Heaven and Hell are Relevant Now
October 13, 2002
Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name. "They will be mine," says the Lord Almighty, "in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as parents, in compassion, spare their children who serve them. You will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.
"Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire," says the Lord Almighty. "Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall." (Malachi 3:16-18; 4:1-3)
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!"
But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:39-43)
Reading from Swedenborg
One day a magnificent church building appeared to me. . . . I saw that there was an inscription over the door: "Now It Is Permitted." This meant that now it is permitted to enter with the understanding into the mysteries of faith. (True Christian Religion #508)
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."
Today I'd like to talk with you about heaven and hell. Heaven and hell are important to think about. Why? Why do you think it's important to reflect on 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 forty, seventy, or one hundred years, but then what? What will become of me after I die?"
Many ancient world religions say that at some point we're all going to enter a spiritual realm after we die, where the good folks are gathered into one huge heavenly place and the evil folks into a hellish one. Many religions put heaven and hell off in the distance, so that they are very important, but not imminent.
The New Church builds on ancient Zoroastrian, Jewish, Hellenistic, and Christian standpoints and says that heaven and hell are intimately present with us right now, at 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 into our inmost being, we 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 says 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 much reflection to see that this is true. Every day we make choices of what to do, say, and think about that are either good and useful or bad and hurtful. I believe it is important to think about heaven and hell especially in the New Church outlook, because this 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 are 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 (Genesis 12:2). We have heaven's own blueprint within us, as well as God's gift of being created in his image, and with the potential to grow more and more into his likeness.
Yet we also have a very serious inheritance from the hells, 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.
To put things into perspective, let's summarize some views of 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. Whole books have been written on the subject.
The ancient Semitic cultures that existed before the call of Abram came to worship deceased ancestors as major players in human 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 believed that communication with and veneration of deceased relatives was highly important, since they had influence on the believer's daily life. The netherworld--also known as "Sheol"--was the home of the dead, and both God and one's deceased relatives deserved the earth-dweller's attention.
For the ancient Jew, heaven was a high and lofty place for God alone; the Divine was far above human beings. From that lofty zone Yahweh looked down upon the earth.
The concept of Sheol was a widespread belief in ancient Semitic cultures--one that was more hellish than heavenly in nature. The ancient Semitic cultures, of which ancient Hebrews were but one, disagreed with bodily resurrection. Instead, the faded residue of the human being lived in a deplorable realm called Sheol, which was a land of gloom and chaos, where light is as darkness. The human spirit was seen as something very shadowy and insubstantial after death. No wonder we read in the Psalms, "O Lord my God, I cried to you for help and you healed me. O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, and restored me to life from among those gone down to the pit" (Psalm 30:2, 3).
Later in their history, the Jews became vassals several times over--to the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and finally the mighty Roman Empire. This meant they had to swallow the bitter pill of living under foreign landlords and heavy taxes. During these times, followers of Yahweh came into intimate contact with foreign views of life after death, of heaven and hell.
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 hell called "Gehenna," which was the realm for the condemned. This was the fiery dunghill of punishment for those who were unfaithful to the covenant of God given through Moses. The word "Gehenna" refers to the mounds of garbage that were burned back in the Lord's day in the Hinnom Valley, just south of Jerusalem's city limits. 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, together with the kingdom of heaven, in 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 in 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 people, touching them, casting out devils, and healing and resurrecting people wherever Jesus and his disciples went. The fullness of the kingdom on earth wouldn't happen until the "end times" took place. Yet now God the Father wasn't just way up in the sky, but down on earth in Jesus Christ--and also intimately inside of all good people. "The kingdom of heaven is within you" was the message the people now heard.
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 a person's love for and faith in God. This was also felt in an ardent love for all people, and for following the spiritual commandments laid down by Moses and 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: "Abba," which could be translated today simply as "Daddy."
Heaven now became glorious, but lacked detail. Hell was a place to which God sent the unrighteous. It 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 its primary essence. Some, like Origen, believed in universal salvation. Others, such as Hildegard of Bingen and Bernard of Clairvaux, lifted up a powerful sentimentality within spirituality, combining eros love and agape love. 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 desert fathers believed in a way of life centered in contemplative prayer.
The New Church, championed by Swedenborg, holds a vision of heaven that begins with the premise, "Now it is permitted to enter with the 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, "How can people have faith in something they do not understand?" (Doctrine of Faith #2). Swedenborg's view didn't wipe away everything of the past. Rather, he synthesized a hodgepodge of prior concepts, expanding on many of them, while making radical shifts away from certain orthodox Christian beliefs.
Swedenborg was blessed with an awesome tour of the afterlife. His description of that tour gives us all a lot of food for thought, as well as a look in advance at where we are all heading--either to heaven or to hell, depending on 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 enjoy revenge and who prefer self over God.
But most of all, the great detail of knowledge Swedenborg was given about heaven and hell is constructive because it helps us to grasp the issue of both realms being present within and around us right here and now. His writings enable us to better clarify and distinguish what is heavenly and hellish in our lives today.
Swedenborg's theology of heaven centers on the crucial issue of choice. He emphasizes 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 we have become while living on earth.
Am I responsible and accountable, or lazy and unreliable? Optimistic or pessimistic? Oriented toward spiritual and emotional growth, or materialistic and worldly-minded? Every deeper choice we make every day gradually creates and forms our own inwardly desired "place" in heaven or hell right here and now. These decisions, and the kind of affections they involve, usher us toward one state of being or the other after physical death.
One of the Lord's highest laws in his divine providence is that no one will make this choice for us. In this life, I'm thankful that we are 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 man named Fred arrived at the Pearly Gates. He was met by an official-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 when he saw an old lady being beaten mercilessly by a huge motorcycle gang sort of fellow. To get him off the elderly woman, Fred pushed over his motorbike, and kicked him in the shins as hard as he could. He then told the lady to run for help.
The angel looked at Fred with wonder. "Amazing story! 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." The same is true for heaven: we only can choose the immensity of its goodness and truth gradually. Salvation cannot happen all at once.
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 one hundred 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!"
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 from 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."
The Lord said, "Those who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; . . . and I will love them and reveal myself to them" (John 14:21). What are you cultivating right here and now? Are you taking steps? Are you willing to work and to 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 so that we may worship you with all our feelings and intentions, and by the way 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. Thank you for loving us always, and for guiding us. We love you, God! Help us to love you even more. Amen.
Rev. Kit Billings