Those of us with a few grey hairs on our heads have no problem remembering the stories we were told as children about heaven and hell. Somehow it was always easier to describe hell. Since medieval times many artists have used the image of the great bonfire that would never go out; those who were sent there would spend endless ages roasting in the flames and suffering terrible agonies. That image alone was enough to frighten any naughty child into being good. Throughout history poets have tried to describe hell as being a land of shadows where we can be certain of nothing, where nothing is real. The poet Dante imagined a host of people sunk upside down into a frozen lake for all eternity, and other poets have used the image of people lost in an impenetrable forest or wandering for ever but never arriving.
When it came to describing heaven it was much more difficult. The childish way of thinking of people floating around on clouds playing harps always seemed a bit boring when you got older. Others have tried to express heaven as a place of continual happiness, of long, bright summer days, no work to be done and endless time to enjoy oneself. And yet even that image can grow a bit stale if you think about it for too long.
The writers from whose work we’ve heard today also tried to give people an idea of heaven and hell. Today’s first reading from the Prophet Daniel was written only a century and a half before the birth of Christ when the Jews were suffering a savage persecution. The Book of Daniel is full of visions and symbols because the struggle that was taking place couldn’t be expressed in ordinary, everyday terms. It’s an epic and the struggle has epic proportions, giving rise to the kind of language Our Lord uses in today’s gospel.
Saint Mark wrote his gospel about thirty years after Our Lord’s Ascension when many Christians believed that Our Lord was about to return to earth in glory. They imagined that he would return on the clouds of heaven to claim them for his brothers and sisters, gathering them together from the ends of the earth. During this time the words that Our Lord used to describe the end of time were slowly beginning to be understood. Guided by the Holy Spirit the Fathers of the Church came to realise that we can no more know when the end of the world is to be than we can know when we will die. It’s important to realize, then, that the language of scripture in today’s readings are not the result of an over-vivid imagination. Rather the scriptures are trying to express, in very limited human terms, the eternal realities. They are drawing us to think and to live on a higher level.
And they encourage us to look to the future with hope, to an eternal, everlasting future, as the second reading describes it. But what do we mean by ‘eternal’? Sometimes we think it means an endless succession of time, one minute following upon another minute for ever and ever; but that’s a mistake. In eternity there is no passage of time at all. Heaven is living in the present, always. If you’ve seen the Star Trek film ‘Generations’, it’s like living in the Nexus. It’s like living in the most wonderful, the most perfect moment of your life: and yet even that description is only a poor shadow compared to the splendour of the real thing, which human words simply can’t describe.
But today’s readings also strike a warning note: Some will awake to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting disgrace. Christ will gather his chosen but some will not be chosen. This state of eternal life separated from Christ we call hell. And hell can only be described in negative terms because it is a state in which God is absent.
For years many parish priests have been hesitant about speaking about the reality of Hell, which is an irresponsible mistake, because people are coming to think that Hell doesn’t exist, simply because they’re not hearing about it from the pulpit. And yet the Church is quite clear in its teaching that Hell does exist and is an ever present reality. It is entirely possible for people totally to reject God and to cut themselves off from him. What isn’t so clear, and I suppose never will be, is who has gone to hell or even if anyone has ever gone there. We just don’t know. The only person who can give a definite answer to that question is God himself because he is the only judge and we are forbidden to set ourselves up as ultimate judges of anyone.
As we approach the end of yet another liturgical year, the Church draws our attention to the fact that we will all one day die and face judgement. Death is an awesome reality that we must all face, and we must be prepared for it. The terrible events in Paris on Friday night brought that reality home to all of us in a most horrible and vivid way. And yet it would be wrong to fear the final demand as we fear the unknown. Judgment: and heaven or hell that follows is known to us only too well. If our present life is one of hatred, of vengeance, of selfishness, of a life walled up from the care of others, then we are already experiencing something of the agony of hell. Our rejection of God and goodness, because we prefer selfishness and sin, can only lead to a continuation of the world we have built for ourselves in eternity. God doesn’t cast anyone into hell; rather we create it for ourselves.
But this is not the Gospel message. The great truth of the Gospel is that God’s love has triumphed over the power of evil. As the prophet Daniel reminds us, we can look forward to a new world in which we will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven, as bright as stars for all eternity. As followers of Christ who celebrate his victory in our daily lives, we know exactly what Daniel means.