By Doug Sloan
The more we see heaven and hell as strictly post-mortal existences, then the more we disconnect from this life. In the same way that increasing wealth is increasingly corruptive, an increasing focus on a post-mortal existence increasingly disconnects us from present mortal life. This disconnect is exacerbated when heaven and hell are seen as reward and punishment. It disconnects us because it corrupts our relationship with others: our relationship with those who are seen as condemned to hell becomes either myopic or dismissive; our relationship with those who are seen as condemned to heaven can be equally myopic in that it does not require any personal investment or wariness or care of self or care of others. The more we connect with the “there and then” “reward and punishment” of a post-mortal heaven and hell, the more we disconnect from “here and now,” from “love and grace,” from “justice and compassion” and reduce and demean and devalue our earthly existence to one of a purgatorial waiting room instead of an active citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
In viewing heaven as beginning and being here and now, we stake a claim in the Kingdom of God and engage in a transformational process that is divine and crucial to our journey toward being fully human. What is important about how we view heaven is what it says about who we are. In seeing heaven as real and present, we move beyond a post-mortal hope and goal that is detached and disconnected from present life. In seeing heaven as real and present, we move beyond ethereal hopes and goals to confidence and conviction and citizenship in a divine Kingdom that can exist, does exist, must exist here and now. This is not a utopian desire or an idealistic delusion. The Kingdom of God is a practical and concrete existence based on personal resurrection and transformation. Without resurrection and transformation, the search for the Kingdom of God is reduced and devolved into just another unrealistic utopian desire and a doomed idealistic delusion. A heaven of love and grace that is here and now, based on resurrection and transformation, requires no hell and no empire, and enables (requires) us to stay connected to life and creation.
When we require a “then and there” heaven, we disconnect from our God-given stewardship responsibilities – physical stewardship of all creation and spiritual stewardship of love, grace, justice, compassion, generosity, hospitality, and service.
When we require a “then and there” hell; to those whom we would consign to eternal damnation, we disconnect from God and become guardians of the gates to hell, make ourselves stewards of hell, and we devolve into the very embodiment of hell – we become hell on earth, a source of hopelessness and condemnation. It is no wonder that our vision of hell becomes a conglomeration of our worst nightmares, our worst illusions, our worst experiences, our worst theology, and the worst of ourselves.
The real problem with a heaven-and-hell theology is its reliance on the worst universalism – built with eternal hopelessness and eternal condemnation as its moral starting point and as its default paradigm for the human condition.
The Good News has as its moral starting point, the love and grace of God: Love that is unrestrained and boundless; Grace that is unconditional and which can neither be won nor lost, neither earned nor removed. The Good News has as its default paradigm for the human condition: somehow, someway, eventually – the love and grace of God are supreme, controlling, and inescapable.
It is appropriate on this Christmas Sunday to celebrate the birth and re-birth, the appearance and re-appearance, the renewal and making new again of an ancient message that never gets old. We take this time to celebrate a story about a gift given in an ordinary time and place – a place nowhere special – during a time of uneventful bustle occupied by ordinary people forced down by empire to a level of daily survival, and yet, who were consumed with waiting and anticipation. The message of the story is simple: no more waiting; their anticipation is fulfilled – The Kingdom of God is at hand. It is indeed a message of “good news of great joy for all people.”