This is the third post in the series on heaven, hell, and the relentless love of God.
Sometimes I completely lose track of time. Without quite realizing it, I’ve lost myself in something I love to do.
Talking to good friends. Looking at the night sky or the early morning light. Listening to the tide roll in at the beach.
Frederick Buechner wrote somewhere that forgetting ourselves this way is a glimpse of eternity. After all, Jesus teaches us that to lose our life for his sake is to gain it.
By their very nature such glimpses are fleeting. We know that we’ve been caught up in eternity only in retrospect, once the experience is past.
These brief glimpses into eternity can leave in their wake a persistent longing for something more than our everyday postures of self-preservation and self-absorption. Maybe these glimpses highlight for us an ever-present longing for the holy too often crowded out by our daily life’s busyness.
Our soul is the eternal part of ourselves. When the body dies, our soul will depart and await in our Lord’s nearer presence for the final resurrection. Then we will be given a new body, a resurrection body. (1 Corinthians 15:35-44)
As Buechner suggests, God seems to have designed the soul to long for and to catch glimpses of eternity. Additionally, Jesus teaches that the soul accumulates habits: habits suited for eternity.
As I said, glimpses are fleeting. Habits, by contrast, endure.
The habits we form suit us for eternal citizenship. Depending upon the sorts of habits we form, we prepare ourselves for residency in either heaven or hell.
Before this all starts to sound like a flight of my own imagination, let’s turn to Jesus’ teaching itself. If you have a Bible handy, turn to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. (Luke 16:19-31)
There was a rich man (unnamed in the parable) who “dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day.” Lazarus was poor and “covered with sores.” He lay in the rich man’s gate, but the rich man completely ignored him.
Both men died. Lazarus went to heaven. The rich man went to hell.
Take a look at the rich man’s habits. As best as we can tell, he spent his days so obsessed with his appearance and what he would consume that he could step right over another man suffering in his doorway. His soul was shaped by the pursuit of his own comfort.
Listen to what he says to God from the depths of hell. He never once says, “Get me out of here!” Instead, he says, “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”
The rich man does not want to escape hell. He prefers to increase his comfort level from agony to misery. The thought that his pursuit of comfort has made him at home in hell seems never to have crossed his mind.
Most of us know what it’s like to involve ourselves in activities that slowly become habits: habits that end up diminishing the quality of our lives. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Alcoholics and drug addicts report almost universally that the early days of substance use felt terrific. They weren’t afraid of people. They could carry on lively conversation at parties. Their cares seemed to disappear.
Only later did the destruction of relationships, financial ruin, wrecked health, and tarnished reputation start to set in.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Addictions provide an extreme example to make a point about many of our very mundane behaviors. We get into spiritual habits before we know it, and some of them turn out to make us miserable.
Judging others feels great until we realize that we can’t be happy with anybody, including ourselves. Shopping to feel better worked great until we started to realize how empty that full closet was making us feel.
Name your own poison. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
In many respects each of us is like the Hebrews who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years after escaping from Egypt. It should have taken them only about three weeks to get to the Promised Land.
But geographical relocation was not the central point of that journey from the Red Sea to what would become Israel.
The Hebrews needed time to become the people of God. They needed time to develop a new way of thinking, feeling, and willing toward their God and toward each other.
The plan was that, over time, their souls would begin to form habits, habits that resulted in behaviors that embodied God’s law. They were preparing themselves to be a people of promise so that they could be genuinely at home in the Promised Land.
To put it another way, the exodus was not only or even principally about geographical relocation. It was about spiritual transformation. For the most part, such transformation happens gradually. We form habits.
The habits we form have an eternal trajectory.
However, the key teaching of the Christian faith is not an admonition to form proper habits. In fact, let’s admit right now that we’ve already formed some hellish habits. Unlearning on our own seems impossible.
Now imagine what it might have been like in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man if, when he found himself in hell, the rich man had responded differently. In the parable, he just wanted a more comfortable hell.
Imagine that he simply said to Jesus, “I don’t want to be here. Please get me out!”
That’s when I remember the traditional form of the Apostles’ Creed: He descended into hell.
Jesus reaches out to us where we are to make us into who he dreams we can be.
In the following posts we’ll consider the habits Jesus forms in us when we follow him: habits suited for heavenly citizenship. And we’ll consider the question of those who do not believe in Jesus.