Time for Confession: heaven and/or hell

given on Sunday, May 15, 2011

Time for Confession:  Heaven and/or Hell

 

            There comes a time when a conflict occurs within one’s own thinking.  That human doubt or questioning that is part of God’s gift to us can sometimes cause a great deal of consternation.  My personal belief has always been that there is no fire-filled abyss known as hell, but then what in the world is hell?  I do not think I have ever questioned that there is a heaven, but hell just did not seem to fit into the understanding I have of God’s loving nature.

Therefore, when reading Colton’s story, Heaven is for Real, I had no problems understanding what he discovered in that very brief visit to heaven.  It all made sense.  The more I read scripture, researched the topic, and thought about it heaven became a concrete image.  Yet one part of the story actually upset me on the first reading—Chapter 26, “The Coming War.”  In all the description and discussion about heaven, why a chapter on war?

Driving along with his dad, Colton launches into a new piece from his experience:

“Dad, did you know there’s going to be a war?”

“What do you mean?”  Were we still on the heaven topic?  I wasn’t sure.

“There’s going to be a war, and it’s going to destroy this world.  Jesus and the angels and the good people are going to fight against Satan and the monsters and the bad people.  I saw it.”  (p.136)

The skeptical nature I have kicked in—oh, oh, here is where the story gets a little outlandish.  Yet, I was committed to reading and to understanding the book’s message.  I expect that Colton’s dad did a double take, too.  Remember, Colton is now five or six years old remembering an experience he had at 3 years and 10 months old.  Those who follow John Wesley’s theology won’t go with a gut reaction, but carefully pursues the scripture and the human experience—historically and personally–before coming to a conclusion.

Rev. Burpo did follow the Wesleyan pattern.  He began with the scripture from Revelation, the very book that I have avoided because of my confusion concerning it.  Now, like Rev. Burpo, I had to spend some time reading the related scripture, the study notes, and the research.  Just what is hell and what is this battle?

Today’s scripture from Revelation is after the battle.  Looking into the book the beginning of the battle is described:

7-12War broke out in Heaven. Michael and his Angels fought the Dragon. The Dragon and his Angels fought back, but were no match for Michael. They were cleared out of Heaven, not a sign of them left. The great Dragon—ancient Serpent, the one called Devil and Satan, the one who led the whole earth astray—thrown out, and all his Angels thrown out with him, thrown down to earth. Then I heard a strong voice out of Heaven saying,

Salvation and power are established!
Kingdom of our God, authority of his Messiah!
The Accuser of our brothers and sisters thrown out,
who accused them day and night before God.
They defeated him through the blood of the Lamb
and the bold word of their witness.
They weren’t in love with themselves;
they were willing to die for Christ.
So rejoice, O Heavens, and all who live there,
but doom to earth and sea,
For the Devil’s come down on you with both feet;
he’s had a great fall;
He’s wild and raging with anger;
he hasn’t much time and he knows it.

13-17When the Dragon saw he’d been thrown to earth, he went after the Woman who had given birth to the Man-Child. The Woman was given wings of a great eagle to fly to a place in the desert to be kept in safety and comfort for a time and times and half a time, safe and sound from the Serpent. The Serpent vomited a river of water to swamp and drown her, but earth came to her help, swallowing the water the Dragon spewed from its mouth. Helpless with rage, the Dragon raged at the Woman, then went off to make war with the rest of her children, the children who keep God’s commands and hold firm to the witness of Jesus.

The scripture supports Colton’s announcement of a battle, but there are some differences.  Still the differences do match up with the concepts outlined in Revelations 12-19.  Colton’s description of the ‘monsters’ also explained as “like dragons and stuff,” seems to open our understanding of scripture’s ‘Beast’—remember the saying:  “Out of the mouth of babes, oft comes gems.”

In fact, this saying connects to Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 21:15-16:

15-16When the religious leaders saw the outrageous things he was doing, and heard all the children running and shouting through the Temple, “Hosanna to David’s Son!” they were up in arms and took him to task. “Do you hear what these children are saying?”

Jesus said, “Yes, I hear them. And haven’t you read in God’s Word, ‘From the mouths of children and babies I’ll furnish a place of praise’?”

This response from Jesus is also a quote from Psalms 8:2:

2 Nursing infants gurgle choruses about you;
toddlers shout the songs
That drown out enemy talk,
and silence atheist babble.

What better reminder that Colton’s story provides honest insight into an understanding of heaven, the battle often referred to as the Armageddon, and hell?

Maybe my thoughts are wondering off too far, but the Biblical and historical background are needed to clear up the confusion about heaven and hell.  The first step is to understand the scripture and Revelations is the most abstract book in the entire Bible.  It has caused confusion for thousands of years, so the key to understanding may be as simple as Colton’s view from heaven.

I confess that reading Colton’s description of the battle ongoing in heaven left me feeling uncomfortable, agitated, confused, and even doubting.  Yet the scripture and the references call all come together to support the simple, clear and concise view of a young, innocent boy who sat and watched the battle—his own dad fighting in that battle.  Out of the mouth of babes . . .

Where does this leave me?  Hopefully rejoicing because the final piece of clarification came while reading the study notes from The Wesley Study Bible.  Over the past several weeks the clarification of Heaven develops the understanding that eternal life can begin even living as a physical human on this very real earth.  Heaven, or eternal life, continues into a new state when we die and discard the bodies that have housed us here on earth.

Remember Wesleyan core term of heaven:

Is it a place, a realm, a future home, or a current reality?  John depicts a heavenly throne where praise occurs continually, prayer rises as incense on behalf of the saints, and a holy army prepares to follow the Messiah into final victory.  In the story of Revelation, what happens in heaven affects what happens on earth.  Though separated by a veil, events are synchronized.  In the end of our story, heaven comes down to earth and all tings are made new.  Heaven is helpful now, even as we wait for it to come fully.  (p. 1545)

The term Heaven is a concrete image to me now.  I can tie the battle that Colton described the efforts in heaven in a manner that makes me realize that our Christian efforts now and forever make a difference for all on this earth.  We have the responsibility as God’s servants to do all that we can in all the many different ways that we can whenever and wherever we can.

What is Hell, then?  The final brick is firmly laid in place with the Wesleyan Core Term of Hell:

Most notions of hell are influenced by John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Wesley’s were too.  In his notes on Revelation, Wesley comments, “How far these expressions are to be taken literally, how far figuratively only, who can tell?”  Wesley did believe in a literal “lake of fire” as a place where the damned are eternally tormented.  But in Sermon 73: “Of Hell,” Wesley also describes hell as the experience of loss.  Hell is the loss of beauty, music, pleasant memory, kindness, loved ones, friendship, love, and a sense of having been created by God—knowing that rest will never be found except in God.  Hell is also felt experience; a place of hate, horror, greed, rage, lust, unsatisfied desires, envy, jealousy, malice and revenge, characterized by fear, guilt, and shame.  While all of this will “incessantly gnaw the soul” like a vulture through all eternity, most hells begin here on earth. (p. 1556)

There it is “. . . most hells begin here on earth.”  I knew it.  There is a hell right here on earth, but—and this is huge—there is heaven on earth, too.  We need to remember that we are living as Christians who understand that as long as we love one another to the fullest of our being, we are going to experience heaven on earth.  And as we experience it, we are to work against all the forces that turn lives toward hell.  The more we work and the more we work together we can keep Satan and all his evil angels under control.  More and more people can begin to experience what heaven on earth truly can be.

Where does that put Colton’s story?  It puts it right where John Wesley puts it—into the hands of God’s faithful servants.  It puts it right into our own hands.  The responsibility may seem overwhelming and Colton’s dad shares that with us:

My face fell.  “You mean I have to fight monsters with a sword?”

“Yeah, Dad, but it’s okay,” he said reassuringly.  “Jesus wins.  He throws Satan into hell.  I saw it.”

. . . Colton’s nonchalance struck me.  His attitude was kind of like, “What’s the problem, Dad?”  I’ve told you:  I’ve skipped to the last chapter, and the good guys win.”

That was some comfort at least.  We were just crossing the outskirts of Imperial when I decided to adopt his attitude toward the whole thing.  “Well, son, I guess if Jesus wants me to fight, I’ll fight,” I said.

Colton turned away from the window, and I saw that the look on his face had turned serious.  “Yeah, I know Dad,” he said.  “You will.”

You are so right, Colton, heaven and hell are for real!  And we will continue to fight.

Dear Everlasting Father,

            Understanding our mission can be so difficult when we have trouble understanding our faith.  Knowing that time on end we will have to battle Satan and the fallen angels may seem beyond our ability, but we continue to work for full understanding.  Thank you for the scriptures so many of your servants have written for us.  Thank you for all the teachers who struggle to help us understand your love.  Thank you for the words of a young child who sees heaven is for real. Guide us as we take up the battle to be your agents of love            –Amen


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