Magazine article USA TODAY

Exploring Heaven & Hell. (Religion)

Magazine article USA TODAY

Exploring Heaven & Hell. (Religion)

Article excerpt

FOR PEOPLE who argue that human life ends with physical death, the transformation of a butterfly may seem an irrelevant, if interesting, image. However, for those of us who believe in eternal life, it is a sign of the hope we have in another life that is even better than this one.

For centuries, philosophers and theologians have argued about the existence of heaven and hell. Writers, poets, and painters have grappled with the subject, too. There is author Andre Gide, who said that, "just like the kingdom of God, hell is within us"; poet Dante Alighieri, with his vivid scenes of purgatory; and painter Pieter Brueghel, with his graphic depictions of terrible monsters and dismembered bodies. There also is author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose character Father Zossima shuns the idea of such physical torments and says that hell is, rather, the suffering of being unable to love: "People talk of hellfire in the material sense. I don't go into that mystery.... But if there were a literal fire, I imagine those in hell would be glad of it, for in material agony, their still greater spiritual agony would be forgotten for a moment."

Those who incline toward more-literal interpretations of the Bible may grate at this view of hell; indeed, they may shoot holes in it. What about the reference to the place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth? What about the pit of Sheol and the everlasting lake of fire?

As for heaven, there are just as many points of view. The Bible itself contains no single clear picture. In some ways, we are told that it will be well-nigh impossible for the rich to enter heaven; in others, that there are mansions there waiting for children and the childlike. Still other passages imply salvation for everyone, and include the promise that every tear will be dried and that God will reconcile all things in the universe to Himself. Then there is the saying, "The kingdom of heaven is within you," which seems simple enough to comprehend. Heaven must be elsewhere, too, though, for it is said that the angels descended from it to announce Jesus' birth, and that he later returned to it on a cloud.

Surely, hell and heaven are more than subjective states of mind and more than handy metaphors for anger and love, discord and harmony, pleasure and pain. If they weren't, how is one to explain the self-hatred that drives a depressive person toward suicide, or the peace that washes over someone who, after years of holding grudges, has suddenly been able to forgive? How can one explain the fact that we can feel far away from a living person fight next to us, but intimately bound to a deceased family member or friend? How is it that the limitations imposed by physical circumstances may yield, at times, to an atmosphere that is wholly independent of them--that it is possible to feel the weight of oppression in a house of worship, but hope and joy in a prison cell on death row? Are such powers merely internal emotions, or do they reflect greater forces that originate in another space or plane? To me, the answer is self-evident: Both heaven and hell exist as realities in and of themselves.

Such an assertion is a matter of belief, of course, and cannot be proved. Yet, throughout history, windows have been opened here and them, allowing believers and nonbelievers alike glimpses into greater realities, inspiring or terrifying them, but always leaving them with the unshakable belief that there are other worlds. Literature abounds with the experiences of people who have talked to, seen, or felt the presence of tormented departed souls. So do accounts of people who have seen or heard angels, often at the hour of a loved one's death.

For most of us, however, it is the hells and heavens of the human heart that we must contend with, because that is where we experience their force. Few people are granted more than an inkling of the vast worlds that exist beyond our own, and, in my experience, they tend to be reticent, reverent, and filled with awe. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.