Dwelling Places in My Father’s House

I’ve heard many variations of a joke about a man who arrives at the gates of Heaven (each one with a different religion as the punch line).

St. Peter asks his religion and the man replies that he is a Methodist. St. Peter looked down his list and said,” Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” Another man arrived at the gates of Heaven. When asked his religion, he replies Catholic. St. Peter says, “Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” A third man arrived at the gates and when asked his religion, replied Jewish. St. Peter tells him, “Go to Room 11 but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” The man tells St. Peter he understands putting people of different religions in different rooms, but asks why he should be quiet when passing Room 8. St. Peter told him, “Well, the Baptists are in Room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”

In today’s Gospel from St. John, Jesus tells his disciples “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?

Jesus’ statement that there are many dwellings in His Father’s house promises room for everyone; and not just room for everyone, but room for everyone. For me, the statement is a reminder not just that there is plenty of space, but that those welcomed will not all look the same. Not everyone for whom there is room necessarily fits someone else’s picture of who deserves to be in heaven.

There are some (perhaps) many people who think only they and their kind will be in heaven. I decided a long time ago that the question of who is in heaven is one that is way above my pay grade. But I do take seriously – and take solace in – what Jesus told his disciples: there are many dwellings in his Father’s house, and there is room for many different sorts of people.


Heaven, Hell and Purgatory

When I was a child, I had a vision of hell a a fiery furnace into which people who died with very serious sins on their soul were thrown, Satan guarding the door with a pitchfork. In college, I read Dante’s Inferno, giving me even more ghastly visions of various circles of hell. For many, heaven is a place where angels serenada the souls of the faithful departed with harps and lyres.

Do you believe in hell? What does your faith tradition teach about the existence and nature of hell and who inhabits it? What about purgatory? Is there a heaven? What’s it like?

All Christian denominations accept that there is life after death. But Christian denominations are not monolithic in how they talk about what that means.

Today, we had a Mid-Day Dialogue at UST Law School the explored the views of several faith traditions on heaven, hell and purgatory. In addition to myself, presenting a Catholic perspective, Chato Hazelbaker talked about the issue from an Evangelical perspective, and Mark Osler spoke from his anabaptist-turned-Episcopal standpoint. As is always the case at these events, the subsequent discussion with the audience (which included a Catholic priest, an Episcopal minister and laypeople of various ages and faith traditions) was both lively and informative. Mark, Chato and I came away from the dialogue feeling as though we had each learned something and I’m confident all of the attendees felt the same way.

You can access a recording of my, Chato, and Mark’s remarks here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 25:48.)

Heaven and Hell

During my retreat I started reading Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. I wish I could remember who recommended the book to me so I can thank the person; it is a really wonderful book. The title comes from Rohr’s conviction that it is by falling down that we grow from a first-half-of-life spirituality and way of being to a second-half-of-of-life one (a move not everyone makes).

One of the things Rohr talks about is heaven and hell. He talks about hell in a way that is not dissimilar from some others I have read and that resonates with me. Indeed, it is the only way I can understand hell. Rohr writes

God excludes no one from union, but must allow us to exclude ourselves in order for us to maintain our freedom. Our word for that exclusion is hell, and it must be maintained as a logical possibility. There must be the logical possibility of excluding oneself from union and to choose separation or superiority over community and love. No one is in hell unless that individual himself or herself chooses a final aloneness and separation.

I confess this is not a understanding of hell that fits well with those who prefer to see those they label as sinners cast down into punishment. But it is one that is consistent with a God who has unconditional love for us.

That explanation of hell also helps appreciate an important reminder Rohr makes in the chapter: that heaven and hell are “primarily eternal states of consciousness more than geographical places of later reward and punishment.” That reminder helps us understand why we can taste heaven or hell during our lifetimes.

We Get What We Want

I just finished reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, And the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, a book that has caused quite a stir among Evangelicals, since what he writes runs so counter to the beliefs of (at least large portions of) the Evangelical community. For some, the book is nothing less than a false gospel, a heretical piece of writing that will harm the souls of those taken in by it.

I loved the book. Although the chapters on heaven and hell had many interesting points in them, I think Bell really gets to the crux of the book in Chapter 4, which is titled: Does God Get what God Wants, which is not unrelated to the theme of my post of yesterday.

He talks about all of the things we read about God in the Bible – that God is loving, is all-powerful, is full of grace and mercy. We learn about God’s plan for salvation and read that, for God, all things are possible, and that all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of God. And then he asks a very simple question: does God get what he wants? Or, as he reframes the question:

Is history tragic? Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth? Is our future uncertain, or will God take care of us?….Is God our friend, our provider, our protector, our father – or is God the kind of judge who may in the end declare that we deserve to spend forever separated from our Father?

Bell fully admits that we are free to choose to reject God. He writes, “Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.” Ultimately, however, hell is not something God inflicts on us, but something God allows us to choose if we want.

Thus, while we may not be sure of the answer to the question “Does God get what God wants?, the answer to the question “Do we get what we want?” is a “resounding, affirming, sure, and positive yes.”

I don’t doubt that there are many who don’t like Bell’s way of looking at things. Some seem to almost revel in the idea of a God who sends people to an eternity of torturous punishment. But that’s not the God of my experience, and obviuosly not the God of Bell’s experience either.