February 08, 2016

Brick in the Wall: Conceptions of an Afterlife and the Struggle with Identity

Today's post will kind of feed into tomorrow's post. I think this discussion will contain relatively necessary background information on how I was taught to conceptualize a Christian afterlife.

The afterlife is complicated. If you look at Jewish traditions, it's easy to see an evolution of their concept of an afterlife--it's been readily documented, with many pointing out that many instances of "sheol" from Hebrew to English depend on circumstance. In some cases, it translates as Hell--but in others, it translates as "grave" or "pit".

It's pretty clear that Hell itself is a mish-mash of traditions, some of them stemming from this evolution and others absorbed over the centuries from the cultures Christianity came into contact with.

For me, I was raised with a concept of a distinct, literal Heaven and Hell.


Hell was a place of eternal damnation and suffering. Pastors alternatively preached that it was the separation from God or the actual physical suffering or some combination of both that punished people for their indiscretion.

My use of indiscretion, singular, there is purposeful. There was really only one indiscretion that could send you to Hell: not accepting Christ.

Our theology was a little like this: Adam and Eve were innocent. No sin. Eve was deceived, but Adam committed a sin by eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Sin was transmitted to all humans through the male line (thus Christ could be born of a human woman, because she would not transmit the sinful nature to him like her father had to her).

In the Old Testament, a covenant was made between God and Israel (or rather, Abraham on behalf of his descendants that would become Israel). This covenant had to be sealed with blood because only blood was satisfactory for God--we learned this with the story of Cain and Abel, when Abel's sacrifice was good but Cain's was not. In OT times, this  meant a sacrifice of an animal. The animal had to be perfect, of course, with no blemishes.

This is important. In our theology, it wasn't the sacrifice itself that atoned for these sins. The sacrifice was instead a way of sealing the covenant in advance of the coming of a perfect sacrifice, Christ. These sacrifices were made looking forward to the fulfillment of the covenant and the redemption of the world through the crucifixion. Thus, the sacrificial animals had to be perfect to be an appropriate representation of Christ's lack of blemish.

With the coming of Christ and his death and resurrection, that covenant was fulfilled. The world was redeemed. There was no more need for animal sacrifice because anyone after that would be looking back on Christ's own sacrifice and accepting that. It was a New Covenant, one that required believing in Christ. It was faith by grace, not works, so no matter how good you were, you were never good enough to earn salvation. You could only accept it.

In this set up, the choice of Hell or no Hell is really compelling, especially for small children. From the time I was quite young, I listened to pastors give passionate descriptions of the suffering endured in damnation, and it seemed like a no-brainer. Everyone around me was "saved"--I wanted to be too. All you have to do is believe, so it's easy (ha!).

The flip side of this coin is, of course, Heaven.

We were taught that Heaven was a paradise. It was never night, and it was filled with mansions. You'd be given glorious riches, but you'd throw them right back at God's feet because you'd be so grateful to be there. You'd be singing all the time from gratitude and worshipping constantly.

I have to be honest. Heaven was more of an issue for me at first than Hell.

I struggled to find my identity for years, but there were some things that I really knew about myself, even at ten or eleven when I first began to have these questions. One was that I liked to read. But when I asked my youth pastor if there would be books, he said that I wouldn't want to read. I would just want to worship. I'd be so happy to be bathed in the light of the Lord that I'd forget all about books.

I knew that I loved my family and enjoyed spending time with them. I loved playing basketball with my dad and my sisters for hours. But that too would be a no-go in Heaven. We'd be together...but all we'd want to do is praise. What about my dad's jokes? What about my sister's tendency to mispronounce words? These are things that I love about them, but they would all be gone.

Even the idea that it would always be day was stressful, because in many ways, I don't find night particularly scary. I remember when I was ten or eleven, my mom brought us out one night and we stretched out on our trampoline. We'd done this before. Living out in the middle of nowhere, the view of the sky was often spectacular. This night, though, was special. Hundreds of meteors rained through the atmosphere. It was spectacular to watch, and I remember thinking, "If it's always day, I'll never see something that beautiful again."

I'd see my grandfather, but he wouldn't want to work with wood anymore to make the beautiful things that he'd made. I'd see him, but not the way that I'd loved to watch him work in his workshop with the smell of sawdust adding an extra layer of coziness to the air. All we would want to do is worship.

And this thought was pretty dominant: Why am I not good enough? If going to heaven meant changing, that seemed to mean that these things that I loved about myself and others, well, that they weren't good enough. But I couldn't understand why.

I struggled for years with the idea that this afterlife wasn't appealing to me. I wanted God to like the same things I liked. I didn't see how happiness could involve me never doing the things I enjoyed again. And it always came back to the idea that I wouldn't want to do those things anymore.

But if these things were such a core part of my own being, of my personality and memories, didn't that mean I wouldn't really be me anymore? That something would have to fundamentally change entirely for me to lose these desires so resoundingly that I'd never miss them?

I'll never forget the searing guilt that I felt the first time that I thought, "I don't want to go to heaven yet." It was when I was saving up for a Lipizzan horse model. It was one of those deals where you bought so many and accrued so many points, and then you sent away for it. I wanted it so badly. And I thought, "I don't really want to go to heaven until I have that, because it's so beautiful." I was probably ten...maybe eleven.

And then the guilt: "Do I love this model more than I love God?"

I can remember fervently praying that the Rapture wouldn't happen before I could go to prom my junior year. I figured, that was the least God could do, right? I would worship him just fine for eternity if only I could have this one night to be young and have fun.

The concept of Heaven was a constant pressure at the back of my mind making me wonder if I really believed. After all, no one I knew was having similar struggles. All of them seemed excited by the prospect of worshipping for all eternity. They were excited to earn their crowns and throw them at God’s feet while singing in a joyous, deafening chorus.

But not me.

I wanted to answers to questions. I wanted to know what had happened, at every moment in time. I wanted to know how the penguins got on the Ark and how the kangaroos disembarked and made it to Australia. I wanted to talk to Tolkien, my favorite author, and ask him what it was like to craft Middle-Earth from nothing but ink and paper and imagination. I wanted to know the answers to the stories I saw on Unsolved Mysteries every week. I finally wanted to know why good things happened to people that didn’t deserve them and bad things happened to people that were innocent of wrongdoing.

These were the things that raced through my mind every time we talked about Heaven, and every single time I voiced my questions, I was told that they wouldn’t matter. I wouldn’t care anymore. Maybe God would answer them, maybe not, either way I’d be happy.

In the end, it felt like Heaven was more a burden than a paradise. I felt like I needed to learn and see and feel and experience as much as I could during life because once I died, I wouldn’t have a chance.

I’ve heard different versions of the Christian afterlife over the years, and many of them are far more appealing than what I was raised with. Indeed, some of them would have probably pulled me back from the ledge of atheism before I took that last reasonable step.

But as it is, the questioning over Heaven and the afterlife made me really take a magnifying glass to my own beliefs. While I spent many years trying to quash it, when I eventually accepted it, the questioning was an impetus to investigate closer, to really suss out what I believed and what I didn’t. Much of that investigation—including reading The Bible entirely through from cover to cover—came from those doubts about Paradise.

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