Heaven and Hell
The great St. Catherine of Siena is believed to have said, “The path to heaven lies through heaven, and all the way to heaven is heaven, for Christ himself is the way.” The Christian knows that Christ is seated at the right hand of God the Father, in Heaven, and that beginning with salvation, continuing in grace, growing in holiness, our goal is to be there with him always. He also knows, that Christ has promised to be with him and all believers “always, even unto the end of the world.” (St. Matthew 28:20) So then it is no surprise that if he is with us always, even now, and yet he is also reigning in heaven, then where he is there Heaven must also be. So it is that Heaven is through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, as the liturgy of the Mass says (it ought to since it is a foretaste of heaven!). However, if “all the way to heaven is heaven,” is true, then the opposite is true too, all the way to hell is hell, because we are not following Jesus, the Way.
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis says “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.” We cannot for ourselves open the gate of Heaven, only the perfect man, the sinless Christ can do that for us. We can however make the choice to do God’s will rather than our own. That’s of course where sin figures into the whole Heaven/hell equation. What is sin, but saying no to God and yes to self? What is sin, but choosing our own way, rather than his? That is how we can, and many alas do, choose hell over Heaven.
All the way long, in this life and the next Christ is with us, to guide us and sustain us, but instead of seeing him as a help, we often see him as a hindrance. Someone who just won’t leave us alone and let us do what we want. We push him away, and he keeps coming back again and again. He gives us every last chance to follow him, to turn around and start climbing the steep way, rather than walking comfortably downhill to hell. As a last ditch effort to catch our attention he may give us a taste of what we want, he lets us be alone, really alone. Because that is what hell is like of course, to be really alone, and yet to see the one we hated from afar and know we don’t have to be alone. It is to stand in the presence of the all-holy God and to have no Advocate, no Mediator, no Redeemer. Hell is just as much where he is as Heaven is, the only difference is where the souls in each place are, and how they are experiencing the same thing. (See Revelation 14:9-11)
What? How can that be? Surely to be with Christ is nothing but a heaven of heavens! Indeed it is, but only for those who love him. Think about it. In a sense heaven and hell, hate and love are two sides of the same coin. There is no middle way with God, you are either for him or against him. (see St. Matthew 12:30) The person, place, or thing that one man loves, is the same person, place, or thing that another hates. Love or hate, we are back to that choice, and it is a choice that must be made in his presence, and in the presence of all the Heaven over which he reigns.
Choose him or reject him, love him or hate him, you can’t escape God (see Psalm 139:7). To love him is heaven because you love him, and are forever and always with the one you love most. To hate him is hell, because you hate him, and you are forever and always, with the one you hate. In the end men will either hate God or love him, but there’s no real in between. Either hate or love will come out of indifference and the indifferent will end up on a side, because if you are around someone for ever you will either end up loving them or hating them. This is as it should be, because if there’s anyone who is trying to “make a point” or “get our attention” it’s God!
What makes it possible for those of us who are prone to “fence sitting” to love God, and to love being loved by him for ever, is the same one who opens heaven for us, Jesus! We are all going to experience hardships and sufferings in this life sooner or later, every last one of us, love God or hate him. What makes “all the way to heaven, heaven” is that Jesus uses our hardships and sufferings, the evils in our lives, for a constructive end. He does what God has been doing from the beginning, he “brings good out of evil.” (Genesis 50:20) Jesus can take those hardships that cause us to stumble and use them to bring us closer to him. He can and does use them as steps for us to take to climb “the straight and narrow path.” (St. Matthew 7:13-14) If we say yes to him and Heaven, then he can take what without him would be a hell-bound detour and turn it into a path to him. So say yes. Say: “thy will be done,” seek and find him, love and be loved by him, knock on heavens door and find that through him, with him, and in him, it is open, and open “all the way.”
The Rev. Matthew Frick is the vicar of St. Matthias in Athens