The other day, I was asked for my opinion on what heaven and hell are like. As is par for the course in my classes, my answer seemed to leave my interlocutor more confused than when we started our conversation.
Good or bad, I explained, we are all called to spend our eternal lives with God.
With a puzzled look, I was then asked to clarify if evil people go to heaven. I don’t think my answer: “Yes and no,” really helped much, so I tried to clarify my perspective of heaven and hell, gleaned from Fr. Robert Barron’s Catholicism.
I find it always raises an eyebrow when I state that hell (along with purgatory) burns with the fire of God’s love.
The reason is this: those who are in a state of sin or who have turned away from God are not prepared for the light of His loving embrace in eternal life.
I’ll generally use two parallels to demonstrate my vision of purgatory and hell:
Purgatory is like a smelter. To transform a metal, such as gold, from the ore that’s mined from the earth to its pure form that we wear around our necks or on our fingers, the impurities need to be burned away. Our souls are like gold to God, and before He can adorn Himself with the brightness of our love for Him, the impurities of our sins must be burnt away – purged. Although I do my best as a human, I’m still a sinner, and I look forward to the burning fire of God’s love in purgatory so that I can rejoin the Lord that much quicker.
As for the souls in hell, they too burn at the touch of God’s love. I see the darkness of evil as much like the darkness of a movie theatre. Over the course of a film our eyes adjust to the darkness of our surroundings so that we can see not only the screen, but the others sitting around us. When we leave the movie theatre on a bright summer afternoon, we shield our eyes from the sun’s blinding rays – the same way that the light of God’s love in heaven is blinding to those who chose to live in the darkness of evil.
Put in these concrete, earthly terms, I find that most people begin to understand my original thought of how everyone is called to be in the presence of God, it’s just a question of how prepared we are for the light of His love.
Needless to say, I was struck dumb when, the day after this conversation, I read the Gospel reading of the day:
Jesus said to Nicodemus: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
“And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
“But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (Jn 3:16-21)