The Two-Fold Gate

There is no biblical basis for the popular notion that St. Peter stands at the pearly gates checking off names as the recently deceased line up outside. The “pearly gates” get their name from a passage in the Book of Revelation that describes the gates of the New Jerusalem as being made from a single pearl. However, there is not one gate to the heavenly city but twelve, nor is there any mention of a doorman. As for the gate to hell, the Bible has no comparable description, only a passage noting that the gate is wider than the gate to heaven, presumably so it can handle all the extra traffic. Dante’s Inferno notes an inscription over the gate to hell that famously ends with the line: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, a busload of wraith-like tourists from the netherworld arrives at the outskirts of heaven. There is no gate and no gatekeeper, and the passengers are free to stay if they are prepared to repent. But Lewis, a Christian convert of orthodox theological views, did not believe that all roads lead to happily ever after. He saw his short allegorical work as a corrective to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which heaven and hell were presented as integral parts of a single divine order. There is nothing stopping Lewis’ characters from going to heaven, but they don’t like it there. It’s too bright. The grass hurts their feet. They feel more at home in the other place. And so they find excuses to go back where they came from.

The story is told of a samurai warrior who asks the Zen master Hakuin whether there is really a heaven and a hell. “Who are you?” Hakuin demands. When the soldier tells him he is a samurai, Hakuin tells him he looks more like a beggar. The samurai flies into a rage and draws his sword. “Here open the gates of hell!” Hakuin says calmly. The samurai sheaths his sword and bows. “Here open the gates of heaven!” Hakuin tells him. Heaven and hell: they may be different destinations, but they are entered by the same gate.

Revelation 21:21
Matthew 7:13-14

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps

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