Malachi 3: 16-18; 4: 1-3
Luke 23: 32-34, 39-43
Rev. 20: 11-12; 21: 1-2
Heaven and Hell are Relevant Now
Rev. Kit Billings
A priest was once preaching to his congregation concerning heaven and hell. To emphasize the difference between the two, he asked that all who wanted to go to heaven stand up with him. The entire congregation rose. He then asked that all who wanted to go to hell stand up with him. No one rose. For full dramatic impact he waited for several seconds before continuing. The silence was broken by a small boy who slowly rose to his feet. The astonished priest spoke to the boy and said, "Surely son, a fine young man like yourself does not want to go to hell."
The boy answered, "Maybe not sir, but I just couldn't stand the sight of you standing there all alone."
I love that story for two reasons: One, because it brings home the essential difference between heavenly and hellish people-heavenly folks have true love inside of them, which is willing to sacrifice itself for the sake of others. And two, because it's a nice way to start talking about the subject of Heaven and Hell. That boy was feeling and using heaven's power of love within him when he said those words, which was spiritually building Heaven inside of him, conjoining him with the Lord internally, which Jesus said must happen while we live on earth. "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you. Whoever holds my commandments and does them is the one who loves Me;…and I will love him and will make a home within him."
Today I'd like to talk with you about Heaven and Hell. This is, of course, a LARGE subject, and so I'm going to discuss just some basic aspects of our theology on this vital topic, as well as others to give some historical perspective.
Heaven and Hell are important to think about. Why? Why do you think it's important to reflect about what many would call the "afterlife?" One response might be: "Well, so many religions talk about an afterlife, it must be important. After all, I might be in this world for some 40, 70 or 100 years but then what? What will become of me after I die?"
Many ancient world religions would say that at some point we're all going to enter a spiritual realm after we die, and that the good folk are gathered into one huge heavenly place and the evil folks into a hellish one. Many religions tend to put Heaven and Hell off in the distance-something that's very important, but not imminent. The New Church, the Swedenborgian Christian theological position, builds upon ancient Zoroastrian, Jewish, Hellenistic, and Christian standpoints and says that Heaven and Hell are INTIMATELY PRESENT with us right now, and every moment of life.
Without them we would lack basic spiritual freedom. And most of all, without the Lord God Himself and His Divine Kingdom of Love and Truth flowing greatly inside of your inmost being you would fall dead, just like that! The Lord's Kingdom is truly within and ALL AROUND YOU!
Can you feel it?
Can you see it?
Can you hear it?
Swedenborgian theology would say that both Heaven and Hell are present within and around us RIGHT NOW. That is, the energy and influence of both are here. It doesn't take too much reflection to see that this is true, for every day we all go through choices of what to do, say and think about that are either essentially good and useful or bad and hurtful. Second, it's important to think about Heaven and Hell, especially within the New Church outlook, because this invariably brings us personally into contact with our marvelous tenet that we are all born for Heaven! You are born for Heaven! Isn't that something?! Isn't that marvelous!
So many churches start out saying that we're born spiritually corrupt, due to "original sin." That is, born guilty and worthy of Hell. But the New Church offers that we start out, as the Lord said to Abram, as a blessing in God's eyes. We have Heaven's own "blueprint" within us, as well as God's gift of being created in His image, with the potential to grow more and more into His likeness. Yet we also have a very serious inheritance from the Hells as well, since our ancient forefathers and foremothers made many choices for self-centeredness over loving God and His Divine truth. In the New Church view, either Heaven or Hell can be developed and built inside of us in a conscious and very real way-and here's the most important point I'll make with you today: How we live our lives on earth determines which spiritual structure will be built!
Basic, internal starting blocks from both God's Kingdom of Heaven and from Hell's own kind of delight and motivation create strong leanings in both directions. And so, we are free to reject the Lord's wonderful gift of His inheritance for the Kingdom of Love and Truth. This spiritual freedom being what it is puts Heaven and Hell directly before us (and more importantly, within us).
An Historical Overview
Now, to put things into perspective, let's do an overview of beliefs on Heaven and Hell. There have been many ideas in history on the nature of the afterlife and how it relates to us now, as well as what is needed in life to ensure one's entrance into Heaven following physical death.
The ancient Iranian religion known as Zoroastrianism, for example (ca. 1400 BCE), supported a view of Heaven and Hell, as well as bodily resurrection after death. This kind of apocalyptic theology is still very popular today in addition to first century times with Jesus and His disciples. For Zoroaster, the deceased soul was judged by God and went to either Heaven or Hell for a time, yet true fulfillment and happiness could not be found until the soul was united again with its earthly storehouse.
Ancient Semitic cultures, before the call of Abraham, came to worship deceased ancestors as "major players" in man's destiny. People back then prayed not only to God, but also to Mom and Dad, so to speak. One ancient Hebrew perspective agreed with this and saw that communication with and veneration of deceased relatives was highly important, since they had influence upon the believer's daily life. The "neatherworld" was the home of the dead, also known as "Sheol"-and both God and one's deceased relatives deserved the earth-dweller's attention. Heaven, for the ancient Jew, was a high and lofty place for God alone; the Divine was far above human beings, and from that lofty zone Yahweh looked down from on high.
The concept of Sheol was a very widespread ancient belief in Semitic cultures, one that was more hellish than heavenly in nature. The ancient Semitic cultures, which ancient Hebrews were but one, disagreed with bodily resurrection. Instead, the faded residue of the human being lived in a deplorable realm, Sheol, which was essentially "a land of gloom and chaos, where light is as darkness." The human spirit back then was seen as something very shadowy and insubstantial after death. No wonder in Psalm 30 we read: "O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, and restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit."
The whole purpose of life was to live with God's blessings in this world; life after death was meaningless and devoid of substance and power. Later Roman, certain Jewish sects, and early Christians held beliefs that were a major departure from these ancient ones, such as that Heaven became a place not just for God but also for the faithful good people who loved and contemplated upon the Divine.
After the more ancient times past (ca. 580 BCE), a certain strain of prophetic Jews, which the prophet Ezekiel was a part, brought back bodily resurrection from the old crypts of the Iranian Zoroastrian days. Ezekiel's vision of the plain of dry bones receiving new flesh and new life exemplifies such newly evolving Jewish beliefs. It's very interesting to note that we still see proponents of this theology of resurrection today by many fundamentalist Christians who look forward to the great Apocalyptic upheaval of "end times" where past spirits will reunite with their renewed bodies in preparation for judgment to go eventually to either Heaven or Hell.
Another ancient viewpoint, which took over Orthodox Judaism after King Josiah's reforms (ca. 640 BCE), was known as the "Yahweh-alonist" sect. It, too, held that there are no special promises for the dead and that Yahweh is a "God of the living, not of the dead." This religious following was adamant that Yahweh alone should be worshiped and prayed to and not deceased ancestors nor Saints, and that God was the Power that gave victory in war as well as prosperity on earth. Along with Yahweh worship, the Josiah reforms lifted up the veneration of the patriarchs and Jewish martyrs-but only God deserved prayers and sacrifice. Orthodox Israelite theology turned toward nationalism, and focused on the practices of a this-worldly religion. In The Book of Job we see its influence when Job's eventual reward after horrendous suffering comes in the form of tremendous worldly wealth and comfort. In Job 42:10 we read: "And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before."
Eventually, more militaristic and more powerful nations like the Assyrians and Babylonians swept through Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Then the Persians conquered the Holy Land, and then the Greeks, followed by the mighty Roman Empire. The Greeks and Romans highly developed the theology of the "soul," and saw much more meaning in life after death, recognizing that God rewards those who live faithful good lives here on earth. Their reward was the Elysian Fields, the home of the blest, which began by entering a very special doorway into a heavenly way of life. If you saw the movie "Gladiator" you would have seen a lovely depiction of this whenever the courageous General Maximus was brushing close to death's door.
As the Jews became vassals several times over prior to and during the life of Jesus Christ, which meant they had to swallow the bitter pill of living under foreign landlords and heavy taxes, followers of Yahweh came into intimate contact with foreign views of life after death, of Heaven and Hell, which helped produce three major Jewish viewpoints at the time of Jesus' ministry.
The Pharisees were fanatical about spiritual purity through strict observance of Mosaic Law, especially through ritualistic worship and prayer, and they believed that all Jews should live up to their standards. They, like the Romans, saw a positive view of the afterlife. Pharisaic Jews believed in bodily resurrection. Not much is known about their views on the afterlife, but it seems it was more positive than the theology of Sheol. For the Pharisees and their followers, Heaven was essentially a renewed Jewish state brought about by God's almighty arm over pagan nations. Faithfulness to the Law, and doing the outward acts of many rituals every day would bring about a new heavenly Jewish state. The Sadducees denied bodily resurrection as well as the survival of any human spirit following death. According to the historian Josephus, the Sadducees held that "the soul perishes with the body." Then there was the more individualistic views of the ascetic Essenes. At death, the immortal soul ascended to heaven leaving behind the base, corrupt bodily vessel. The Essenes withdrew from the politics of the day, unlike the Zealots and the Pharisees. Heaven for the Essenes was similar to that of the Greeks-paradisiacal and peaceful. The harshness and pain of earth was to be left behind and the soul could finally contemplate God.
In Jesus' time, certain strains of Judaism did recognize that after death there was a "place" for the righteous, often referred to as "heaven." First century Jews also recognized a kind of Hell as well called "Gehenna," which was the realm for the condemned. Gehenna was the fiery dungheep of punishment for those unfaithful to the Covenant of God given through Moses. Gehenna refers to the mounds of garbage that were burned back in the Lord's day in the Valley of Hinnom. Gehenna replaced Sheol, and was also known as Hell.
Christianity turned some prior beliefs on their heads, bringing the Infinite God of the Universe down to earth, as well as the Kingdom of Heaven within the Lord Jesus Christ. The early Christians understood the immanence and closeness of the Kingdom of Heaven, since the Lord Himself preached that it was at hand! Clearly, one could DEEPLY FEEL the Kingdom of God so very much within the love, the words, the healing and the very gaze of the charismatic tenderness of Jesus Christ.
Heaven was born on earth within Jesus of Nazareth, and it was dramatically reaching out to, touching, casting out devils, and healing and resurrecting people wherever Jesus and His disciples went. But the fullness of the Kingdom on earth wouldn't happen until the "End Times" took place.
Now God the Father, so to speak, wasn't just way up in the sky, but down on earth within Jesus Christ, and was also intimately inside of all good people.
The Kingdom of Heaven is within you!
The spirituality of Christ brought the poor, downtrodden Jew and Gentile into the awesome wonders of feeling the Divine fully and intimately-not because of ritualistic purity, but because of one's love for and faith in God, which was also felt in an ardent love for all people, as well as for following the spiritual commandments laid down by Moses and also by the Incarnate Lord. The closeness and intimacy of the Kingdom of Heaven was exemplified tenderly by the preferred name that Jesus used for the Divine Soul within Him, which was Abba, translated today simply as "Daddy."
Heaven now became glorious, but lacked detail.
Hell was a place that God sent the unrighteous,
and was a place of torment-a fiery abode.
The first thousand years after Jesus died and rose from His grave saw the rise of varying concepts of the afterlife and of what the primary essence of it involves. Some, like Origen, were open to universal salvation. Others lifted up a powerful sentimentality within spirituality, combining eros love and agape love, like Hildegard of Bingen and Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). Hildegard and others wrote about Christ as their tenderly loving Bridegroom, who would escort them into the marriage chambers without sexual intercourse. Others stressed the primary role of the intellect. Many felt that erotic and romantic love got in the way of a pure and devoted love for the Lord. The dessert fathers offered the support of a way of life centered in contemplative prayer.
The medieval times saw the rise of another view, which was the passionate combination of devoted romantic love with that of love for God. For some, there was no conflict whatsoever of deeply loving both the Lord and ones beloved spouse. This was something that Swedenborg later supported, and he added the godliness of loving our children too. Concepts on Hell also developed. Catholicism saw the rise of "Purgatory", which broadened the views of afterlife theology. For the not very righteous catholic follower, a price would be paid for their disobedience toward the church. Temporary punishment and a period of purification after death were needed, and still judgment rested on God.
For some mystics of the middle ages, Heaven was the state of fully mature love for God and others, as well as deep peace of mind coupled with a new and higher experience of knowing and "seeing" God and Christ. Relatively few, like Bernard, emphasized the role of the human will in our journey toward Heaven on earth: "Love is an act of will…," he wrote. He advocated the freedom of our will to choose.
The Dark and Medieval ages had the power of salvation, as well as the understanding of Heaven and Hell in the hands of the clergy. The Catholic Church of the middle and renaissance ages saw the relevance of good works, while applying much emphasis on the power for salvation resting within the organized church (and therefore within the priests within it); the church was the vessel of salvation extending from the Lord in Heaven. Only from the priest was forgiveness found by the act of confession; salvation was offered to those who gave enough monetarily to the Lord's kingdom of Heaven on earth, the church. Heaven, you might say, was being bought for a price.
Martin Luther in the early 1500's (1483-1546) worked hard, with serious risks, to take certain powers out of the hands of the Catholic Church. Luther preached that we are saved through the grace of God, by having faith in Jesus Christ, which is wrought by learning of Him in the Word of God. He felt that there was too much emphasis on the externals of godliness, and that Catholicism had too much control over the minds of Christians. He did well to get people back into contact with the Bible itself. However, he lacked access to much detail about Heaven and Hell. For Luther, Heaven was full of glory and praise and singing…a place of tremendous natural beauty, while Hell was a place of eternal punishment.
Catholicism and Protestantism both de-emphasized the great relevance of what was going on inside the individual human heart; that is, what my own heart loves above all else, and whether or not I start each day wanting to love and care for others as an expression of my love and faith in the Lord. Swedenborg agreed with Luther that salvation stems only from God, yet the presence of the Divine's love and truth inside my own heart and mind (as these are both understood and willed with intentionality) is crucial. For Swedenborg, Heaven's actual love and light must be wanted and searched for- to be truly developing and actualizing right now, today!
The New Church Vision of Heaven
The New Church, championed by Swedenborg, holds a vision of Heaven to begin with the premise: "Now it is permitted to enter with understanding into the mysteries of faith." The serious follower of Christ is welcomed into a faith of understanding and knowing, in addition to heartfelt affection and love. Swedenborg asked the question, "How can a person have faith in something he doesn't understand?" Swedenborg's vision of things doesn't wipe away everything of the past…rather, he synthesized the hodgepodge of prior concepts, and then expanded on many while also taking radical shifts away from certain orthodox Christian beliefs.
Swedenborg was blessed with an awesome tour of the "afterlife," which gives us all a lot of food for thought, as well as perhaps an advanced look at where we're all heading-to either Heaven or Hell, depending upon what we love most. Hell is not a place of eternal torment, but rather a place for those who love to control and dominate others, for those who like revenge and who prefer self over God. But most of all, the great detail of knowledge Swedenborg was given about Heaven and Hell are so helpful because this vision helps us to grasp the issue of both realms being present within and around us today. His writings enable people to better clarify and separate out what is heavenly and hellish today-in my life today.
Essentially, his theology of Heaven centers on the crucial issue of choice. Swedenborg underlines that we are responsible for ourselves. There is no ominous Divine judgment after death, but instead a gradual coming to full and unavoidable awareness of what kind of person I've become while living on earth.
Thus, am I accountable or lazy and unreliable? Optimistic or pessimistic? Spiritual and emotional growth oriented, or materialistic and worldly-minded overall? And EVERY deeper choice we make every day gradually forms and creates our own, personally chosen, inwardly desired choice between Heaven or Hell right here and now-between what is good and true or evil and false. These decisions, and the kind of affection they produce, usher us later toward either state of being after physical death.
One of the Lord's highest laws within His Divine Providence is that no one will make THAT choice for us. In this life, we're blessed with the choice to be an "angel-in-training," and to join with the love-filled view of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: "Earth is crammed with Heaven."
One day, an average-sized citizen sort of man named Fred arrived at the Pearly Gates. He was met by an officially-looking angelic being who began to process his entry data. Fred was asked for some purely unselfish, kindly deed he had done on earth. He recalled the day while walking along he saw an old lady being beaten mercilessly by a huge motorcycle-gang sort of fellow. To get him off the elderly woman, he pushed over his motorbike, and then kicked him real hard in the shins. He then told the old lady to run for help. The angel looked at Fred with amazement. "Amazing story!" the angel said. "I'm impressed. Could you tell me just when this happened?" Fred looked at his watch and said, "Oh, about two or three minutes ago."
My father once asked my grandmother the question, "How is it that someone could honestly and truly choose Hell for eternity?" My Grandma answered it this way: "Gradually." And truly, the same is true for Heaven, we only can choose the immensity of its goodness and truth gradually. Salvation cannot really happen all at once.
The New Church preaches aloud that Heaven and Hell aren't far away! Charles H. Spurgeon once said: "We measure distance by time. We are apt to say that a certain place is so many hours from us. If it is a 100 miles off, and there is no railroad, we think it a long way; if there is a railway, we think we can be there in no time. But how near must we say heaven is? For it is just one sigh, and we get there!" Sir Francis Bacon understood the closeness of the Kingdom of God as he wrote: "It is heaven upon earth to have a man's mind move in charity, [to] rest in the providence of God, and turn upon the poles of truth."
God wants you to know and feel heavenly trust in Him, and to think about and use the truth of Heaven expressed in the pages of the Bible. He wants you to understand a lot about the details of Heaven and Hell within the theological doctrines of Swedenborg's writings, since the Swedish Sage wrote: "…now it has been permitted to enter with understanding into the mysteries of faith."
What are you cultivating right here…right now? Are you taking steps, willing to work and apply God's commandments? To grow spiritually, intellectually and emotionally with the Lord? The choice is yours.
O God of warmth and light, thank You for this soft, heavenly day! Thank You for blessing this Sabbath day because we get to worship You with all our feelings and intentions, and by how we treat one another in peace and harmony. Help us to engage You this hour with deep and penetrating thoughts.
Lord, this morning we are reflecting on the reality of Heaven and Hell. Thank You for bringing our awareness of them into a clearer light today. Lord, ultimately it is You who keeps the Hells from overwhelming us. You lead us so carefully and gently toward the light and warmth of Heaven every day! You are such a Divine Expert in this business we call spiritual salvation-and yet we take You for granted much of the time. Please forgive us for this shortsightedness. Thanks for loving us always and for guiding us. We love You, God! Help us to love You even more.