One of the most common questions that children ask, and perhaps the question to which adults are least likely to provide a satisfactory answer, is why a good, kind, and forgiving God would throw people in hell. Your average person would have to be mighty strongly upset before they would volunteer to send even a stranger, much less one of their children, to hell, yet God the Father – the great Christian God of divine love and forgiveness – seemingly does it with some frequency. Why?
The simple answer is that God doesn’t do it. We direct our own footsteps towards heaven or hell, and God cannot have the power to force us to choose heaven. In order to understand this statement, we must first look more closely at the concepts of heaven and hell.
What is heaven? People often think of heaven as a paradise where we receive our reward for the hardships of living a good life. In this view, God is often thought of in the guise of Job’s tormentor, sending a series of troubles to us in life as a sort of a test. If we pass the test, the theory goes, then we win all the prizes behind the curtain. We will receive all the things we longed for in life but didn’t get.
Is this view correct? Is heaven a place where you get all the ice cream you can eat and pal around with film stars, sort of like being a rich person in southern California except without taxes or earthquakes? No. This concept of heaven is seriously misguided. The seemingly silly comparison to life in southern California may help to explain why. There are in fact a largish number of rich people in southern California who have every material thing they could reasonably want, who have fame and beauty, who live in a wonderful, even climate with nothing substantial to complain about. They have obtained, in life, the things which are often vaguely viewed as being the rewards of heaven. Moreover, they generally have not bothered much with virtue to obtain those rewards. Have these people temporarily beaten the system? Is their only problem that their earthly paradise cannot last beyond death?
No. Though they have nothing obvious to complain about, such people often complain about one thing or another every chance they get, and occasionally kill themselves or otherwise evidence the fact that they really have managed to feel miserable in the midst of seemingly ideal conditions. Being rich in southern California for all eternity is not the definition of paradise. It does not equal eternal bliss. If you think about it, there is no way that it could. An episode of the old Twilight Zone television series illustrated this point rather well. In it, a criminal died and was admitted to a land where his every wish came true. He could take money with impunity, win every bet, get every girl – and quickly found himself in an agony of boredom. He argued with the gatekeeper that there must have been a mistake, he was not deserving of heaven and wanted out. The gatekeeper then informed him that indeed he had not arrived in heaven – quite the opposite. For the criminal, who had devoted his life to greed, lust, and selfishness, the fulfillment of all his material desires could not bring bliss. It brought the torments of hell.
If heaven is not an idle life in southern California, then what is it? What makes us happier than luxury and ease? Children are often more in tune with God’s message, in their own simple way, than are adults. When children play, creating imaginary worlds for themselves, what are those worlds like? Do children spend hours imagining themselves sitting in a Jacuzzi tub and eating expensive chocolates? Not usually. In their fantasies, they are brave heroes facing danger and adversity. They do not necessarily adopt virtuous role models. They may pretend to be pirates as readily as noble knights, robbers as readily as cops. But, in any case they envision themselves as staying true to their goals in the face of hardship and danger. As pirates, they fight neither for the admiration of the crowd nor to spend their treasure; they fight for the satisfaction of doing their piratical job well.
In playing such games children sense, in a vague way, a profound truth. Bliss does not flow from comfort or possessions. It cannot be bought in a store. It cannot be given to you. Bliss comes from struggle, from staying true to your objectives despite the odds and the obstacles. Heaven is not a paradise that is handed to people because they have been good in the face of difficulty. Instead, it is a feeling that they achieve by being good in the face of difficulty. Heaven comes from within the soul, not from without. It comes from alignment with God.
A person who achieves great virtue is capable of feeling pleasure under terrible circumstances. She is happy just being good, and faced with any kind of danger or difficulty she tries to do the right thing and, whatever the outcome, at least feels happy that she did try to do the right thing. It is this kind of unassailable happiness, immune from the dirty tricks of life and the world, that is the foundation for eternal bliss. The martyred saints did not endure torture and death because they viewed suffering as a ticket to a heavenly reward. Rather, their saintliness lay in their ability to feel pleased and privileged by their fate, by their ability to remain true to their faith in the face of the most extreme tests.
This is not to imply that heaven is a place where the enthusiastic faithful are gleefully martyred on a daily basis. (Not that this notion of paradise is as strange as it may sound to modern ears. In Norse mythology, heroes were rewarded with the privilege of being transported to a place where they could fight and die every day, but be revived in time for supper. This showed the Viking sense of the magnitude of the joys of virtue, as they defined it.) Rather, it is to say simply that heaven is the state of having found bliss through virtue. Such bliss may be ecstatic or sublime, but in any case it is immune against attack or decay because it is generated from within. Those who achieve alignment with God have pleasure of a magnitude that compensates for any pain. They find that this joy, unlike the pleasures that flow from material things, is not consumed with its enjoyment, but rather grows. As their alignment with God grows towards perfection, so does their bliss. Whether they have the dramatic career of a martyr loving God or the quiet life of a parent loving her family, the joy of that love grows without boundaries.
People who view heaven as a reward for suffering through this imperfect world, then, are missing the point. Heaven is a state achieved when the soul is brought into alignment with God. That alignment elevates the soul above suffering in life as well as in death. Anyone who resentfully suffers through life (as opposed to feeling pleasure in their virtue in the face of adversity) in hopes of a heavenly reward later had better rethink their strategy, for the rewards that heaven offers require a different preparation of the soul. Understanding that heaven consists of pure joy in virtue is important in helping to steer towards heaven – it’s always easier to steer a true course when you know the destination. It is also important in understanding why a forgiving God cannot grant an unrepentant sinner the keys to heaven. It is not that God seeks to punish such a person for being bad. Rather, it is that a person who has never learned to experience joy in virtue is simply incapable of feeling the bliss of heaven. The articles that follow will discuss how we can help ourselves and others to attain heavenly bliss, but first we will deal with the nature of damnation.