Where to next? Modern perceptions of Heaven and Hell.Heaven isn't a place but an idea, and WE created the imagination. People who have had a near-death experience have sometimes spoken of flying toward a light in the distance. The image is one of peace, escaping this world of struggle to gain God's eternal reward. They know, because of the tales and myths that have been told, that there will be no war, famine or disease, just paradise. Yet in the western world, heaven's reputation is less appealing than we might expect. It may be seen as old-fashioned and irrelevant. God is a stern, old man; the weather may always be good but existence is too boring, it's always the same. Heaven (which is supposed to be about eternal life) is actually about eternal rest. This notion might appeal to the elderly or the suffering, but to the rest of us, excitement, change, challenge and adventure are far more attractive. If the traditional image of heaven is no longer seen as relevant, what has replaced it?
Our heaven must be renamed Ad-land. Golden beaches of California; hair free of dandruff; ice cream with the one you love; chocolate bars in a tropical utopia. Most advertisements promise you order in the middle of your disorderly life. They promise to look after you. They promise a quick-fix bliss.
Christianity promises not only reward but also punishment. It could be seen as a religion of pain, with its icon the cross. Many believe that though God created us, if He returns it will be not to create but to destroy. Hell is the place of torture. It is dark and hot; demons rule there. Hell is the threat, which is meant to keep us on the straight and narrow; Satan convinces more than God. We make hell all the time on earth. In a way hell is like life and it shows us our mistakes, our sins and failure. Paintings and poems of hell are really images about our own world. We all know the moments of hell in this bloody century: World Wars One and Two, Hiroshima, Tsjernobyl, Vietnam, Child-murderer Marc Dutroux , Charles Manson, etc... Freud saw hell as the dark depths that humanity can sink to, the basement of our souls. The Islam had Iblis, Scandinavia had Niflheim, and the Christian hell, a combination of the Hebrew Sheol, the place of the death, and Gehenna - a reviled site in the valley of Hinnom, by Jerusalem, where children had once been sacrificed to Moloch.
This century spelled the end of hell as it had been; hell as malign external punishment, hell as one hundred and one damnations. The 20th-century view is far more sinister.
So what do people say about heaven and hell? Here are a few comments from The Observer April 7, 1996 in an article by Nicci Gerrard and Euan Ferguson.. You may like to add your own. Think we're trivializing the afterlife? Think again.
Father Ted, Heaven: "There's been a lot of nonsense spoken down the years on the afterlife - fanciful idealistic notions of what heaven might look like. But I think all the evidence points to it being a place with lots of angels standing on clouds playing harps. Also, God will be sitting on a big throne. As I understand it, he's a big beardy fella who looks ancient."
Hell: "Again some ridiculous notions flying about the place on this subject, but I think the Catholic Church's teaching on this would be the one I'd go for; lots of fires and demons annoying you round the clock. They've all got sharp sticks and they'd give you the odd poke. Basically if you don't want to end up there with Fatty Arbuckle, Joan Crawford and the rest of them, be good."
Stephen Sykes, Bishop of Ely, Heaven "The heart of my personal image of heaven is God's renewal and deepening of friendships, and also I hope to be allowed to enjoy an endless variety of cats and trees."
Hell: "Hell for me is the opposite; isolation and ugliness."
Joel Edwards, UK director of the Evangelical Alliance, Heaven: "There is more to heaven than harps and halos. Christ has promised to all who know him a place where pain and suffering are ended and where the will of God is perfectly done."
Hell: "The bible takes hell seriously. It is the appalling and the ultimate reality of an eternity without the God who revealed himself through the life of Jesus."
Mark Thomas, comedian, Heaven: "Heaven smells of banana, sounds of Sonic Youth, tastes like sex and ginger beer, feels like Clapham Common."
Hell: "Hell is north London."
Susan Leybourne, high priestess and pagan chaplain of Leeds University, Heaven: "In the upper world you meet with your spirit friends. It is the Land of Youth where you are happy and jolly like children. You go down a tunnel and are met by a special friend, like a grandma, who settles you."
Hell: "The underworld is a twilight world of limbo, a fairy kingdom full of strange creatures. You go down a tunnel and are captured by a spirit fairy or an elf, who drags you down there, and traps you in the darkness."
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