A new metaphor for thinking about heaven and hell


I’ve been reading a very stimulating and provocative book by Pauline Biblical scholar Michael Gorman called Inhabiting the Cruciform God. Gorman argues that the central point Paul has to make is that Jesus’ cross reveals the nature of God and that the way we are justified and reconciled to God is by joining Him in His cruciform existence. Gorman claims that to Paul, God is not the triumphalist emperor/military hero that popular American evangelicalism wants Him to be, but rather someone whose nature is to continually empty Himself for the sake of others, the most perfect illustration being the cross itself. This got me thinking about heaven and hell in a very different way that is partly inspired by C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce but in one way, the opposite of Lewis’s metaphor.

The Great Divorce offers a metaphorical representation of heaven and hell that has always resonated with me since I read it years ago. Hell is basically a gloomy shadow land which is perpetually in a state of sunset whose restless inhabitants are moving further and further apart from each other over time. The inhabitants of hell are offered an opportunity to go to heaven. They board a bus which takes them there, but the trouble with heaven is that it physically and spiritually tortures them to be there.

The blades of grass are like razors under their feet because it’s an eternal world and they do not have eternal life. The inhabitants of heaven are called the Solid People. Because of their eternal “solidity,” the terrain of heaven is normal to them. The Solid People try to help the inhabitants of hell acclimate to heaven, and at least one of them is transformed into a solid person after he lets an angel kill his lust (which is a lizard on his shoulder) and transforms it into desire (which becomes a giant stallion on which he rides away).

But the vast majority of the inhabitants of hell get back on the bus, which shrinks into an infinitesimally small hole in the ground of heaven, the idea being that hell is an infinitely small space within God’s creation. What hit me as I was reading Gorman was the thought of reversing the Great Divorce’s final picture. If we worship a self-emptying God and the way to be justified and reconciled to Him is to join Him in His self-emptying, then maybe heaven is a secret, hidden hole that you can only access if you have been made small enough to enter it.

Maybe hell should be imagined as a big, cold, loud world where all the angry, greedy, arrogant people tear each other apart and there is no rest from the wrath that tosses them back and forth against each other. Meanwhile those who have been stepped on all their lives by the angry, greedy, arrogant people, and, in response, carried their crosses with dignity and sought union with Christ, are made tiny enough to find the secret hole that leads to the heavenly sanctuary where God protects those who seek His mercy.

In Colossians 3:3, Paul says, “For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.” There truly is a hidden reality that I am only beginning to discover in Christ. I think it makes sense to think of heaven as a secret place that we are searching for even now. I have tasted heaven. Or at least the overwhelming joy I have experienced in the presence of God on a few occasions makes it feel right to say that.

Those who pursue sins that shape them in the opposite way that Christ shapes us are tuned out of the wavelength of heaven. They can’t taste it at all because they’ve filled their mouth with so much other garbage. There is no such thing as the presence of God for them because they have been completely deadened to God’s voice. They are too big and mean and loud to fit into the heaven-hole and find the secret sanctuary.

This way of thinking about it makes a lot more sense to me than the afterlife of the big, mean, and loud God whose existence is analogous to the imperial executioner who put Jesus on the cross rather than the one on the cross Himself. Maybe the people who really want God to be big, mean, and loud will find the God that they’re looking for in the hell that they go to.

9 thoughts on “A new metaphor for thinking about heaven and hell

  1. This post seemed unusual for you, but it has its spiritual merit. I’m a hopeful universalist. I believe the salvation of all by God’s grace is the ultimate good news. I don’t understand how the gospel can be good news if the good news is that most are going to an eternal hell. Aren’t we supposed to care about other people, or only the good news for us? Yet your post reminds me of high school. It was always the loudest most obnoxious people that were popular and well known. But God knows the quiet ones who trust in Him.

    • In terms of hope, I’m with you. If it’s not as I hope, I can understand a less than full heaven that is defined by God’s solidarity with those who sought His refuge from all the big, mean, loud people (especially the big, mean, loud “Christians”).

  2. It definitely gives a new meaning to when Jesus says “wide is the path to destruction, narrow is the gate which leads to me” (very rough and poorly done paraphrase).

  3. I have always thought it made some sense to think of it this way: The God you worship is the God that answers your prayers. Think of your life as worship; valid worship or false worship, your life reflects your God.

    If your life is big and loud and mean, that is the God you worship. And big, loud, mean people are served by a big, loud and mean God. The scriptures reveal how challenging and difficult it is when that kind of God answers your prayers. It isn’t a good picture.
    If your life is humble, serving and peacemaking, that is the God you worship. Humble, servant, peacemakers are served by a humble servant peacemaking God. And that is hard to over-appreciate. That’s the real God.

    I don’t think there are two gods. The only God who answers you is the second one because the answer from a vengeful God is always no answer. Vengeful God ignores you (especially easy for him, since he doesn’t exist).

    This is one way to interpret Jesus’ enigmatic statement, “Seek and Ye Shall Find.” It”s enigmatic because everybody seems to be seeking something, and many people will tell you they aren’t finding anything. But, of course you always find what you are actually seeking, not what you may think you are seeking. And what you seek is up to you. How you live reflects what you seek. Seek personal wealth amidst starving people and power over others and you will get the fruits of what you seek; loneliness, fear, hate, avarice and ultimate depression. Seek peace to find peace or war to find war. Seek love. You will find love, and If you seek hate, that also, is available.

    Love-filled people find a loving God and hateful people find a vengeful punishing deity. Not because there is a vengeful punishing God, but because the absence of God is the worst punishment you can imagine. That is the dark nether world C.S. Lewis describes at the wrong end of the bus line.

    I think this seek and find thing is another reflection of the perfection of God’s creation. It isn’t my version of perfection. But then, what in the world makes me think I have any business defining perfection? It seems like there’s too much pain and sorrow for my little brain to comprehend. And as I remember, the characters in The Great Divorce voice that opinion, too. We over-think it.

    This challenging life, filled with chances to know God, is the greatest gift ever bestowed. The chance to seek love! How else could it be given?

    I don’t know what it is like in heaven. But I know this God relationship is already true here on earth. We refer to it as the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit of our Lord. As the prophets say, “The road to heaven is heavenly all the way.” The ‘peace that surpasses understanding’ can be found here now. I can’t find it always, or ever often enough, but I know for sure that seeking it leads to it.
    Like you, I have tasted it. Because I know it is real it will always be available to me.

  4. We really don’t know what will happen at the end. I am glad most Christians’ view of hell is not as repulsive as it was not too long ago. I can’t help but to at least be a hopeful universalist. Nothing else makes sense to me. I also really like the notion of purgatory. I think so many of us Christians will die unfit for heaven. Further healing and growth maybe necessary.

    • Yeah I’m really moving towards a view where it’s not a yea or nay court decision so much as it is a question of whether we have been opened enough to God to experience His presence. Jesus’ two passages where he talked about hell had a particular polemical purpose and if his criteria in those two passages are the criteria (instead of proof-texting the existence of hell from those passages and patchworking it together with justification by faith from Paul), then a lot of selfish rich American Christians are screwed.

  5. Wonderful thoughts. Makes sense according to Jesus, too:

    “Strive to enter through the narrow door…” The only way to enter through that narrow door is by making ourselves less.

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