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August 7, 2011: “You Think It’s Hot Now? Who Invented Hell, or Why the Universalists Believe in Air Conditioning After Death”

Theologian Mark Twain said: “I don’t like to commit myself about heaven and hell – you see, I have friends in both places.”

Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

George Carlin: “I’m not concerned about all hell breaking loose, but that a PART of hell will break loose… it’ll be much harder to detect.”

Robert Frost: “I hold it to be the inalienable right of anybody to go to hell in his own way.”

Harry S. Truman: “I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.”

Jean-Paul Sartre: “Hell is other people.”

Thomas Paine: ‘He who is the author of a war lets loose the whole contagion of hell and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.’

Aldous Huxley: “A belief in hell and the knowledge that every ambition is doomed to frustration at the hands of a skeleton have never prevented the majority of human beings from behaving as though death were no more than an unfounded rumor? Maybe this world is another planet’s hell.”

Victor Hugo: “An intelligent hell would be better than a stupid paradise. Hell is an outrage on humanity. When you tell me that your deity made you in his image, I reply that he must have been very ugly.”

Billy Graham: “If we had more hell in the pulpit, we would have less hell in the pew.”

Mega Church TV preacher, Joel Osteen: “I’m going to let God be the judge of who goes to heaven and hell.”

A story from Jesuit born in India and a spiritual writer, Anthony de Mello: There was once a guru who lived a celibate life and made it his life’s mission to fight against sex in himself and others.

In due course he died. And his disciple, who could not stand the shock, died a little after him. When the disciple reached the other world he couldn’t believe his eyes; there was his beloved Master with the most extraordinary beautiful woman seated on his lap.

His sense of shock faded when it occurred to him that his master was being rewarded for his sexual abstinence on earth, He went up to him and said, “Beloved Master, now I understand that God is just, for you are being rewarded in heaven for your austerities on earth.”

The Master seemed annoyed. “Idiot,” he said, “this isn’t heaven and I’m not being rewarded-she’s being punished.”

Tennessee Williams: “Hell is yourself and the only redemption is when a person puts himself aside to feel deeply for another person.”

Isaac Asimov: “I don’t believe in an afterlife, so I don’t have to spend my whole life fearing hell, or fearing heaven even more. For whatever the tortures of hell, I think the boredom of heaven would be even worse.”

     Yet for all of this, the scriptures are anything but clear on heaven and hell, on exactly what happens to us after we die and where do we go. They are even unclear on the resurrection of Jesus and whether he had a physical or literal body when he returned from the grave, or a spiritual or figurative or even metaphorical body. Yet to hear much of the conservative preaching today, one would think that the Bible is crystal clear. And the old question comes up again, that if it were that clear, why doesn't everyone believe the same thing?

     Read the obituary page and see how many euphemisms they use for the simple word, died. No, people are always "passing on," "going home to God or the arms of Jesus," they never seem just to die. It is because, I believe, that we all find ways to avoid thinking about our own death, as well as the death of loved ones. And yet we say at night we "fall asleep," and is that not like a temporary death? Can you remember the exact time when you "passed" from wakefulness to sleep?  We awake the next morning, sometimes wondering "where" we really were while we slept, all our bodily functions that keep us alive on auto-pilot.

     Have you not dreamed of heaven or hell? Oh, not those places, as such, but pleasant dreams or horrible nightmare makes us wonder what we ate, or even what we did. We wake up drenched in sweat or somehow elated, our sleep world often relating to what's on our mind, what's happening in our lives, and especially what and who have shaped our lives.

     Since ancient times, of course, death has been a mystery even while common as mud. Was there ever a time before religion, do you suppose? Scholars think that religion might have actually developed to try to explain death, and to connect us to the ancestors, the spirits of those who have gone before. Think of Halloween or the Mexican day of the Dead today as a reminder that we still somehow need to deal with the mystery and fear of death.

     Judaism doesn't really have a concept of reward or punishment after death, nor does it have any idea of original sin from the story of Adam and Eve. Judaism doesn't emphasize belief as the most important part of a religious life as conservative Christianity does; Judaism, actually more like Buddhism, talks about leading a righteous life, following the "way of God," sometimes called the Torah or Law of God, and living ethically for the sake of covenanting with the divine, not for a future reward or punishment or what would later come to be called "eternal life."

     All cultures have to come to terms with what happens after we die and where do we go? All religions have something to say about it, but they are widely different, and are often seen mythologically or metaphorically. Ancient stories told in an oral tradition that values the passing down of wisdom from the elders, helping to teach the young how to live their lives and why.

     According to an article in "US World and News" about whether hell is a literal physical place when Pope John Paul was still alive: "The latest round of revisionism was touched off last summer by a surprising editorial in La Civilta Cattolica, an influential Jesuit magazine with close ties to the Vatican. 'Hell,' the magazine declared, "is not a 'place' but a 'state,' a person's 'state of being,' in which a person suffers from the deprivation of God." A few days later, Pope John Paul II told an audience at the Vatican that "rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God." To describe this Godforsaken condition, the pontiff said, the Bible "uses a symbolical language" that "figuratively portrays in a 'pool of fire' those who exclude themselves from the book of life, thus meeting with a 'second death.' " (Pope Benedict recently concurred, by the way.)

The pope’s more conservative critics complained that by dousing hell’s flames, the pontiff had undermined a historic biblical doctrine and surrendered a potent theological weapon in the church’s struggle against evil. ‘ Scripture clearly speaks of hell as a physical place of fiery torment and warns us we should fear,’ says R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

A new U.S. News poll shows that more Americans believe in hell today than did in the 1950s or even 10 years ago. But like the pope, most now think of hell as ‘an anguished state of existence’ rather than as a real place.”

     Scripture DOESN'T clearly speak about hell, one must interpret a lot of confusing statements and choose verses to emphasize, hence the wide disparity in Christian interpretation of even the idea of salvation.

     Evangelical mega church minister, Pastor Rob Bell has written a highly controversial book that basically argues for Universalism- Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived Thursday, Apr. 14, 2011 Pastor Rob Bell: What if Hell Doesn't Exist?

By Jon Meacham

“The traditionalist reaction is understandable, for Bell’s arguments about heaven and hell raise doubts about the core of the Evangelical worldview, changing the common understanding of salvation so much that Christianity becomes more of an ethical habit of mind than a faith based on divine revelation. “When you adopt universalism and erase the distinction between the church and the world,” says Mohler, “then you don’t need the church, and you don’t need Christ, and you don’t need the cross. This is the tragedy of nonjudgmental mainline liberalism, and it’s Rob Bell’s tragedy in this book too.”

     Both our traditions had come to a more symbolic view of heaven and hell, not physical places, but a state of mind, or even more specifically a state of spirit or heart or love. As I've said before, one could argue that it was the Catholic Bishop Augustine of the 4th century who invented original sin; we might also say then that he also invented hell. Some say it was Dante's famous Divine Comedy that spoke of a tour through Heaven, Hell and purgatory which really started the franchise. Others say it was also Milton and his Paradise Lost, especially Gustave Dore's illustrations of the story of the fall of the great angel Satan that really burned the image of hell into modern consciousness.

     For, from what do we need to be saved if we are not drowning?  For many Christians today, Jesus is not an instrument that a wrathful divine Father uses as a scapegoat so we can all be saved from the original sin that happened when the first humans were invented!

     Most religions are actually wide spectrums of beliefs, practices, rituals, and traditions, many of which revolve around the life cycle, including death. Who can say if one is right or wrong? Who is the final arbiter if not each of us choosing how we live and yes, even how we die.

     I believe in restful sleep and I don't fear it; I had a near death experience after simple oral surgery some years ago when I was having problems coming out of the anesthesia and kept fading in and out of consciousness. Cathie tells me the doctor was worried they were "losing" me. For me it was like waking from a nice nap and deciding to sleep some more because it was so peaceful and restful.  For those who experience the bright light tunnel and loved ones already gone, may they find peace as well.

     It is how we live that is religion, how we treat one another, how we act, how we walk together, how we love, how we work for peace, justice and how we treat the least of our brothers and sisters.

Now that I am older, I have seen much of death, lost both my and Cathie’s’ mother and father, grandmothers, aunts, and uncles, other relatives, friends, and so many church members over the some 25 years or so that I have been in ministry. It does not get easier, but one sees that we do recover from our grief though some of it stays with us always depending on the depth of our love and memory. I understand now why people say “passing on” because it sometimes feels that way, that we’re just passing through. I have come to believe that the cycle of life IS natural and that life goes on because I have experienced the grief as well as the joy of life, birth, coming of age, graduation, weddings, retirements, even golden anniversaries, old age, and yes, death, the passing on to perhaps another stage that is shrouded in mystery, yet many religions speak of some sort of ‘later.’

Dr. Raymond Moody’s international best-seller, “LIFE AFTER LIFE,” about Near Death Experiences, called NDE’s, was popular because it told of a common experience of light and seeing loved ones or some sort of Being of Light that seemed to welcome and guide us into the next dimension, the next stage, the passing through, if you will. When my mother was dying from cancer, she said that she didn’t really believe in heaven or hell, but just thought she would be with her mother. I realized that I also believe that I will be with my loved ones as well. In fact, it was more like an intuition than a belief, because rationally, and Lord knows we must be rational!-it doesn’t seem like good science. Maybe my mother on her deathbed passed on her near death experience and it is nothing more than oxygen deprivation causing confused thinking, but like Dr. Moodies thousands of similar interview results, one can begin to judge for oneself from the heart, from intuition, what one wants to think, believe, or intuit. Maybe what we think, even how we have lived our lives, will matter; maybe it not a divine or supernatural God who deals death, but our own minds and hearts.

     I am enough of a Universalist to believe, intuit, feel, that a loving God, or call it a Force of Love, the ultimate Good, would not create a place or even a state of being that is eternally punishing, even torturing us. Are we good simply to avoid punishment? Certainly growing up, there must be consequences from our parents to help encourage us to be what we call 'good;' but as adults, we don't need the threat of punishment or the reward of candy or kisses, to instruct our behavior. So Jews follow the covenant with God, the spirit of love, and find the Torah good directions so that this life is all we need, and we want to be good because we love life and want to be happy. So Christians follow the teachings of Jesus to love one another, to feed the hungry, and do social justice. So Moslems follow the Revelations Mohammed shared about changing their way of life to one of ethical living and loving God more than themselves and also taking care of the poor and hungry.

I am enough of a Unitarian to see the unity of all life as well as all religions that must be a result of a force for good within humanity somehow. Perhaps that mysterious consciousness that drives our bodily functions, our very heartbeat and every breath we take while we are asleep, unconscious, if you will, every night, and yet we do not hesitate to lie down after a hard day and will our lives to the sleep our bodies need.

     Did we exist before we were born? Wasn't that a part of the cycle of life, our genetics a kind of reincarnation? Do we return then when we die, and is it restful sleep into a long, long night of dreaming, as we become a part of life even by our death?

This poem came to me more than 20 years ago, written for a pilot’s memorial service, but has stuck with me as an inspiration of the heart, of the spirit, and I wonder if it is a message that was passed on to me.

With soaring wings,
(For I am now the Hawk)
Death flies me to the sun
Where I continue to become
Not just one but many now,
Living not in flesh on earth,
But as part of all I’ve known;
Yes, rebirth. -A. Severance

     I believe that we cocreate our lives and maybe even our deaths, but that we have the power to change if we truly wish as well as the power to change the world. We will be remembered by the love we leave behind, among other things. Each of us invents our own heaven and hell; let us live our lives in such a way that we have cocreated a world of love, surrounded by loved ones present and past. Let us truly be in love with life.