They tell us that the ancients, people before we knew about the solar system, thought of the earth as surrounded by spheres. The first sphere contained the clouds, with the rain behind it. Then came a sphere with the sun and moon, and beyond that was a sphere with the stars. God was outside all of the spheres, but still not terribly far away. After all, we could see the last sphere, and God was just on the other side of that.
If I am going to relate in a personal way to God, I have to have some kind of image of God and of where God is. The sphere system gives me such an image. For centuries it made it easy for people to pray to God.
Medieval theologians, and probably Greek philosophers before them, believed that God is a spirit, so God has no visible features, but that didn't bother believers. Believers know that God is spiritual; they just need a crutch to lean on when they want to pray.
Now we have the Big Bang.
The term "Big Bang" is a label for a scientific theory of how our universe began. I cannot stress enough that this theory is accepted by the vast majority of scientists who work with astronomy and physics. Here is how the theory goes.
About 13 billion years ago, our entire universe was compressed into a space the size of a pinhead. The pinhead exploded, and its parts kept expanding outward. Eventually the parts coalesced into stars and galaxies, and into solar systems like our own, including our earth. The expansion is still going on, so that the universe looks something like an expanding balloon. All its parts are getting farther and farther apart, and farther and farther from the place where it all started.
Now visualize this: our earth is pretty big, so big that it was centuries before human beings realized how big it is. The solar system where our earth exists is much bigger. Our sun is 93 million miles from the earth. But our sun is only one among about 300 billion suns in our galaxy.
Our galaxy is a disk-shaped collection of stars circling around each other (all the while still racing away from the center of the universe). 300 billion suns is a lot of suns.
But that is not all of it. Scientists say that there are several hundred billion galaxies out there, just like our own galaxy. Try to imagine how much "stuff" is included in several hundred billion galaxies, all of it coming from a pinhead.
Scientists really believe that. They really do.
I used to have trouble believing that God could be personally involved with each of the seven billion people in the world today. I believe that God is behind the pinhead. If the universe comes from a pinhead--and remember, science really believes that--believing that God is involved individually with seven billion human beings is a piece of cake.
So I have a new picture of the universe. It is that big balloon, constantly expanding. God is just on the other side of that balloon, just like God was on the other side of the spheres that the ancients believed in.
Now I can start to apply some of the things that the Bible, sacred Scripture, tells us about God. We Christians believe that God is triune, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." We believe this because of things that Jesus did and said. Theologians speculate that God is triune because God is love, and love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, involvement of one person with another. So God is an infinite involvement of love.
Then, say the theologians, that kind of love cannot just stay within itself. It has to explode outside itself. The fifth-century philosopher called "Pseudo-Dionesius" claimed that "goodness pours itself out" (in Latin, bonum est diffusivum sui). Medieval theologians applied this idea to God. God created because God just had to share God's internal involvement with someone outside God's self. So God created human beings.
Paul's letter to the Colossians says that Christ was before all that is. John's Gospel says that anything that came to be came to be because of the Word.
This is a Franciscan line of thought. It is different from the more common line of thought that says that God became human in Jesus Christ because Adam sinned, and only a divine savior could remedy that sin. That line of thought, which I think was emphasized by Martin Luther, and since him by most Protestant theologians, makes sin central to the story of human history.
The Luther theory seems to me to make the Father something of an ogre. If Jesus Christ does not save us, the Father will condemn us to hell. Jesus becomes, in a way, more important than the Father or the Holy Spirit.
There are passages in Scripture that can be used to back up that theory, but I prefer the Franciscan theory, because it makes God's love the most important thing, and makes Jesus the first-born of all creation because Jesus is the climax of God's love for human beings.
In the Franciscan theory, the entire Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit, is involved with me. God created me, God shares my humanity, and God's Spirit bathes me and the world in love. This is a God I can believe in.
So now I have a God who is infinitely involved internally in love, and who is infinitely involved outside God's self in creation, including me, and who is involved with me as Father, as Word, and as Holy Spirit. I'm in pretty good shape with all of that.
I can mess up. Sin exists, and I am sinful. Even hell exists, though I think some Christian spiritualities make hell far too central to their understanding of God. That is the topic of another essay I wrote several years ago, which I will attach to this piece.
Back to my praying
For years I have been suspicious of spiritualities that make God so personal that all mystery seems to disappear. I know how easy it is for us to "project" our beliefs into our vision of reality. For that reason I have fallen back on prayers that have been around for thousands of years, the psalms. I don't trust my own words. I will piggy-back on someone else's words. Centuries of people have piggy-backed on the psalms. I think of all the thousands of monks, for example, who prayed them daily down through the Middle Ages.
The psalms have their problems. Some of them are beyond understanding--they have been so corrupted in transmission down through the centuries that we no longer can be sure of what they mean. But the overall tone of the psalms is what captivates me. Even though some of the psalms are vengeful, the more dominant tone is one of gentleness and trust in a loving God (think of the beloved Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd . . ."). Jesus prayed these psalms. I believe that the psalms helped to shape Jesus's human understanding of God.
So I pray the psalms, all 150 of them in the course of four weeks. As I pray I think of that expanding universe, with the mysterious, triune God just beyond it, personally involved in my life. I look at the beauty around me--trees, birds, infants, parents, young people, old people--and remember that all of this came from that pinhead. It was a loving God who guided evolution to produce such beauty. There is such a massive wealth of beauty (look at any issue of National Geographic) that I cannot but think that beauty is the most important product of God's creation. So God must be beautiful. (Think of St. Augustine's prayer: "O beauty, ever old and ever new . . .")
God wants us to be beautiful and to create beauty around us. Even sin and death can become beautiful when they are surrounded with love. That is the story of Jesus's death, and resurrection.
Science doesn't threaten my belief in God. It makes it far richer. It makes it far easier to pray.
When I think of hell, I think of three famous literary descriptions of it. The first is Dante’s Inferno. The second is the sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” by the famous New England Congregationalist, Jonathan Edwards. The third is James Joyce’s description of an Irish Catholic retreatmaster’s sermon in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
What is my description?
The first problem I face in trying to describe hell in my own way is the mismatch between the image of God preached by Jesus and the idea of unending torture inflicted on his creatures by that same God. My problem is not new. Already in the 200’s the theologian Origen had suggested that God ultimately redeems everyone. The Church rejected his suggestion. A watered-down version of the same idea is one that I have held for many years: “I have to believe in the existence of hell, but I don’t have to believe that there is anyone actually present in it.” Is my solution too easy?
These two words are metaphors for hell. Jesus himself used them in his description of the last judgment in Matthew 25. I want to examine them one by one.
Many writers, including Dante, see the term “fire” as a metaphor for other kinds of punishment. Part of Dante’s hell is a frozen wasteland.
But what about Jesus’ use of the term? Doesn’t he use the term “fire”?
Yes, he does. But Jesus often used metaphors in his preaching. He told his followers that if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. I know of only one person in Christian history who took that statement literally. St. Anthony of Padua is supposed to have restored the foot of a man who cut off his own foot because he had kicked his father. Instead of praising the man, Church tradition praises Anthony for reversing the action.
However, once the Church had made peace with using judgment and power as legitimate ways to further Jesus’ kingdom, fire became a useful metaphor for social control. Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, who burned heretics and witches, no doubt justified their behavior by saying that such punishment is trivial compared to the fires of hell. The fire metaphor has served to justify many practices that we today consider inhuman.
We no longer burn heretics. Most thoughtful Christians today probably see fire as a metaphor for “a really bad experience,” and quit trying to spell out the details.
But we have more trouble with the other metaphor, “eternal.” I can see how some people deserve really bad punishment for the evils they have done. But eternal punishment? The punishment is disproportionate.
The term “eternal” immediately suggests the human experience of time. Some theologians reject the relevance of that experience for life after death. They describe heaven as a sort of an instantaneous “now,” with no relationship to time. There is something to be said for this. But I have two problems with the explanation.
The first problem is that, when I hear the word “eternal,” my human way of thinking seems naturally to go to my experience of time. The second is our belief in the resurrection of the body. For me, “body” means “physical,” and “physical” means “time.”
I recognize that Einstein shook up our human conceptions of time. Perhaps an Einsteinian theologian could come up with an eternal “now” that would be compatible with what we understand as physical. But the solution seems far-fetched. We humans know what we experience as time, and it is not compatible with an instantaneous “now.”
Why could we not see the term “eternal” as metaphorical in the same way that we see the term “fire” as metaphorical? Maybe what Jesus means was just “a really long time,” just as he meant “a really bad experience” when he used the term “fire.”
I would like to think that the resurrection of the body means that heaven, and hell, will continue our experience of time. More specifically, heaven and hell will continue the most significant aspects of our experience, our interaction and involvement with others and with God. If love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, and faithful involvement, the experience of such involvement will be the essence of heaven.
But what about hell? Theologians agree that hell will be the absence of love. Presumably a man or woman whose life here on earth was characterized by an absence of love will continue that experience in eternity.
I like to think that purgatory will be my having to face each person I have harmed, and work through the painful process of reconciliation with that person. My lack of love in this life will be healed by the fire of a reconciling involvement in eternity.
I have wondered if God’s redeeming love is so powerful that there is no person who will not be able to experience that kind of healing. But suppose that the lack of loving involvement will continue indefinitely. Suppose that hell means that I will continue to reject all attempts by others and by God to involve me in love. Here is where the mystery of our experience of eternity joins up with the mystery of our experience of freedom.
Surely heaven will not mean the end of my experience of freedom. I will continue to love freely. But if I can continue to love freely, perhaps I can continue to reject love freely.
Our Christian belief in hell seems to imply the possibility that I could go on indefinitely in a free rejection of love, on and on and on in a self-perpetuating cycle from which I will never escape. As the theologians say, it is not God who puts me into this state. I do it to myself, freely.
Will it never end?
Our faith forbids us to answer that question. We are like Job, addressed by God after all his friends have tried to explain his suffering rationally. “Be still. I am God. That is all you need to know.”
Scary thinking. Jesus may have been using metaphor when he spoke of “fire” and “eternal.” But he did not take away the mystery that surrounds our existence as creatures who experience time, freedom, and love.