Heaven and Hell (Part 3)

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Growing up with the idea of heaven was not as easy for me as one might think. There were many times I wished my life would just end; for me to go to sleep and not wake up. There were many times I prayed for God to just take me home. I do not remember clearly now the reason for such thoughts, but I remember having them from time to time as a teenager all the way to my twenties.

I am not suicidal. I have never seriously or actually attempted ending my life, though I do remember entertaining the thought and trying to decide which method would be fastest and most pain-free. At the lowest points in my life when I wanted to die, I wondered why most people, especially Christians, seemed afraid to die and clung on to life. Why would they endure the heavy cost of hospitalizations and being hooked up to this and that machine? Why delay the inevitable? Why not instead by joyful and excited to go to heaven and be with God?

There were early groups of Christians who thought this way, most notably the Donatists, a 4th century sect that went against the priests and bishops, believing their authority to be invalid and therefore refusing to be subjugated by them. They were politically active, stirring up violence and protests in the street against the creeping hold of Roman authority in the church. Even when most of the Christian world came to accept the emperor Constantine as a leader of the church, the Donatists saw him as the devil incarnate.

Donatists also thought that suicide, in the name of their cause, would make them martyrs and thus guarantee their place in heaven. This line of thinking is eerily familiar when one reads of the motivation of Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War 2 (redemption, payment for debts in this life, honor) and of suicide bombers who are promised heavenly comforts (the famed reward of 72 virgins) as well as earthly securities for the loved ones they would leave behind.

It is not difficult to see that this was a dangerous train of thought. In the 5th century CE, Augustine of Hippo (later canonized as a saint) condemned suicide as a violation of the fifth commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” explaining that the prohibition included the killing of one’s self and not just others.

By the 6th century, suicide had become a secular crime as well, which is not surprising knowing how tightly intertwined religion and government were at that time. Even those found attempting suicide were in grave danger of excommunication and all the social consequences that entailed. Those who died by suicide were forbidden Christian burials on “consecrated” ground, and denied ecclesiastical rights, which was a sure way into hell.

In the Catholic tradition, it is possible for a person to die with unconfessed sins. If they die with unconfessed venial sins (like lying, petty theft, and the like), they undergo a cleansing process in purgatory to be “purged” from these sins. If they die with unconfessed mortal sins (like murder, suicide, divorce, and even masturbation and participation in Freemasonry), then they are in very real danger of going to hell.

In the Protestant tradition, however, there is the belief that when one accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior, one is cleansed from all sin — past, present and future — and so one is now under the grace of God. The bible passage often quoted is Romans 8 which begins with saying that there is “no condemnation” for those who are in Jesus and ends with a grand statement that nothing, no powers, angels, demons, nor life nor death can separate a person from God’s love.

It is interesting to note though, that despite this, I have heard sermons or teachings from certain pastors (especially the more legalistic ones) that suicide is an unforgivable sin pointing to Jesus’ reference to an “unforgivable sin” in Matthew 12:31-32: “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.”

The argument is that a Christian’s body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) and so to commit the ultimate sin against one’s body by killing it is a “blasphemy against the Spirit.”

Nevertheless, in my experience, very few people today are willing to take a firm stand on who goes to heaven and hell. Even when I express my atheism to Christians, when I ask them point-blank, so do you think I’m going to hell? Very few would give me a straight yes or no answer and would be very roundabout in their responses, but mostly along the lines of “Who am I to judge? God will decide.”

 

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

Heaven and Hell (Part 2)

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Imagine a bird that can fly through space. This bird takes one grain of sand from a beach, then flies off to the furthest planet in the known galaxy and deposits the grain of sand there. Then it comes back, takes another grain of sand and flies off again and so on until there is no more sand left on the earth. The bird flies at normal bird speed (and doesn’t go through hyperspace or wormholes). Imagine how much time it would take for it to deplete all the beaches on earth of their sand.

And yet all that time, that hellishly long time,  is just like a grain of sand in the sea of eternity.

I heard that illustration of eternity from a pastor when I was a kid (though not as poetic). It was followed by the question, “So where do you want to spend eternity?”

I had two choices, either in heaven with Jesus (happy, happy, joy, joy!) or in hell experiencing first-hand what lechon goes through, and it would never end. At least the pig doesn’t feel itself burned to a crisp.

Of course I went for the first choice, as did every other kid in that group. I thought, who in his right mind would want to be a human barbecue forever?

As I mentioned in Part 1, one of my first concepts of heaven was that it would be a happy reunion with relatives who had passed away. That hope is still very real in many people. Just listen to the words of comfort people give to those whose loved ones have just died. Listen to the sermons of the priests or pastors or any clergy in memorial services. There is always that hope of “meeting them again” someday.

Even I wished so badly to be reunited with my favorite dog when she died unexpectedly one morning.

In time, I acquired other images of heaven. John 14 begins with Jesus telling his disciples not to be troubled (this was after he had announced Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial) and to believe in him. Then he said “In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you.” What a marvelous dream this is especially for those who do not have a home, or who live in shanties or even modest houses.

Revelations 21 gives us more grandiose images of the new heaven or the New Jerusalem, which is described like a souped up version of old Jerusalem complete with the walls and the gates.  Of course, the young me didn’t find anything suspicious then, but I felt awe and longing to see the gates made out of pearl, and the wall’s foundations inlaid with all sorts of precious stone, and the streets of gold.

And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.” (Revelations 21:23 NKJV)

This was also the place where God “shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelations 21:4 NKJV)

I must have been around 10 or so when my dad announced that there was a prediction that the world would end the next day and although it might not be true, it was best to be prepared. I was not only prepared, I was excited, and of course, a little afraid, but more excited than afraid.

With those images of heaven, who would not be excited to see it the next day? And I was sure I was going to heaven because I had said the salvation prayer and accepted Jesus into my heart — but just to be sure, I said it again, and was now sure. Sure na jud.

I woke up the next day and immediately ran to the window, expecting to see fire raining from the heavens, expecting to see Jesus coming down from heaven, and expecting myself and other believers to fly up and meet him in the air (because this is what I’ve always been taught would happen).

I was hugely disappointed that it turned out to be just another normal day.

 

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

Heaven and Hell (Part 1)

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The idea of an afterlife, or a  life after this one that we have, is usually inculcated in us from childhood. For many raised in the Christian traditions, the afterlife consists of heaven and hell. For Roman Catholics, there is the addition of the intermediate state, purgatory, where those who die with minor sins are punished (or purified) accordingly before entering heaven, and limbo, which is sort of a neither heaven-or-hell state for those “innocent” souls that die before they have had a chance to be baptized — for example, babies who die during childbirth, and so on.

Growing up as a Protestant Christian, I only had to contend with heaven and hell but I learned about these from an early age as I had been exposed to Bible stories since before I had learned to read. My first real brush with this “reality” though was sometime when I was around 7. I was at home playing with the dogs in the early evening when my father arrived tooting the horn of our Volkswagen Beetle. He hurried into the house and told me to wash up and change quickly because I was coming with him.

When I asked him where we were going and why, he answered, “To the hospital — ama (grandmother) is about to go to heaven,” he said. Having never seen a dead person up close before, I think I was a little excited but also afraid. So I washed my hands from the stink of dogs and rushed out of my dirty clothes into something more decent and got into the car.

We arrived a little too late. My dad led me to the room where ama was and there were some relatives around her still form. My mom was beside the bed clutching ama’s arms and sobbing. A short while later, some orderlies came to cart the body away. I followed them out of the room and saw them cart the body down an inclined walkway into a room far beyond. My sister said, “That’s the morgue,” and when I asked what that was, she said, “That’s where they put the dead bodies.”

I was a bit detached from all of the emotions of the death and burial as I was not particularly close to ama. She had already been bedridden for as long (or as short) as I could remember, and my interactions with her were limited to greeting her or just hanging out in her room and playing with my toys in the extra bed that was there.

After that came references to the afterlife, of how she was already with angkong (grandfather) and a couple of my uncles, whom I never met as they had passed away before I was born. I only knew of them because there were large framed photos of them hanging in our study at home. But anyway, the important thing was they were in heaven now because they were Christians and believed in the saving power of Jesus Christ — which, in our belief system, was the only thing that could keep you from burning in hell, in everlasting torment.

So while I was growing up, my first notion of heaven was of this grand reunion of relatives, most of whom I have never met. And if ever any of my present relatives pass away, it was all right as we would all meet again someday. All that was fine for a short while, but then I asked my dad, “What else are we going to do in heaven?”

In my mind, I thought that meeting and greeting long lost and never known relatives have a certain limit and that to do that for all eternity would probably be very boring.

My dad just answered with, “Oh, you know, God has prepared a lot of things for us to do in heaven. We won’t just sit around doing nothing. There is much work and great work to be done.”

If  we had that conversation today, I would probably have pressed him for a clearer answer, but at that time, he said it with a finality that my seven or eight year-old self accepted and understood that no further answers were forthcoming.

 

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

Writer’s Block

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I suffer from a disease called Writer’s Block. It is evidently strong on Wednesday evenings and Thursday mornings (my weekly column is due every Thursday). It is a recurring ailment one suffers when one thinks he has nothing to write about. Many people have shared to me that they also have this disease and they ask me what I have done to cure it.

“Oh but I haven’t cured it,” I say. “I still have it.”

“You? Impossible,” they say. “You write week after week. How could you possibly have Writer’s Block?”

There is this mistaken notion that writers can just sit down and magically produce words without much hardship or effort. While a few lucky people may have that gift (inasmuch as there are truly gifted artists), most writers don’t. They still suffer the age-old question when faced with a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen.

What the hell do I write about?

Well, I could write about hell, I suppose, but I’ve already done that a few times. So why not write about heaven? Hmmm, that’s an interesting thought, but it’s out of topic for this article so maybe I’ll jot down a few ideas for that and write about it next week.

There is no cure for Writer’s Block. There is no wonder pill I can swallow that suddenly enables me to type one letter after another. The reader reads one word after another, one sentence after the other, and one long continuous paragraph. What he or she does not know is how many minutes (or hours) it took for that paragraph to take shape, or how many times it was rewritten to sound just right.

Sometimes, I type a sentence, stop midstream, then start all over again. Or I finish typing the sentence, then re-read, then decide to delete it. And then after thinking it over a bit, decide to bring it back (thank Bill Gates for Ctrl-Z — which is the shortcut for the Undo button — for those who don’t know). Then after the sentence’s resurrection, I might find the second part poorly constructed so I would delete that part and rewrite it.

The reader sees none of that. He only sees an illusion of a continuous stream of words, but not the jumbled, messy and tortured process it took to produce it.

There is no cure for Writer’s Block, but one can earn a temporary reprieve from it. It is is most ironic though that the reprieve is granted when one does what Writer’s Block is blocking — and that is to write.

Don’t think.

Write.

The more you think, the less you write. The more you think, the more your thoughts become jumbled and the more confused you become on what to write about.

So every week, I earn my temporary sanity from Writer’s Block just by writing. I pick out an idea and just begin. It may start with a few words at first. Then I can go and cook an early breakfast. Then I come back to type a few more words while eating. Then I get a refill for my tea or coffee, then type again, and pretty soon, I find that I have typed enough words for a decent article.

When I reach that point, I hear angels sing the hallelujah chorus, and I know it’s time to send the article to my editor.

See you again, next week, Writer’s Block.

 

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

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