast and expanding universe of planets, galaxies, and solar systems. The fact of the matter is that being in heaven will cause us to be in the very presence of God and all his characteristics. Hell, then, would be a place where none of these characteristics exist. There would be no joy, no peace, nobody would be patient or kind, everyone would act selfishly and would be easily prone to violence. No wonder there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth! What a horrible eternal existence coupled with no hope of it ever changing!
I was recently reading a Christian book whose author was exhorting his readers to love God above all other things. He used the following question to make his point:
"If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, all the food you ever liked, all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ wasn't there?"
My immediate response to this quote is that its very premise is a bunch of rubbish. It is nonsense and the author who penned it has a fundamental misunderstand of who God is. For if there can be all this "good" in the universe, even heaven itself, without God, then who is God? On the contrary, all of these good things are a PART of God, representations of his character! Scriptures tell us that ALL good things are from God and that the very magnificence of creation testifies to his presence. My question to this author, then, is "What God are you exhorting us to worship? And if he doesn't embody these good things, why should we worship him?"
If my previous post accurately portrays Jesus' message, and salvation is actually found by embracing the truth (having our eyes opened) and becoming Jesus - embodying his character and spirit, then is it possible for someone to embrace only a part of Jesus' message and still hold on to certain beliefs of the devil? Maybe they're a gentle and patient person, but have no self-control. Could there be a partial heaven, a level of heaven if you will, where certain people would experience an eternity filled with gentleness and patience, yet at the same time would be filled with totally self-absorbed people? I don't know the answer to that question. Dante pondered that possibility as he penned the inferno and many other scholarly people have suggested that there will be levels of severity of punishment in hell. Many scholars also believe there will be levels of heaven. Could this be the "levels" of heaven and hell?
I tend to believe that salvation is an "all or none" kind of deal. People who truly fall in love with part of who God is will most likely embrace all of who he is and vice versa. But I don't know that for sure. I am inclined to believe, however, that if there is a level of heaven or hell, it will be based upon a promise of an eternal existence completely without those aspects of God that one rejected while living. And in that way, hell is no punishment at all. It is simply a choice that one has had a lifetime to make. What will you embrace as truth and who will you become? If you choose to love, then love you shall have in return. If you choose self-indulgence in life, then self-indulgent people shall be your eternal prize. God's only punishment in hell, if you will call it punishment, is that he will completely remove himself and his character from those who choose not to embrace him. Conversely, however, God's reward in heaven is the complete and unfettered surrounding of all of his characteristics of love. And THAT's something to look forward to and live for.
Next Post: What is scripture? And is it infallible?