This essay assumes:
1) God exists
2) God Loves
3) Humans are spiritual
One of the things I’ve noticed in recent readings on Near Death Experiences (NDEs) is a consistent reference to humans not just as having a spiritual essence, but that the spiritual being preexists the life in a human body. In addition, I’ve noticed that when the dying person encounters a spiritual being in “Heaven” (and is duly impressed by the power of that spiritual being), it is not unusual for the spiritual being to make some kind of statement like “Those who choose to go to Earth and live as humans are the real heros”.
I have to admit that statement struck me as somewhat odd. Why would that be the case? Humans appear to accomplish little, create problems for themselves and others, fight and die - often ignominiously. We are petty, greedy, hateful - often liars. Hardly sounds like the description of heroism.
To try to understand this, I tried to determine differences that might cause such a distinction in labeling. Besides the distinctions described in the prior essay “Why are we HERE?”, there is at least one other one: Existing as a spiritual being in an environment where answers require only a question and creation requires little effort, all beings would be at the same level of capability (at least by standards that don’t look at position power and other things attributable to groups rather than individuals.).
Moving from that level of capability to the more limited capabilities of physical existence requires giving up a lot. Not only does one give up much of the raw capabilities inherent in all spiritual beings, one gives up the overwhelming Love that comes from the Presence of God.
Further, moving to the physical realm means taking on the risk of failure. Those in Heaven are sinless - those on Earth are not. This means taking on an experience that the bearer must know up front will contain pain in many forms. And has the very real risk that the bearer of that experience may not come through the experience successfully - instead, that person may end up rejecting the God in whose Presence the person formerly dwelled. Why take on that known pain and risk?
It could only be because those who do so perceive that the growth from that experience is worth the risk.
When you think about it, that really is heroic.
This essay assumes:
a) God exists
b) God loves
Why are we here? By that question, I mean, “Why do we exist in the physical realm we are familiar with?” If we hold the assumptions above (commonly attributed by all with Near Death Experiences of a “Heavenly” nature), then why don’t we just exist in that Heavenly realm? If God really loves us, why do we end up here on Earth where making contact with God often seems impossible? Why don’t we just while away the eons in Heaven where all answers are available as soon as we ask the question, and all things are possible? As described by those who claim to have experienced it, that realm is richer and more intense in every possible way than this one. Why then are we exiled to a hard scrabble life on this planet?
If God really loves us, the decision to put us here cannot be arbitrary. So what is it about the physical realm that matters? And why does it matter? While I can’t claim to know everything, I do have a few ideas that I present in this essay.
First, whatever it is that matters must be something different from Heaven. If it were the same, there would be no reason for us to be elsewhere than Heaven. If that is the case, then an examination of differences should yield clues.
There are, at least, the following differences:
1) We as humans are much more limited than spiritual beings in Heaven.
All references to Heaven that I’m aware of describe spiritual beings in Heaven as powerful. Spiritual beings are able to learn by simply asking the question - answers are revealed instantaneously. Spiritual beings are able to truly experience each other - to live the sequence of experiences of another as though they were that being. Spiritual beings can move effortlessly or instantaneously from place to place.
On Earth, we humans experience powerlessness in many forms. We work hard to learn. We struggle to connect with others on any meaningful level. We live with the frustration and indignity of things big and small - from the horrid of war and rape to the mundate of traffic jams or worse - spending our precious hours doing many things less than fulfilling from just trying to survive to trying to get from place to place.
2) The physical realm is not overwhelmed by the Presence of God like Heaven is.
Descriptions of Heaven typically say that all experiences there are vastly more intense in every possible sense. Every part of Heaven radiates the presence of God.
So why would these differences matter? The key is to look at their effect.
There are at least 2 significant effects of living with limitations - we must think hard and work hard if we are to get around those limitations. This forces us to be creative - something that living with constant abundance does not require. While those who have abundance can be creative, they aren’t required to be. Creativity that comes from inspiration can be incidental, temperamental, unreliable. Creativity that comes from a lifetime of learning how to adapt to the world around you - and adapt it to you - is consistent and much more thorough. You really only get this kind of creativity when you’re motivated by survival. I seriously doubt you could get this from a being without that drive.
In addition to creativity, the hard work results in a different kind of satisfaction. As my son Zachary pointed out to me when we discussed this, while we all can enjoy that which we create on a whim, there is a deeper satisfaction that comes from accomplishing a goal - seeing the result of our blood, sweat and tears is more long lasting than the buzz we get when we see the result of a whimsical creation.
These two results
a) consistent, deeper creativity and
b) deeper, longer satisfaction at our efforts
do not appear to be something that can be achieved without the pressure of living with limitations.
What about the Presence of God? Surely that would be beneficial to us all … so why would we be removed from it?
Again, what is the effect? Without the overwhelming Presence of God we are forced to make our own decisions. We are forced to solve our own problems. We are forced to grow up.
“Growing up” when surrounded by the Presence of God is problematic. God’s presence is inherently overwhelming. Were we to live in it constantly, it would be very easy to end up with learned helplessness. After all, compared to God, we are nothing.
Maturation requires becoming independent. Failure to achieve independence is one of the core problems that keep our psychologists and psychiatrists employed. Constant overwhelming exposure to the Presence of God would make this impossible. It is only after we mature that we can find an appropriate balance between our selves and God. God, like any good parent, must push us away in order to teach us to crawl, walk, and then run.
I believe God chooses to start that process at the beginning by placing us in a physical world where the Presence is toned down enough to allow us to grow.
There may be other reasons for this physical realm, but these 3 outcomes (creativity, satisfaction, maturation) are enough to justify its existence.
Recently, I happened to hear part of “This American Life” on NPR. They were interviewing Carlton Pearson, a preacher in Tulsa, OK. Apparently he used to have a really large church, was politically active, and somewhat famous - until he decided he didn’t believe in Hell. At least that’s the way I understand it.
From listening to him, it was clear that his perception of his life consisted of non stop “witnessing” to people because he was afraid that they would go to hell. Seems pretty exhausting - and what exactly would he be telling them about? That there is a better way? If becoming a Christian means a life under constant pressure to get new recruits, why would anyone want that? Who wants the weight of the world on their shoulders? It doesn’t matter if Christianity has the best retirement plan in the universe if the job kills you before you reach retirement age. I don’t think that kind of life makes it easy to sell your brand of theology to other people.
As best I can tell, it was this constant pressure that eventually brought him to a place where he decided there is no hell. At least that way, he is no longer under pressure - it freed Carlton Pearson from the constant fear induced selling of Christianity. And it was probably at that point that he first felt the freedom that he claims Christianity brings everyone. You might say he finally got what Romans 8:15 talks about - the spirit of adoption instead of the spirit of fear (Sad to think that certain Christian theologies can induce the very spirit of fear that they claim to eliminate.)
In the NPR interview, the issue came up about Hitler and Heaven - if there is no Hell, does Hitler end up in Heaven? It didn’t seem like Mr. Pearson had a strong response to that issue. While he alluded to the grace of God, he didn’t address the issue of justice - something of obvious importance to those who suffer from evils perpetrated by people like Hilter. Further, he didn’t address the choice of evil and Heaven. I believe there is a simple answer that can deal with these issues.
I believe that Mr. Pearson’s conundrum comes from a commingling of two questions which must be kept separate: Does Hell exist? And does God send people there? I believe that a Hellish condition exists, but I don’t believe God forces it on people. I believe people choose it themselves.
If Heaven exists, both justice and moral purity require that Heaven have entrance requirements. No party can be allowed to bring evil into Heaven. If that were allowed, it would cease to be Heaven. Hence, Heaven must have entrance requirements. If there are entrance requirements, that means that those who do not meet those requirements cannot be in Heaven.
If they aren’t in Heaven, where are they? Do they cease to exist? I suppose that nothingness is a possibility, although I don’t think that any God who would want people in Heaven would resort to that. Nothingness means that that person no longer has the ability to choose. It would seem that a loving God would do anything possible to get as many people into Heaven as (S)He could. This, of course, is where the Christian theology behind Jesus’ death and resurrection comes into play from the perspective of justice. While that sacrifice is legally necessary, it is not sufficient.
Why? Because it does not eliminate free will. As long as persons choose evil, they cannot be allowed into Heaven. The only thing that remains as a barrier therefore is this personal choice - and all the ego issues that often stop us from making the choices we know are right. Romans 2:11-15 makes it clear that the relevant choice is the choice to abandon evil - it is the choice “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly”1. This choice does not require knowledge of any specific theology.
While making that choice is theoretically easy, since it relies on the innate sense of justice within each of us, it can be practically hard. For those who have made lots of choices for “bad”, choosing for “good” means abandoning much of what defines you as a person. This can be very difficult to do. In many ways, the human tendency towards integrity - a consistent, integrated whole life - makes it hard for us to change because change can mean that what we did before was wrong. And no one likes to be wrong.
An admission of “wrongness” is a blow to pride - that powerful tool that helps us face all the forces that try to tear us down on a day to day basis. To many, any show of weakness - any lack of control - opens a vulnerability. And a vulnerability is a threat to existence - which our tendency towards self-preservation fights tooth and nail.
Unfortunately, pride can lead to a fall2. No one wants to be humiliated - because that is death by a thousand cuts. Yet to let go is to risk just that. This sense of self-preservation can be blinded by fear and fail to realize that removing a cancer is not the same as suicide. If we can understand that it is a gift to be able to see those things in our lives which hurt us, we are more likely to be able to stomach choosing to remove those harmful things - no matter how strongly embedded they seem to be. This still won’t make it easy - but failing to see this makes it impossible.
People faced with such choices may feel powerless. They may believe that they can no longer choose. They may believe that they are “too far gone”. They may believe that they can’t handle the humility. If we are to aid each other in transformation, we must be able to acknowledge our own weakness and show that, just as we survive and thrive, so can they.
Coming back to the original question - does Hell exist? I believe it does. Luke 13:28 aptly describes it - there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. This is exactly the description of what happens to people who find themselves in a situation they don’t like but who either do not or believe they cannot take the steps necessary to extricate themselves. This is the description of people who want to have their Heaven and evil too. Do I believe God sends people to Hell? No, I believe they choose that condition themselves. The Good News is that they don’t have to.
1. Micah 6:8
2. Proverbs 16:18