I ask no paradise on high with cares on earth oppressed; the only heaven for which I sigh is rest, eternal rest.
Solomon Northup, ‘Twelve Years A Slave’
I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun; I saw the tears of the oppressed–and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressor–and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.
King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 NIV)
I’ve previously discussed here how the Pentecostal sermons of my childhood shaped the fears that I hold to this very day about spending an eternity in torment. Getting rid of that anxiety isn’t easy, but my view on the afterlife has slowly evolved over the years.
A Facebook friend shared a link today that contained an excerpt from an Easter message delivered by St. John Chrysostom (AD 347-407), an early Christian and Church father. Somewhere between the simplicity of the text and the complexity of the message, I found a way to lessen my worry about eternal damnation just a bit more.
Let no one grieve being poor, for the universal reign has been revealed. Let no one lament persistent failings, for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free. The Lord has destroyed death by enduring it.
The Lord vanquished hell when he descended into it.
The Lord put hell in turmoil even as it tasted of his flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he said, “You, O Hell, were placed in turmoil when he encountering you below.”
Hell was in turmoil having been eclipsed. Hell was in turmoil having been mocked. Hell was in turmoil having been destroyed. Hell was in turmoil having been abolished. Hell was in turmoil having been made captive. Hell grasped a corpse, and met God. Hell seized earth, and encountered heaven.
Hell took what it saw, and was overcome by what it could not see. O death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are cast down!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life is set free! Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead. For Christ, having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Christ be glory and power forever and ever. Amen!
It’s amazing how words written around 1,600 years ago can provide a new perspective. The complete (and refreshingly short) sermon is available here.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. – Mark 9:47-48
I live in complete and total fear of death. Not so much the act of dying, but what does or doesn’t come afterwards.
My childhood was filled with propaganda about the afterlife. Sermons yelled from the pulpit of my Pentecostal church and soft words spoken from the teacher’s podium at the Baptist school that I attended worked in unison to terrify me with mental images of flames and people screaming in unending torment. The excesses of heaven weren’t nearly as appealing as the idea of getting there meaning that I didn’t end up in that other place.
I remember my mom, dad, sister and I visiting another family when I was quite young and watching a religious film that showed people dying or being killed in accidents before being thrown into the flames of hell. Lack of television at home meant that my sister and I hadn’t been properly desensitized to such horrors, so we simply sat and sobbed uncontrollably until our parents took us home.
I could say that my religious beliefs have evolved dramatically over the years, but in all honesty, I haven’t been able to completely shake much of what I believed as a child, even though many of those beliefs now seem too convenient, too perfectly packaged, too elementary.
No matter how I try, I am unable to get beyond the fear of not meeting God’s expectations. While many would consider my lifestyle as the ultimate rejection of God’s will, I haven’t adopted a “consequences be damned” approach to my life at all. I’ve simply decided that I have to be myself and be happy in this life and trust that God will be merciful to me in the next.
But what if He isn’t? That question always gnaws at me.
There is rarely a day that goes by without something reminding me of those hellfire and brimstone sermons of my childhood. I can’t burn leaves without a quickening of my heartbeat as I consider how those flames might feel for eternity. I think of the young lady that I knew who burned up in an automobile accident and wonder if the pain stopped when she died or if it simply continued.
It isn’t uncommon to hear expressions of similar sentiments at the memorial services of friends and family members. After my cousin was killed in collision with a snow plow a few years ago, many of my family members and acquaintances made no apologies for their belief that she went straight to hell. Her own father requested that “Lost, Lost” (a song about dying without any hope of salvation) be performed during the ceremony. Thankfully, the singers refused.
I never could wrap my mind around the possibility that this vibrant young woman, this person that I loved, could somehow be punished forever just because she didn’t meet the expectations of those with a specific religious affiliation. In fact, I couldn’t help but wonder if God truly loved her more than anyone on earth possibly could, would He really send her to hell if mere mortals wouldn’t even consider doing such a thing? Surely not. But, then, how do we know?
In fact, in spite of all of our studying, praying, and believing, none of us can really be sure about anything that happens after we die. We might think we do, but until we draw our last breath and our eyes dim completely, we won’t know a single thing for sure.
And that, my friends, is enough to keep my fear of death alive. It’s my own personal version of hell. An unquenchable fire that burns constantly… inside of me.
I don’t talk to you much any more. I used to pray quite a bit, but now it just feels like there’s no one listening or I’m being incredibly selfish asking for anything when my life is so blessed. Typically, when I do come to you, it’s to offer a prayer of gratitude for something simple, since those are usually the things that make life so grand.
Still, there are times when I do ask for little favors. Like today when I requested protection for my partner – who had literally been up all night long writing a paper for school and had to drive 25 miles to class and back. I knew he was so tired and the roads were wet from rain, so I wanted to make sure that you realized how much his safety meant to both of us. I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to him. The thought is almost more than I can bare.
I’ve lost a lot of my belief in prayer over the years. I remember begging you to make me like everyone else when I was a teenager. It felt like you just ignored my requests, even though it seemed like you would have surely wanted me to change. I remember crying out to you when I was drowning in despair and feeling like you were a million miles away and my pleas were just bouncing off the ceiling.
I’ve been feeling like that quite a bit lately. Not really desperate, but certainly disconnected. It’s hard for me to separate you from all of the ways that the world tries to package you – in little despicable and distorted forms that we call “religion.” I wonder if you ever have a good laugh over the absurdity of it all.
A few weeks ago, a new friend told me a story that has me rethinking this whole prayer thing. Her story was one that might have made me roll my eyes a few years ago, but she told it in such a beautiful way that it just had to be true.
She said she died on the operating table and was clinically dead for fifteen minutes. She described going to heaven and what she saw and how she felt. She said she couldn’t even look at you because you were so bright, but that she felt the most intense love – so intense that when she was told that she needed to return to her still-living husband and daughter, she didn’t want to leave.
As she drifted slowly back down to earth, she noticed little beams of light passing her on their way up to heaven. Some of them were moving fast and some were slow, but they were all rising. She said she suddenly realized that they were prayers… and the fastest moving ones were the prayers of mothers. Despite all my cynicism and doubt about most things spiritual, I believed this story with all my heart.
So, I’m going to start praying more. And I’m going to imagine those prayers as little beams of light slowly rising to where you are. It’s okay if they don’t get there the fastest, because some of those other prayers are much more important, but I’m going to keep the faith that they’re going to arrive eventually, and that you’re going to know how grateful I am for every opportunity to communicate with you.
Until next time,