By the Middle Ages, belief in the soul seems to have become the heart of Christian hope for an afterlife. As was true of Jewish thought, Christian thinkers found support in philosophy for the immortality of the soul; a similar philosophical support could not be mustered for resurrection. Popular piety gave support to the soul’s survival, even as the corpse was lowered into the ground. The immortality of the soul and the doctrine of resurrection are often thought to be equivalent but they represent opposing views of the body, history and community. Are the pleasures as well as the pains of the body to be included in a good, moral, and Christian life?
The belief in resurrection had the same problem in Christianity as it did in Judaism, namely, the status of the deceased between death and resurrection. With belief in the immortality of the soul, the problem shifted to the status of the soul before the last day. Thomas Aquinas argued that the soul continues to exist but is not a person until the restoration of the body. In recent times, Oscar Cullman argued that only resurrection was authentically Christian and should replace immortality.clxxxvii While many other authors have argued for re-establishing the centrality of belief in resurrection, belief in an immortal soul will likely continue to have a major place in Christian belief and prayer.
According to Christian belief, what follows death is judgment and then either heaven or hell. More precisely, death is followed by the particular judgment of the soul, a possible stint in purgatory, a final judgment on the last day, and eternity in heaven or hell. The idea of two judgments was a theological development that was needed to explain what happens immediately after death and at the same time to maintain belief in a resurrection on the last day.clxxxviii The New Testament pictures a final accounting when the good and the evil are separated. In subsequent centuries, as the focus shifted from the final resurrection to the individual soul, the judgment at death emerged as a frightful occasion. People prayed to be saved from sudden death (the opposite of what many would pray for today) in order to get themselves ready for the great trial.
In the thirteenth century, judgment was thought to take place before a stern divine judge. One’s deeds were placed in a scale. The hymn sung at the Catholic Mass warned: “Lo, the book exactly worded, Wherein all hath been recorded, Then shall judgment be awarded.”clxxxix No one could hope to survive the scrutiny without help from the Virgin Mary and the saints who might be able to temper divine justice.cxc Later in the Middle Ages, there developed belief in a final temptation at the moment of dying. The individual would see his or her whole life in review and be tempted either by despair over one’s sins or vainglory over one’s good deeds.cxci The belief gave support to deathbed conversions and the last act of contrition to gain forgiveness of sins.
An echo of this belief is found in a modern theological theory that each person has a final option at death. One can choose to die alone or one can die in communion with Christ.cxcii The intention here is positive, a last chance for those who have messed up their lives. But this dramatic, all-important choice can also be a source of terrible anxiety and unrealistic expectation. William Lynch wisely notes that “Christianity must always remain realistic, even about death, and should refuse to increase its burdens. Therefore, it will not demand a surcharge of fantasy at the very moment when that is least possible.”cxciii
Purgatory. The theological development of purgatory came largely from Augustine, while the imagery is especially from Dante.cxciv Purgatory was needed to explain a final readying for heaven of the souls not yet perfect. The fires of purgatory were said to be as bad as those of hell but arrival in purgatory meant ultimate success. The doctrine of purgatory created a link between the living and the dead. The Christians on earth prayed and performed good works for the “poor souls in purgatory,” who could no longer help themselves. The calculations of time to be served and the efficacy of certain prayers, especially the Mass, created a complicated system. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, the system had been corrupted by money and power-brokers. Protestant Christianity tried to eliminate purgatory but was never entirely successful. By the nineteenth century, there were references to an “intermediate state” or “progressive sanctification after death.”cxcv Given the remainder of Christian doctrine, something like purgatory is probably unavoidable.
Other religions also have an ambiguous condition following death. Jewish religion needed an intermediate state for the saved but imperfect soul. Reincarnation in Buddhism and Hinduism plays a similar role. In Catholic tradition, even up to the present time, purgatory is the glue for a grand cosmic design called the “communion of saints.” The saints in heaven and the faithful on earth are linked by their working to liberate the souls in purgatory.
Hell. The final destination for the dead is believed to be either hell or heaven. Of the two, hell has received the greater attention. The description of hell has been carried out in detail, often to lurid excess. One might guess that the horror of hell was too well described for the doctrine’s own good. At some point, the doctrine becomes so truly awful that it strains belief. A decline in belief in hell may paradoxically be tied to the success of preachers, poets, and playwrights in describing what a terrible place it is.
That line of thought, surprisingly, was raised by one of the most famous preachers of hell fire. Jonathan Edwards, a brilliant and learned man, is most remembered for his sermon on God holding the soul over the fires of hell. At the conclusion of one sermon on hell, Edwards says: “I suppose some of you have heard all that I have said with ease and quietness....You have been too much used to the roaring of heaven’s cannon to be frighted at it. It will therefore probably be in vain for me to say anything further to you.”cxcvi It must be wondered how accurate are the polls that show a decline of belief in hell during the twentieth century. In the distant past, many people said they believed in hell but their life’s activity casts doubt on the belief as more than notional assent.
The Christian belief in hell emerged from the Jewish understanding of Sheol that had developed over the centuries. That hell of the Jews was a place where the just were awaiting redemption, along with the wicked who were being punished. Christians say in their Creed that “He (Jesus) descended into hell.” In the imagery of the fourth Gospel, Jesus begins his resurrection from the center of the earth, carrying space and time with him. Having been “lifted up” on the cross, he is able to lift up the souls waiting in hell.
In the early centuries of Christianity; hell became a much worse place. The second-century Apocalypse of Peter described hell in obscene detail (for example, blasphemers hanging by their tongues).cxcvii Later centuries continued to add frightful details. Some of the imagery goes back to Jesus who did refer to the wicked being cast into everlasting fire.
A statement of Jesus that has been the basis of fiery sermons was Mk 9:48: “Hell, where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.”cxcviii Jesus, as he often did, was adapting a text from the prophets (Is.66:24) and applying it to the afterlife. Hell understood as a place of fire has always been a part of popular piety and was affirmed by church teaching. Fire is a powerful image but one that is difficult to take literally. John Hick, a contemporary theologian, writes that “bodies burning forever without being consumed or losing consciousness is as scientifically fantastic as it is morally revolting.”cxcix
Earlier commentators did not put the case that strongly but they looked for a meaning of hell that went beyond torture by fire. Augustine, while insisting that hell is real fire, identified the greatest suffering as spiritual, the fruitless repentance of the damned.cc The same path was followed by Thomas Aquinas, that the souls in hell are tortured by what they have lost.cci Even Dante, who had so much to do with the popular images of purgatory and hell, places the ultimate punishment in spiritual misery. Dante has Virgil say to the blasphemer, Capaneus, “only your own rage could be fit torment for your sullen pride.”ccii And Milton’s Satan says: “Which way I fly is Hell, myself am Hell.”cciii
Christian poets, mystics and philosophers have thus been able to interpret the fantastic idea of hell fire as a psychologically profound metaphor. If a human being is to share his or her life with others, then love becomes the highest Christian virtue. Conversely, the ultimate failure in life is the absence of love. Although pride is said to be the first of the capital sins, it is so because it blocks the capacity for love. “The sorrow, the unutterable loss of those charred stones which once were men, is that they have nothing more to be shared.”cciv Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit nearly reverses the meaning of hell by saying that it is other people, but the lack of true love continues to underlie the Christian understanding of hell.
Whatever images of hell are used, Christian writers insist that “the misery of hell is not so much a penalty imposed by God to make the sinner pay for his sins, as it is the necessary outcome of living a sinful life.”ccv Heaven is God accepted, purgatory is God purifying, hell is God rejected. “The flames of hell,” said Catherine of Genoa, “are the rejected flames of God’s love.”ccvi Following this logic, hell could be understood as invented and imagined by the sinner. The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes the soul on its journey in the “intermediate state” as it meets a series of frightening figures. Relief is found in the realization that these terrifying encounters are a product of the soul’s own imagining. There is also offered the comforting thought that since you are already dead they cannot kill you.ccvii In a contrasting logic, Dante’s despairing description of hell is that there is “no longer even a hope of death.”
At the heart of this despair is the fact that hell is eternal. That has always been a feature of the Christian hell, one defined as a doctrine by the Catholic Church. This belief in eternal punishment separates Christianity from Judaism which has the wicked suffering for at most one year. Many people who can understand the logic of a final judgment that corrects the injustices suffered in this life are still appalled by the seeming lack of proportionality in the idea of an eternity of punishment. Perhaps the most appalling aspect of the doctrine of hell was the belief commonly held – even by Thomas Aquinas – that one of the joys of heaven would be watching the punishment of the damned in hell. Contemporary people, including most Christians, are repelled by that idea. But for some other Christians, an unwillingness to believe in an eternal hell is a sign that Christianity has been corrupted by modern sentimentality.
The belief in a “universal salvation” is not an entirely new doctrine. Origen is the best known writer in the early church to posit that eventually all of creation is saved.ccviii Many writers, without directly taking on the doctrine of hell, suggest that God’s ways are unknown to us.ccix Hell may exist as a possibility but there is no proof that anyone (including Judas Iscariot) fails totally. Juliana of Norwich’s saying that “the Lord shall make well all that is not well” undermines the doctrine of an eternal hell without attacking it. John Hick uses the interesting analogy of God as a therapist. The number of sessions it may take to restore psychic health is unpredictable, but the divine therapist will not simply reject the patient as unsalvageable (an image that suggests a belief in reincarnation).ccx The seriousness of human choice, the outrage of injustice, and the need for retribution are not undercut by a non-eternal hell.
Heaven. As for heaven, the idea is easy to understand: the fulfillment of all human dreams and desires. But working out the details of that idea presents a challenge. Christians feel that they have inside information on heaven, but they still have to work within the range of images and metaphors that human history offers. The recounting of Jesus’ resurrection and his ascent into heaven are central to any Christian version of heaven but that report needs considerable filling out.
The New Testament is skimpier in details about afterlife than the Qur’an and many other religious traditions. The task has been left to poets, philosophers, and mystics to exercise their imaginations and conceptual skills. Christian writing over the centuries has been more concerned with describing hell than with describing heaven. Perhaps that is just the nature of the human imagination. But the somewhat pale versions of heaven offered as a lure to the faithful might not stir up an eager enthusiasm for the good. Many Christians might want to go to heaven simply because they are intensely aware of the only alternative.
Christian speculation on heaven is based on the New Testament but here, as elsewhere, Christian imagery is drawn from the Old Testament. One tension in the Bible is between heaven imagined either as a garden or as a city. Those who prefer the latter are quick to note that the Christian Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city. The movement from garden to city is what human history shows. However, people who think that the contemporary urban scene is a nightmare are tuned into biblical and post-biblical suggestions that the end of history is a return to the garden. Paradise is a restored but better garden, according to Augustine.ccxi
The images of both garden and city require some reference to ordinary human experience. Heaven is conceived of as better than what is already very good. The garden is an obviously attractive image, especially for people who are used to the desert. Abundance of food, rest from oppressive surroundings, and the fertility of the earth make up the image of an earthly paradise, which is a prefiguring of a heavenly paradise. Humans were excluded from the garden at the beginning of time but they have never lost their hope of return to harmony and peace.
The image of heaven as a city has a more distinct historical track. The first glimmer in the Bible is in the Book of Ezekiel which dates from the sixth century B.C.E. The center of Jewish life, the city of Jerusalem, becomes the model for a greater city in the world-to-come. The earliest Christians took over the language of a new and heavenly Jerusalem. The last book of the New Testament, the Revelation of John, was especially influential in permanently fixing the “new Jerusalem” as a Christian, as well as a Jewish symbol.
The most dominant image of the endtime that Christianity adopted from Judaism was kingdom or reign of God. Here, too, the image of heaven is based on a particular earthly experience. The Hebrews had tried having a king ruling over a kingdom. Although David is thought of as a great king, the whole experience worked out rather poorly. Thus, God’s kingdom is thought not to be a projection of a human kingdom but its correction. The sharply different ways that one can interpret this image have played a role in Catholic-Protestant differences on the role of church.
Catholics and Protestants do agree that the image of kingdom underwent radical transformation in the preaching of Jesus and his death-resurrection. In the nineteenth century, one of the most quoted texts of the New Testament was Luke 17:21: “The kingdom of God is within you.”ccxii This metaphor of an interior kingdom does not seem logical. Jesus describes the kingdom as having gates, seats and rivers. The “reign of God,” which many Christian exegetes prefer to kingdom, largely overcomes the logical problem but offers a thinner image. Jesus seems to have applied the idea to his own body so that kingdom or reign of God take their meaning from Jesus’ resurrection.
This re-centering of kingdom or reign in the person of Jesus, the Christ, gave rise to the Christian ways of imagining heaven. On one side of the tradition is the vision of God, on the other side is union with the divine. The two symbols are shared with Jewish and Muslim traditions but Christianity worked its own distinctive twists around the Christ figure. The philosophical-minded have sought for a vision of truth and reality “in Christ.” The mystics have sought a final unity, when “all things will be Christ’s and Christ will be God’s.” The great figures in Christian history, such as Augustine, Aquinas and Dante, tried to hold on to both images.
The image of heaven as a “beatific vision” was almost a foregone conclusion once the language of revelation was adopted. Revelation is a visual metaphor, the unveiling of the truth which comes out of the darkness into the light. Although the New Testament says that “no man has ever seen or can see God (1Tim. 6:16), it also says “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” (1Cor.13:12).
As Christian theology developed, emphasis was placed on the understanding of a complex belief system. Aristotle and Plato played a large part in the forming of Christian doctrine and theology. Christianity absorbed the premise that the highest human power is intellect and that intellectual knowing is a kind of seeing. Early Christianity struggled mightily with Gnosticism, the claim to a secret knowledge of the divine held by a superior class. For Christians, the unveiling of the truth can only come at the end. “We shall see him as he is” (1Jn 3:2).
Even Augustine, with his insistence that love (caritas) is the heart of Christian life, gave support to heaven as a kind of vision. A more erotic form of love was excluded by Augustine in his controversies with those who expected a thousand years of earthly delights.ccxiii Thomas Aquinas devotes two sections of his Summa to the beatific vision.ccxiv Human intelligence when strengthened by the “light of glory” will be flooded with joy at the sight of God. Aquinas has other more mystical and affective possibilities for imagining heaven but they are only hinted at. Aquinas had a vision a few weeks before his death that made him wish to destroy all he had written. Perhaps his having a vision confirms his metaphor of vision or it could suggest that the vision was of something greater than vision.
The more affective side of Christianity was left to the mystics. Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century was at the beginning of a tradition that used sexual and marital imagery to describe the relation of human and divine. Vision is superseded by the tactile and the inter-subjective.ccxv These writings often veered close to a monistic or pantheistic philosophy in which the human is finally absorbed by the divine. The great mystic, Meister Eckhart, has often been treated as a misplaced Buddhist.ccxvi Eckhart certainly used dazzling phrases that confounded church officials. However, all Christian mystics, including Eckhart, hold to the Christ. What may sound like pantheism is the exaggerations of love poetry. The paradox of the Christ as both divine and human provides a distinctive characteristic for Christian mysticism.
For many Eastern writers, Christian mysticism is necessarily flawed; it can never get beyond a duality. For Christian writers, mystical union in Christ is not a final obstacle to be overcome. As Kierkegaard put it: “Never anywhere has any doctrine on earth brought God and man so near together as Christianity....Neither has any doctrine so carefully defended itself against the most shocking of all blasphemies, that after God had taken the step, it then should be taken in vain”ccxvii
What ordinary Christians have believed about heaven may have only a faint connection to either beatific vision or mystical union. The believers have been sure that heaven is where their recently deceased loved ones are gathered around Christ, the Savior. Some believe in heaven because they hate their lives; some believe in heaven as the fulfilling of what is best in their experience. Neither scripture nor church doctrine gives a clear picture of what heaven is supposed to be. The Christian is free to let his or her imagination roam. The fact that Christian believers usually can only come up with stereotypical banalities, which Hollywood movies employ, does not prove that the belief in heaven is unreal. It is not beyond human hope even if it is beyond human imagination.
CHAPTER NINE: HEAVEN, HELL AND BEYOND
As the previous chapter described, the last things, according to traditional Christian belief, are heaven and hell. After the individual judgment and the final judgment, after the repairs of purgatory, all that then remains is the eternal happiness of heaven or the eternal punishment of hell. The previous chapter viewed Christianity almost entirely from the inside. Its ideas and language also need to be looked at in comparison to other religions. Can a modern person make any sense of a life beyond life or a world-to-come? Christianity shares a concern with other religions and philosophies about the meaning of human life and what constitutes a fulfilled life.
Some people wonder whether dismissing the concern for an afterlife is itself realistic and whether that attitude could bring us frightful substitutes. George Steiner, meditating on the Holocaust that happened in the midst of an enlightened age and an enlightened country, writes: “To have neither Heaven nor Hell is to be intolerably deprived and alone in a world gone flat. Of the two, Hell proved the easier to re-create.”ccxviii
Is it possible that the only way to get free of heaven and hell is to go beyond them? Is it possible that heaven and hell are symbols of something deeper and greater that calls for exploration? Any attempt to shut down individual life at death threatens to make death into the final god of life. Human beings throughout the centuries have seen their lives connected to some larger purpose and meaning.
A modern individualism which proclaims “tears of joy, alleluia, I am setting us free; no more heaven, no more hell, only the earth,”ccxix is certainly attractive to some people at some times. Whether a thorough individualism can be sustained without being parasitic on assumptions from past centuries is still being weighed in the balance. The individual’s death is a test of the meaning that unites past and present, person and community, humanity and the cosmos. Tolstoy’s question, “Is there in my life a meaning which would not be destroyed by inevitable, imminent death?” has to be answered implicitly or explicitly by every individual.ccxx
The Christian answer of heaven or hell provided a simple, clear answer to the question of life’s meaning. But as the previous chapter suggested, any extensive reflection on traditional images of heaven and hell reveals their vulnerability. Hell was overdeveloped in imagery to the point where its horrors became ludicrous and for most people unbelievable. Heaven has been underdeveloped and remains a less than compelling attraction for many people, a place of white gowns, billowing clouds, and harp playing. The idea of infinite joy and unending happiness overwhelms the imagination and can leave the Christian with a blank mind. Other religions, such as Islam, supply some concrete details for heaven, but there is a problem in finding nourishing images of heaven that can withstand the bite of modern criticism.