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Heaven and Hell:
Life's More Than a Beach

by Mike Tighe

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?" she cheered.

"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 now—for reasons far beyond encouraging you to "behave" and not "catch hell."

One thing you may think you know about heaven and hell is their locations—heaven 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 hell.

Neither Christ nor the Church he founded has declared that anybody's official address is hell—not 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 travel.

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 between—a 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 this friend.

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 bad.

The Connector—Jesus 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 Jesus Christ.

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 things—in 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 friend—quit 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 with God.

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 yourself—you 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 die—because you have not fueled it—this 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 things—such as becoming fit for eternal friendship with God and God's creation.

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 is—Nobody 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 life—difficult but possible—and choose hell. In fact, you will probably begin to experience hell should you make hateful choices now. And purgatory—well; it's more heaven than hell but it's not right on target.

All these relationships, are about God—your friendship now or your avoidance of same. And beyond earth, that will be multi-magnified, according to the choices you make now.

Mike Tighe is managing editor of the Catholic Bulletin in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the author of I Was Afraid 1'd Lose My Soul to a Chocolate Malt...and Other Stories of Everyday Spirituality, published by Liguorian Press. His own teenage daughter helped him get a grip on heaven and hell.

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.

Q.

If you have enemies on earth, does that mean you can't get into heaven?

A.

Certainly not. All that means is that you are a human being. The people who made themselves enemies of Christ killed him, but he did nothing to deserve their being enemies. God's way is to be always open to friendship (or the end of enmity). Our human choice is to return such openness with love. This example is to show us that we should at least try not to do things that hurt others, and to patch up any differences you might have with others.

Q.

Does God love people who are in hell?

A.

If there are people in hell—and remember, they would be there through their own choices and not because an angry God sent them there—God loves their humanity, though the sinfulness of their choices is unlovable. God doesn't want anyone to go to hell, because the whole point of creation was and is a sharing of happiness.

God, however, is just. As Matthew's Gospel describes the scene, "'What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.' And these will go off to eternal punishment" (Matthew 25:45).

Q.

Who thought of purgatory? Can you get out if no one prays for you? If Jesus loves us so, shouldn't he be in purgatory with us?

A.

The idea of purgatory is based on Jewish and Christian tradition. The ecumenical Council of Trent in the mid-1500's officially defined it. Everyone who goes there to polish his or her friendship with God eventually gains heaven, because all prayers, every prayer helps us one and all. Looking at it from our human viewpoint, Jesus is in purgatory through his love for those who are there—as well as through the prayers of others. Jesus, from a more divine perspective, can't be in purgatory since it's set up for imperfect people!

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