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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Sorting out heaven and hell

Heaven is about God, not us, and is more than getting our needs satisfied

If I were to share a playful image of heaven and hell, I would go straight to a Gary Larson “Far Side” cartoon. In one of his best, he draws a split screen with heaven on top and hell on the bottom.

The top sketch has folks lined up at the pearly gates. An angel hands each fresh entrant a harp: “Welcome to heaven. Here’s your harp.”

The bottom sketch depicts the devil giving an accordion to each person lined up on the edge of the burning cauldron: “Welcome to hell. Here’s your accordion.”

If you asked me to be more serious and offer up some guidance for how to converse helpfully about heaven and hell, I would start by re-examining a few popular assumptions.

If we assume heaven is nothing more than a place of reward for good behavior, God might as well be Santa Claus. Santa is a pretty reputable accountant, after all, faithfully rewarding good deeds with a prize. 

If we assume hell is primarily a place of punishment, God might as well be a cop. This cop can use one hand for writing down your three unforgivable strikes, and the other hand for gripping the key to that prison called “Permanently Out.”

The only problem is that the Bible does not portray God as Santa or a cop. 

What if we were to love God for God’s own sake, and not because of some perceived punishment and reward system?

A medieval French abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux, once had a vision of an angel carrying a water pitcher in one hand and a torch in the other. Why the odd combination? The torch would allow her to burn up the pleasures of heaven. The pitcher would give her the means for quenching the fires of hell. Then, once heaven and hell were out of the picture, people might quit loving God for the sake of a transaction. They would simply love God for God’s own sake. 

There is a beautiful prayer with the same idea: “Loving God, if I love you for hope of heaven, then deny me heaven; if I love you for fear of hell, then give me hell; but if I love you for yourself alone, then give me yourself alone. Amen.”


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