Tuesday, March 15, 2011

When We All Get to Heaven

Somewhere In the Middle - Casting Crowns (mp3)
Everything'll Be Made Right - Superdrag (mp3)

Hipster youngster pastor Rob Bell has published a controversial new book, Love Wins. In it, he apparently offers the not-particularly-radical notion that Hell is either very small, temporary, or non-existent. If you want to watch his very intriguing "trailer" video for his book, watch here.

(Side note: For another recent version of this argument, see If Grace is True, a book I happened to like a whole lot, thankee.)

I first read Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis about six years ago and enjoyed it, although it felt like it was written in 5-minute spurts, as if he just jotted stuff down every time he sat down on the john. But it had its moments, and I found it to be a worthy side reading project for wayward lib’ral Christians, much like Blue Like Jazz.

I’ve known four pastors and preachers well enough to have had intense and personal conversations with them, and I’m related to two more, one of whom was my grandfather, whose fiery Baptist sermons were counteracted by private journal entries where he expressed one doubt after another about his own faith. I know two more who are about to finish or have recently finished seminary. Of those six men and two women, every last one of them has “The Gospel I Believe” and “The Gospel I Preach,” and with all of them, those two Gospels aren’t the same Gospel. They have a lot in common. Probably 80-percent of them are the same. But all of them have beliefs or doubts or concerns in their personal beliefs that get covered up, glossed over, or ignored when preaching publicly.

And all of their responses, in private, are along these lines: My congregation “can’t handle it,” or “isn’t spiritually open to it,” or “would kick me out on my dainty bum.”

I’m not saying confidently that There Is No Hell. I’m not confident about much when it comes to Christianity. I only know what I hope, and I know this hope has nothing to do with my own selfish desires. It’s not for my own protection or sense of being, but because it seems the most just.

And it’s this: We all get to heaven on airplanes.

The most saintly among us, like Mother Theresa, get private Lear Jets that fly them immediately up. The very faithful and good get first class and are sent off the runway in expedient fashion. The highly flawed are forced to sit on the runway for several years, not allowed to use the bathroom or unbuckle, and forced to sit next to the people you were most judgmental towards in your lifetime. (I mostly put myself in this category, but I might be shooting too high.)

The malicious, the cruel, the rabid disbelievers, and those whose misguided faith led them to do the most harm to others in the name of God, they’re forced to endure several decades of layovers. They don’t get hotel vouchers. They sleep, night after night, on uncomfortable airport chairs. They eat nothing but poorly-cooked fast food that rips the stomach up. The Starbucks is permanently closed due to repairs. The heat doesn't work. They don’t get Wi-Fi, and the cell reception constantly drops out at exactly the wrong times. The bathrooms smell and never get cleaned, and bile randomly spews forth from the toilets. And the only reading or viewing material is a recording of all the horrible things they’ve done in their lives, mixed in with all the good things they could have done had they taken different paths.

The only way their plane finds a pilot is when they have a Bill Murray-esque moment from Groundhog Day. When they finally accept their mistakes and repent for their destructive or wasted lives, they are granted passage and taken up.

Finally, there are those who choose separation. That’s, according to the wise old Milton, precisely what Satan chose. He was the first rebel. And maybe there are just those in our midst who, after death and granted full and total enlightenment, would still choose to remain separate. I cannot imagine a God who would force us to do anything, so I guess they’ll get their wish.

Maybe this makes me a Unitarian, or a Universalist. Maybe this makes me sacrilegious. Maybe this guarantees I’m gonna be stuck in that airport for several painful lifetimes. I’m sure I deserve it.

But one day, somehow, I’ll get there. And so will you. And when we meet, hopefully God will let us listen to some of our favorite music, even if it was a song by Judas Priest.


cinderkeys said...

This is similar to something I read and liked by Orson Scott Card in one of the Ender's Shadow books: There's what we believe we believe, and there's what we actually believe.

cinderkeys said...

And on another note ...

I've tagged you guys in a brand new shiny meme. The challenge is to tell your origin story. Every superhero has an origin story; why not the rest of us?

If you feel like participating, see details here: http://cinderbridge.blogspot.com/2011/03/origin-stories.html

(We now return to your original comment thread, already in progress.)

Daisy said...

I will ready admit that I don't know anything about anything when it comes to Christianity, but isn't the layover theory you've described a lot like purgatory?

Billy said...

@Cinder - Well put. I can't believe I've never read that book...

@Daisy - Perhaps, but mine isn't nearly as dark and gothic. It's more modernized and requires clean coal technology and a lot of participation from Boeing. And from my somewhat-elementary understanding of Purgatory, not everyone got to go UP at the conclusion of their time. Not everyone even qualified for Purgatory to begin with. In my fantasy version, everyone goes to the frappin' airport.

Bob said...

Hell strikes me as being similar to a lame plot device in a bad movie. The shocking discovery that human beings will not naturally behave in ways that secure their positions in heaven means that the writers need to tack on a nasty alternative to scare them in that direction.

The inconsistencies in both the origins of the Hell concept and in the denominational rationales for how to avoid it make it more befuddling than scary.

George said...

You might be interested in the very short novel by Miguel de Unamuno "Saint Manuel, the Good, Martyr," about the priest of a small town in Spain, told from the perspective of a young girl who lives there. It is available in English on the web here.