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.