Originally published as Turning from God leads to eternity without life in the Charleston, SC, Post and Courier on Sunday, September 9, 2007.
By all reports, the recent heat wave was the most intense and prolonged in recent memory. Record highs prompted some churches in their roadside signage to post statements relating the temperature in Charleston to those of the infernal abyss. “You think it is hot here?” “Fire Insurance. Inquire within.” “Hell has no thermostat.” Clever—but even at the literal level, ‘thermostat’ means ‘keeps the temperature the same’. I guess the implied statement is, “in hell, one can’t change the temperature for the cooler.”
It is good that this heat prompts us to ask about hell. What is hell, though? And what is heaven?
Our Lord, Jesus Christ said, “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Heaven is begun. By our participation in the life of the Church—through baptism and receiving the Sacraments—by our co-laboring with God, we are welcomed more and more into the Kingdom as we are transformed from corrupt into incorrupt, from imperfect to perfect, from sinner to saint. Whenever we actually seek and accomplish the will of God (rooted in self-denial, taking up our cross, and following Jesus), we partake in the life of the Kingdom of God, life as it was intended, heaven—even here and now.
Hell is similar. To sin, to harm others, to deny God and his power, to turn from the will of God, to seek self over others, to worship anything or anyone above the One, True God, is to participate in hell. We even have a phrase in our every-day vocabulary which points to this: “living hell.” Precisely. Ask anyone who has or is going through divorce or abuse—no matter who is a fault, it is hell for everyone. Consider, honestly, the worst times in your own life: hell. In these and other areas, we can observe, or participate in, hell—living hell.
Hell, is not some geographical place—as heaven is not. These realities begin in time and space but have their conclusion outside of it, in God’s timelessness. Wherever they “are”, God is there. “If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there” (Psalm 139:8)! In fact, we would even dare to teach that hell is not a place where God sends anyone. The Prophet Ezekiel, for example, said that God desires not the death of a sinner, but that he should turn from his ways and live (Ezekiel 18:32).
Today, as in the days of Moses, we have two choices always set before us: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him…” (Deuteronomy 30:19ff). The choice, life or death—heaven or hell, is ours to make, in every living moment, and to our dying breath.
God never says, “Love me or I’ll kill you.” “Love me or you’ll burn in hell.” Rather, he describes the consequence of not choosing life: “you will surely die”. This already true in our daily lives—just look around.
Sadly, many choose such hell, and for two apparent reasons. First, the way to paradise, to heaven, to communion with God, is narrow, and few are they who find it. True life is work. It means crucifixion, forgiveness, and endurance. It is definitely not the path of least resistance!
Second, since the devil is so clever, we are often quite well-convinced that hell is actually paradise.
Consider this story: A man dies and is permitted to take a preview of both heaven and hell to choose his eternal lifestyle. First, heaven: a peaceful, bright place. The antiphonal singing of the angels is impressive; the landscape, lush and serene. “Not bad,” the fellow notes.
Next, hell: well-manicured golf courses; an open tiki bar on the nearby beach—and endless snorkeling over pristine coral reefs teeming with marine life. “Wow! I can’t believe it,” he thinks. “This is really great.”
Surprised even at himself, the man chooses hell. “It isn’t what I expected!”
The gates of Hell are opened to the fellow who is warmly welcomed in. With the gates barely closed behind him, he sees nothing but death and destruction, torment, grief, sadness. He can only hear wailing and weeping. His face shows his utter horror and surprise. “But, what about yesterday?” he manages to ask.
“Yesterday,” says the devil, “we were recruiting…”
In the midst of all of this is Jesus Christ, who loved and laid down his life for us all, even for his worst enemies, including those who crucified him. Our Lord even descended to hell for us and with us, to rescue us from eternal death and hell. This was his action on Holy Saturday, the day on which he “rested in the tomb”, and “rested from his work”—the true Sabbath. He lived, died, and rose again to show us and give us life, true life in his Kindgom.
Choose life and live!
Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in the I’On community in Mt. Pleasant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.holyascension.blogspot.com.