Heaven & Hell Are Not Places

“We are made whole (healed) by the grace of God, and brought into a relationship with Him that is our true inheritance. Heaven and hell are not places created by God for those who were good, or bad, but rather about relationship. The Fire of God is heaven for those who have responded to God’s love, and hell for those who have remained in the darkness of sin (sickness), and whose ego has shut out God, for self. Heaven and hell are not places, but all about relationship.” Abbot Tryphon

I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth revisiting. Our culture’s understanding of heaven and hell is severely distorted. Too often, heaven and hell are viewed as future destinations either to reward the good or punish the bad.

However, as Fr Stephen Freeman is fond of saying, “Jesus did not come to make bad men good, but dead men alive.” What is at stake is the transformation of human nature, which is so fractured, distorted and sick that it’s dead. And in this dead state, we shut out God. That is hell. In our brokenness, we constantly live in hell.

So the issue isn’t ethics or morality. You can’t tell a corpse to behave better. The only hope is Resurrection. For the Resurrection is the inauguration of God’s Renewed Creation. And the power of the Resurrection brings life to all of us who are dead. This is the point of Ezekiel 37 and Jesus’ retelling of that vision in the Story of the Prodigal Son. The son wasn’t restored because he “got his act together” or because he apologized to the Father. He experienced Resurrection. He returned from exile and back into relationship with his father and his household.

When a person experiences the Resurrection, the process of transformation begins. And this is heaven. Heaven is being loved by God and being able to love him back, regardless of circumstance. Heaven is loving and living God’s will regardless of the pain or sacrifice one experiences. Heaven is being transformed into Christ’s likeness from the inside-out.

As Jesus hung upon the cross absorbing the world’s sin and evil upon himself, he was in heaven. In the midst of hell, he was in heaven.

So heaven and hell are descriptions primarily of our relationship with God. But are there future destinations of heaven and hell? I believe so. It’s called the New Creation. One day, God will renew his Creation. He will set all things right. Jesus’ prayer will fully be answered as heaven and earth finally overlap and God’s reign will be on earth (the human realm) as it is in heaven (God’s realm). And in the New Creation, God’s glory will cover the earth as the water covers the seas. This will be the ultimate and eternal experience of heaven and hell.

And on that day when God renews his Creation and drenches it with his undiminished glory, his very love and presence will be like an eternal inextinguishable lake of fire for those who shut him out. And that same love and presence will be indescribable joy for those who have been transformed into his likeness and live only for his will.

So heaven and hell begin now. Each of us is on that journey every day.

A Good Lesson For Photography… And Life

I’m an amateur photographer, so I don’t have much by which to judge someone as a great photographer. But I’ve noticed that while most photographers make beautiful photos, there are those exceptional ones that transcend making beautiful photos and actually capture life’s beauty. In my opinion, Zeb Andrews is one of those kind of photographers.

I’ve posted before about how inspiring Zeb is to me. He makes photography (and I cringe at how cheesy this sounds) magical. His images aren’t “perfect.” Nor do they look like something you’d find on a magazine cover. He doesn’t use fancy processing techniques. From what I gather from his comments on his Flickr Photostream and website, he carries a variety of cameras and film wherever he goes and intentionally looks. He has honed the art of observation. And he’s honed the art of photography to capture the beauty in what he sees. He states, “I enjoy the process of photography much more than the results.” And it shows. I think the results are pretty phenomenal. But what I love most about Zeb are the insights he shares about the process. Sometimes, I wonder if he’s sharing more about the “process” of living than photography.

Here’s some advice he gave recently that captured my attention:

“And another helpful piece of advice, don’t forget that there are many more ways than one to photograph anything. Or put another way, don’t settle with photographing anything one way. There is really an infinite number of ways to photograph everything. And this seems obvious, but trust me, it is easy to forget. Just look at Multnomah Falls. How many photographers avoid that waterfall because they think it has all been done? The same with the Eiffel Tower. Sure, there are lots of photos out there of both of these and many of these photos tend to look really similar. It is easy to make the first photo one finds and then move on to other things.

“Don’t do this. Stop. Look around. Keep looking. Move. Look some more. Wait. Then find a second and a third and a fourth different way to photograph your subject. Trust me, the perspectives are out there, it is just a matter of finding them, if you can. And sometimes you cannot. Sometimes you don’t have the equipment, or the experience or technical prowess. Sometimes you just don’t have the vision. But just because you cannot find those additional ways does not mean they don’t exist, which also means that you shouldn’t not look for them. Give it a try.”

I know firsthand how easy it is to get locked into only one perspective — in photography and especially in life. In the zealousness of my youth, it was so easy to accept what I was taught as “The Truth” and appoint myself as a spokesperson for “The Truth.” That meant I was right and everyone else who disagreed with me was wrong. I had to learn over time that what I believed to be “The Truth” was usually an opinion, a perspective. It took me years to learn that one of the beautiful aspects of life is that there is a wide variety of perspective.

I’m not saying that there isn’t absolute Truth. Nor am I saying that Truth is subjective. I’m saying that what most people proclaim as “The Truth” is usually just an opinion and all of us would benefit if we would put away our prophet’s mantle and learn to listen and appreciate the variety of perspectives that exist. To paraphrase Zeb a bit:

“It is easy to make the first opinion one forms to be the only opinion and then call it “The Truth” and then move on to other things. Don’t do this. Stop. Look around. Keep looking. Move. Look some more. Wait. Then find a second and a third and a fourth different way to understand your subject.”

Here’s something that always gives me pause. Jesus called himself “The Truth.” Truth is a person, not an abstract idea. Jesus embodied Truth in loving, gracious, life-producing relationships. That’s Truth in human form. Therefore, Truth is both known and expressed primarily in relationship, not proclamation.

What shames me is that my life is in such stark contrast to Jesus. Sometimes, my first reaction to a person with a perspective different than mine is to feel angry or threatened. That last thing on my mind is relationship. Why? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Any negative reaction I experience is caused by something within me. So I need to ask, “What is inside of me that is angered or threatened by a different perspective?” What causes this “fight or flight” mechanism in me?

I don’t have an answer for that yet. But I do know this: If Truth is embodied in loving, gracious relationship and if my reaction to a different perspective is anger or defense, then I probably don’t really know the Truth.

There is a popular saying in the Orthodox Church credited to the fourth-century monk, Evagrius the Solitary, “The one who prays is a theologian; the one who is a theologian, prays.” To me, an implication of this saying is that a person is only capable of knowing the Truth if he or she is in deep fellowship with the One who is The Truth. And a corollary to this saying is that a person can only embody the Truth to others through deep fellowship.