(For Shannon and my sister Michelle)
Recently, two or three people asked me about The Afterlife and why I believe in it and so on. At the same time, there has been lots of death, near-death, illness, etc. around me lately, so I thought I’d weigh in on the topic… As always, this is my opinion. It doesn’t have to be yours. I encourage you to do your own theology.
“And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died[a] so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died.” — from the apostle Paul’s 1st letter to the church at Thessalonaika, Chapter 4, verses 13 and 14. New International Version of the Bible.
The Afterlife — heaven, hell and all that kind of stuff — is the place of God’s unfinished business. That’s why we need it — because so many times, life has unfinished business and God has unfinished business with us. What goes on there and why people go is the stuff of details and deep, twisted theology and pain for people in this life, so I’ll talk a little bit about that, too, I guess.
But here’s the deal: Did you ever meet somebody who was soooo nice, but never got any respect? Did you ever meet someone who was soooo evil, but never got caught, or was never really held accountable for their actions? Those are the reasons, in order, why we need a heaven and a hell.
Ted Bundy shouldn’t just be dead. He should be DEAD-dead-dead-dead-DEAD. And when he’s done with that, he should be killed. The same is true for Pol Pot, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and a whole host of people who tortured, maimed, destroyed, and the killed millions of other people. Since each of those lives taken was created by God, and they are sacred, that much destruction of sacred property ought to get you more than simple death. There’s a doctor in Hartford who died a few years ago. After he died, police found thousands of pictures of child pornography that he had taken over the years. This man should fry in hell, it seems to me, for all of the soul destruction he caused on a scale that I can’t imagine. Let’s say it takes a lifetime to get over sexual abuse, that’s 1000 lifetimes of repayment that this man owes. I, for one, would like to see that man get a taste of his own medicine for awhile — a LONG while. I can’t tell you how many case of sexual abuse I have seen in my practice and how much devastation it has caused. The entire therapy field could run for years just on the income generated by sexually abused clients. Besides, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. One person is molested, they molest 2 or 3 from the next generation and away we go… Shouldn’t people that cause this kind of harm pay for the harm that they have caused? Welcome to hell.
As I say to clients who have been abused, tortured, etc… “I hope they like a really warm place, for a really long time, because that’s what they are going to get”… This invariably draws a smile because they feel heard, believed, and relieved of their own need for vengeance. God will get vengeance for them. They can have some peace, some closure, some justice, even if they themselves never get justice.
I also think there’s going to be a lot of surprises regarding heaven and hell. There are, I believe, going to be a lot of people standing in the wrong line when their number comes up. My daughter and I were talking about two kids in her class — one boy and one girl — who are popular, rich, … and mean. They pick on other kids, they isolate other kids, they avoid some of my daughter’s classmates and cause pain by doing so. The list goes on. If this were to go on for decades, these kids have two different problems — the first being that they would think that (since they were so popular with their peers) that God would be ready to welcome them into the afterlife just to hang around them, too. The second problem is that all the grief they caused others often causes people to believe that God doesn’t love them. They think that “if God loved me, these people wouldn’t pick on me day-after-day and make my life a living hell”. People extrapolate from “people hate me” to “God must hate me”. Nothing could be further from the truth. This, it seems to me, leads to surprises in the lines the after-life registration party. The people who think God despises them will go to heaven, while the people who think that God loves them while they did mean things( and implied mean things about God), will go to hell. In the parish, pastors talk about “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”. If you take that to the extreme, you get God’s infinite justice and mercy — you get heaven and hell.
A couple of non-traditional thoughts: I don’t think people go to hell because they’ve never heard of Jesus, or because they can’t believe in Jesus, or they believe something else. Ultimate punishment for not doing anything really wrong seems just stupid to me. It seems to be the very opposite of the gospel. justice, or mercy to send people to hell on a technicality. Gandhi in hell? I think not. And if I’m supposed to worship a God who would do that, I’d rather not. Thanks, I’ll pass.
The other thing I believe that’s not “standard stuff” is suicide. A friend/colleague recently had a friend relapse and, I believe, commit suicide after years of sobriety. While I personally believe that life is God’s biggest gift, I also believe that God shouldn’t punish people for being in such pain that they kill themselves. Putting people into pain for being in pain is like God saying, “You want something to cry about? I’ll give you something to cry about!”. It’s one of the most evil phrases I know of in this life — among humans. I can’t imagine God acting that way in the afterlife. I just can’t. To those who make people want to commit suicide — I think you bear a lot more responsibility than you know. The idea that they would go to hell and you wouldn’t is the opposite of everything I believe. Remember, for me, the afterlife is the place of unfinished business. Helping people to see their own goodness is what God does for a living — now if possible, later if not possible. The idea that God would suddenly do something else when nobody’s looking doesn’t make sense to me.
On the other hand, I think that picking on God’s creation — devaluing it, calling it worthless or stupid or not worthy of God’s love — really angers God. The idea that God would suddenly reward such behavior after we leave this plane doesn’t make sense to me, either.
About heaven: I think that people who never caught a break in this life deserve a break later, and it should last a good, long time. Eternity’s good… Painful cancer? A nicer room in heaven. Death at an early age? Life forever. That seems like the mercy that God extends in the Bible all the time. Job’s life gets ripped to shreds and God fixes it in triplicate. Jesus is totured for a day or more and dead for three days? Give him a return trip to see his friends and enemies and let him live for ever!
Is hell forever? Are there guys with pitchforks in anything but New Yorker cartoons? I don’t know. I somehow doubt the first and worry about the second. My sense is that justice — even for the doctor above — doesn’t take forever. It just takes as long as it takes.
My wife and I were watching old re-runs of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show the other night and Buffy’s love interest — a vampire with a soul — is tortured simply by remembering all of the things he’s done and the faces of e3veryone he ever killed with glee. That is the punishment I would like the Hartford doctor to have in hell. Let him review each and every one of the pictures he took — and let him see all the pain he caused. That would be justice, it seems to me. And, God is far more merciful than I’ll ever be, so eternityon fire seems a lot too much, as compared to, say, a little too much.
What about the average person? The one who’s not Pol Pot or the Hartford Doctor? They don’t seem to me to require burning in hell, though there are certainly those who think so. And what about the Gandhis, Martin Luther Kings, and Mother Theresa’s of this life? Give them the special all-eternity pass with the best seats in the house. We know who they are and if we can figure it out, then God certainly should give special kudos to them, as well. There aren’t that many of them, What the heck. I’ll gladly let them have whatever they want for all eternity, including a chance to do more good things here on earth, if that’s what they want.
Is this a very biblical portrait of the Afterlife? I think generally, yes, but not exactly close in the details.
Oh, one last thing: I don’t think people should waste their time worrying about when the end of the world comes or when hell might arrive. I think people should be worried about justice in this life and the next. I think they should change their evil ways right away, right now. But whether the devil is coming from Russia or China or Israel in 1500 or 1860 or 1992 or 2000 was a simple waste of time. It still is. Devoting most of your day to fear, rather than to joy, is to miss the point of worshipping God. God is all things good and holy, not all things scary and stupid. To choose to focus on the other things is to let the tail wag the dog.
But that’s just me. What do you think?