Mrs. Quincy, the religion teacher, spent quite
some time with a group of first-graders explaining to them
that they should be good so they would go to heaven and spend
the rest of eternity with God.
At the end of the lesson, Mrs. Quincy asked,
"Now, where do you want to go?"
In unison, the children shouted, "Heaven!"
"And what must you be to get to heaven?"
"Dead!" came the loud, unanimous answer.
Well, Mrs. Quincy was frustrated. She felt that
her first-graders had missed the point.
But their answer probably would place high on
any teen opinion poll: Heaven and hell are places you go after
you die. For that reason, they may not concern you all that
much right now. Just getting through some days seems tough
enough without worrying about what might happen to you after
you are dead.
Heavenly Evidence Here and Now
Or so you figure it. This Youth Update
will point out some good reasons to consider heaven nowfor
reasons far beyond encouraging you to "behave" and
not "catch hell."
One thing you may think you know about heaven
and hell is their locationsheaven is somewhere up
there, while hell is located down there.
Like the store directory at the mall, however,
the arrow of your life tells you that you are here.
And here is where you should start grappling with heaven and
Neither Christ nor the Church he founded has
declared that anybody's official address is hellnot
even some people who look like clear candidates. One commonly
held viewpoint today is that heaven and hell aren't precise
locations at all. Heaven and hell have much more to do with
attitudes and behavior than they do with geography or space
Try thinking of them as connected to your relationship
with God. Heaven indicates a positive, friendly one, while
hell would be one in which the friendship has been cut off.
Purgatory is in betweena budding friendship that still
needs time to bloom.
Humanity's desire for heaven and our equal and
opposite fear of hell can be traced to the biblical book of
Genesis. In its second creation story, we read that Adam and
Eve started out as close as possible to being perfect friends
with God, who gave them only one "order": Keep your
hands off the fruit of that one tree ("the tree of the
knowledge of good and bad"). This story has a point:
not eating forbidden fruit, however, isn't it. In some way,
God tested the pair's friendship, trying to determine whether
they would follow a simple request from their Creator-Friend.
Acting contrary to God's command violated that
agreement, and Adam and Eve chose to hide themselves from
God. Coming out of hiding and back to friendship with God
continues to be the human quest today.
This story seems very much like that of an acquaintance
asking you to keep a secret. If you do so, the friendship
grows stronger through trust. But if you spread the secret
around, the friend will be hurt, even angry. You will have
to work to restore the trust and friendship.
In a similar way, your life choices can bring
you closer to God. But unlike some hard-to-get human friends,
God goes out of the way to move in your direction. The birth,
death and Resurrection of Jesus are divine actions showing
God's creative and loving efforts to restore the relationship
that Adam and Eve severed.
Human friendship can teach us even more about
God's ways. For instance, you don't wait until the last minute
before going to a movie or a. dance and then just pick a stranger
off the street to go with you. Instead, you choose a friend
you have gotten to know over a period of time. You already
may have attended several activities together. You have had
time to explore your common interests and differences. After
a while, you probably started feeling comfortable enough to
share your innermost thoughts, fears, joys and hopes with
Each of you took on responsibilities as the
friendship formed. You helped each other in things as simple
as studying math together to more complicated emotional things
like helping each other through misunderstandings with parents.
Maybe you have just gone for a walk when the other needed
somebody to listen. This friend returned the favors as your
bond turned into a solid relationship through good times and
The ConnectorJesus Christ
This human example reveals just a glimpse of
our relationship with God. Jesus Christ is your main link,
because he became human to show how lovable the Creator found
the human race and to show, through Jesus, how humanity might
express love in return. Within the Church, a start on this
path of friendship is expressed in Baptism. It is a return
to "the tree of life." Much that is wonderful (as
in the garden) exists in this world to remind us of God's
power and to lead us to adore God. The sacraments are seen
as opportunities to strengthen this link with God through
It's not so hard to see good choices on many,
if not most, occasions either. You can find many expressions
of God's loving will. Jesus Christ summed it all up in two
short rules: Love God and love your neighbor. Note that he
puts it in the positive form instead of a list of don'ts.
Christ wants people to express love instead of just letting
it sit there. Your positive actions move you toward God who
has built a bridge in Jesus, a bridge which links heaven to
your everyday life.
Jesus helps guide your everyday loving actions
toward family, friends and neighbors. Those actions enrich
you as well. When you think of God as friend, and consider
heaven as a measure of how close you are to God, you can see
how important it is to work on this friendship now. Putting
it off now only means you have more miles to cover later.
You are not alone on.the trip, though. Christ
said he brought the kingdom of heaven to earth and urged us
to receive it or accept it. Your recognition of the kingdom
can help others to see it too. That's teamwork. A team preparing
for a game or debate or math contest gets together and works
in advance. Team members who don't prepare may find themselves
going the wrong direction. Heaven-seekers must work together,
expressing loving values in their choices and actions, both
in the Church and out.
This also requires personal time out to build
an individual awareness of God's movement in your life. A
basketball player practices shooting individually, perfecting
shots so he or she can contribute to a winning effort. Likewise,
your friendship with God takes personal activity on your part
such as prayer. Actually, prayer is a conversation with God,
just as your discussion with a friend might be. Sometimes
you talk, sometimes you listen. Sometimes you praise and thank
a friend for what he or she has done for you; sometimes the
opposite is true. But in every case, you get to know the other
better, and your bond of friendship becomes stronger.
To value this bond means to make time for God.
If you chose to be friendly toward another person only one
day of the week, your chances of building a friendship would
be slim indeed. It's also hard to build a friendship with
God if you confine it to only an hour on Sunday.
In this respect, time on earth is like a dress
rehearsal for heaven. Heaven is friendship with God, through
your own interaction with God and your friendships with other
people. Your role is to develop a "welcomeness"
for God and for others. The difference is that the rehearsal
is what we know as "real life."
So, heaven begins here and now in friendship
with God. You allow it into your life and the lives of others
through your choices, activities and interest in eternal values.
But what happens if you choose not to do any of these thingsin
fact, choose to block any evidence of them from your life?
Hell is Zero Friendly
Friends have been known to turn on a person
for no obvious reason, even bowing out of the picture altogether.
Perhaps you can remember this out of your own experience.
You probably felt confused, depressed; and wondered whether
you would ever have another friend. This memory is some slight
clue about how hell might feel. It's the collective result
of choices to ignore inspirations and opportunities to express
the good and act out of love.
While heaven seals a relationship with God (often
expressed through your relationships with people), hell signifies
a total break in that relationship with God (often expressed
in your negative relationships to people). Hell begins on
earth, just like heaven does, because each is an opposite
pole in your relationship with God.
Imagine how few friends you would have if you
never talked to anybody, never helped anybody. Or imagine
what happens when you just drop a friendquit calling,
ignore him or her on the street and at school, never invite
him or her over. You lose the friend.
Perhaps you can remember the pain when you've
lost a friend and realize that you have flubbed up. You won't
get that friend back unless you take action.
In a similar way, you sever your friendship
with God when you quit praying, quit talking to God, quit
seeing Jesus as a source of inspiration and strength. You
also block that friendship when you become so centered on
yourself that you don't help others. Fighting with your brothers
and sisters, mouthing off to your parents and refusing to
use your own gifts for others all weaken your relationship
If you totally block such a relationship and
refuse to restore it, your path is pointed toward hell. You
may wonder how a God who is loving and kind possibly could
cast anyone into hell? As mentioned earlier, neither Christ
nor the Church ever said that God has condemned anyone to
hell. But it is a possibility for those who refuse to accept
God's friendship. God has given you a free will so you can
either respond to the invitation to friendship, which is itself
a taste of heaven, or turn your back and head for hell. It
is your choice and you are your own judge through your actions.
Biblical stories about the final judgment can
leave the impression that God is the final judge. The Big
Decision, however, is yours.
I see some comparison to an instance in which
a friend asks you to do a favor, and you let that friend down.
Later, when the friend confronts you about it, you really
don't need him or her to tell you that you've goofed. You
already know it yourself. You feel bad about it, and you can
judge yourselfyou know the score.
Lots of Tickets to the Semifinals
Fortunately, God's friendship is more reliable
than that of humans. Even if your relationship with God is
stalled when you diebecause you have not fueled itthis
friendliest of friends gives you another option instead of
allowing you to remain cut off. The option is purgatory, a
mysterious but appropriate chance to continue the friendship.
I say "mysterious" because you may not even be familiar
with the term. Church teaching on this interim condition is
based on belief in God's mercy and forgiveness as well as
biblical encouragement to pray for the dead. The Church believes
that prayers help. Purgatory, then, is another opportunity
from a loving God who wants to remove all the obstacles to
your clear decision to befriend God, God's people and yourself
in the divine image.
Just as the biblical picture of hell often is
fire, purgatory sometimes is talked about as a fire too, only
not as hot. Actually, these are only images because, as we
noted earlier, we humans can only speculate and imagine what
life after death is like and try to use our limited vocabularies
to wrestle with it.
Fire may be a powerful choice to signify the
burning hurt you experience when you are cut off from a friend.
Hell's hurt would burn worse because you would know that you
yourself have blown your chance to be friends with God. Purgatory's
pain is less because you would know that it is a temporary
situation in which divine grace prepares you for greater thingssuch
as becoming fit for eternal friendship with God and God's
Purgatory is intended to punish unrepented sins
and thus continue your movement toward goodness and wholeness.
It's a forward movement. (Of course, it's not as inviting
as getting things right the first time so you can experience
the joy of heaven right off.)
As I see it, purgatory is similar to a friend
giving you one last chance to prove yourself in order to restore
a friendship. Maybe you have let the friend down repeatedly
in little ways, or maybe you've lied, or talked behind your
friend's back. You tell the friend you are really, really
sorry, so he or she gives you one more chance.
You're Not Alone
Friendship has been my major metaphor or comparison
throughout this speculation on the shape of life after death.
Just as life before death is lived out with lots of people,
life after death will probably include them as well. Purgatory,
as best anyone knows, is a time for teamwork at its best.
The presence of Jesus Christ, who has been within us on earth,
continues to link those in heaven, earth and purgatory as
well. This link is called the Communion of Saints, meaning
everybody is connected.
That powerful link helps those in purgatory,
as your friends on earth and in heaven pray that your friendship
with God is completed. It is a time when you depend on your
friends in Christ more than ever, because their prayers and
good works support and help you, much in the way that they
do on earth.
It is natural to wonder now whether you also
will know your family and friends in heaven. In the past,
some have thought and taught that you would be so awed in
the presence of God that you would not care whether your friends
were there, too. But the reality of the Communion of Saints
says to me that you will know these others better, and care
even more deeply for them than you do now. After all, the
intensity of your connectedness and friendship will grow in
a special way after death, when the friendship with God is
complete. Prayer for each other now is a happy glimmer of
that care and concern.
So, what is heaven like, you may still be asking.
The answer isNobody knows. One thing we do know is that
it is not like cartoons often drawn with people perched on
clouds, sprouting wings and playing harps. And you won't be
on Cloud Nine or in Seventh Heaven, or even Hog Heaven. Remember:
Heaven, hell and purgatory aren't places as we know them.
The terms "in" heaven, "in" hell and "in"
purgatory result more from humans' need to see them as places
when we talk about them.
Heaven, hell and purgatory are about a relationship
with a friend. You have all the time you need now for that
relationship to lead heavenward. It's also possible to deny
all evidence of God, of grace, love, joy and friendship in
your lifedifficult but possibleand choose hell.
In fact, you will probably begin to experience hell should
you make hateful choices now. And purgatorywell; it's
more heaven than hell but it's not right on target.
All these relationships, are about Godyour
friendship now or your avoidance of same. And beyond earth,
that will be multi-magnified, according to the choices you
Youth Update advisers who previewed
this issue, asking questions and suggesting changes are Elaine
Gunnison, Rob Hasling, Janine Herd, Vicki L. Keller and Jeremy
"Floyd" Roadruck. All are members of the youth group
at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish on Wright Patterson Air
Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, where Kathy Blednick serves
as youth minister.