Final Destination

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…

― John Milton, Paradise Lost

The earliest Christians fully expected Jesus to return in their lifetimes and didn’t really give much thought to the hereafter. They looked forward to a Second Coming of Christ and a Final Judgment. Those who passed muster would live happily ever after (in the most literal sense of the term) right here on earth. Heaven, hell and purgatory had not yet been conceived, at least not in the sense that we now understand them. In fact, the Scriptures have little to say about an afterlife, much less the notion that this life is a dress rehearsal for the next one. The immortality of the soul – an idea borrowed from the Greeks – was a later addition to Christian belief and is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the Bible.

One may fairly deduce from Scripture that heaven is up and hell is down, but beyond that there are precious few details to work with. This has given free reign to various religious traditions to supply their own particulars. There is no mention at all in the Bible of purgatory, which explains why Protestant and Orthodox traditions reject it altogether. Some of the more imaginative treatments of the afterlife come from artists like Hieronymus Bosch and poets like Dante and Milton. They have arguably had more to do with feeding the popular understanding of the next world than anything conjured up by the Church. These days, in fact, theologians are inclined to say that heaven and hell are not places at all but states of mind.

John Henry Newman -- a 19th-century Anglican cleric turned Roman Catholic cardinal -- suggested in a sermon that heaven and hell might be the same place, which appears heavenly or hellish, depending on the state of one’s soul. “If we wished to imagine a punishment for an unholy, reprobate soul, we perhaps could not fancy a greater than to summon it to heaven,” Newman declared. “Heaven would be hell to an irreligious man.” As it turns out, similar ideas have been kicking around for centuries. St. Isaac of Syria, a seventh-century Orthodox monk, wrote: "... those who find themselves in hell will be chastised by the scourge of love. How cruel and bitter this torment of love will be! For those who understand that they have sinned against love, undergo no greater suffering than those produced by the most fearful tortures.” In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, wraith-like denizens of hell take a bus trip to heaven and find that the light is too bright and the unyielding grass hurts their feet. Nothing prevents them from staying there, but most soon make their excuses and go back where they came from.

We don’t really know what awaits us in the next life, assuming there is one. But we don’t have to wait for another life to know heaven or hell. They are indeed the same place, and it is right here. Or, if you prefer, they are separate states of mind that play out in the larger arena of the world. Lucifer was onto something in Milton’s Paradise Lost when he said the mind was its own place that can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven. Of course, he was chained to a lake of fire when he talked about making a heaven of hell. The situation the rest of us face is sometimes quite the opposite. We live in a world that God has made and yet find ourselves in a prison of our own devising. “What is hell?” asked T.S. Eliot in The Cocktail Party. “Hell is oneself.”

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