Heaven and Hell
Elissa Bjeletich · January 24, 2013
Elissa shares some examples of how to teach children about the Orthodox understanding of heaven and hell.
Welcome to Raising Saints. Today I thought we could take on a pretty big topic: heaven and hell. Most kids will eventually ask, “What happens when we die?” and we should be ready with answers. Especially if they’ve experienced the death of a beloved person, the question can be very urgent. “Where did he go? What’s happened to him?” Christ came to the earth to save us, to give us eternal life. Our faith centers on this idea of eternal life, a kind of life that continues past our earthly death, but what does that mean?
The truth is, the Orthodox understanding of the afterlife may not be what your kids think it is. What if you just sat down across from them and asked, “What are heaven and hell like?” What would they say? Maybe you could draw a line. Draw heaven on one side and hell on the other, or just brainstorm with them, writing down the words that come to their minds when they think of heaven and hell. What is it that your students picture? Perhaps you might get the conversation moving by showing them some cartoony images of angels sitting on clouds, playing harps up in heaven, and then maybe some devils tormenting poor souls as they do back-breaking labor near a hot furnace without a drop of water to drink.
After a healthy period of brainstorming and drawing out whatever understanding of the afterlife your students bring to the table, we should point out that the images of heaven and hell that occupy the popular imagination in the modern West have very little in common with the teachings of the early Fathers. What are our Orthodox images of heaven and hell, and how do we transmit them to the children in our lives?
In our holy tradition, we say that the church, the sanctuary, is meant to look like heaven. Ask your kids, “How does the church look like heaven?” They may well tell you that we stand in the church surrounded by icons of Christ, of the Theotokos, of the saints and the angels, because that’s heaven on earth, and those are certainly heaven’s occupants. Our church looks like heaven, because when you look around it, you see the same people you’ll see in heaven.
As we partake of holy Communion, we are partaking of the kingdom, right here on earth. In some mysterious and miraculous way, we are coming into communion with Christ and with everyone else in heaven, with all of our faithful loved ones who’ve fallen asleep in the Lord and with our very Creator. We Orthodox believe that heaven can be accessed, can be communed with and connected to, right here on earth.
But what is heaven? Well, heaven is communion with God. So what is God like? What does it mean to commune with him? Well, perhaps your students or your kids already know the story of the burning bush. Moses met God in the form of a burning bush. Moses encountered an amazing and very different kind of fire. As the bush burned brightly, it stayed green and healthy and strong. Indeed, this special fire burned away anything imperfect and left only the healthy green bush. As Moses learned, God is a fire, burning bright and warm, but unlike the fire we know here on earth. God’s fire does not destroy what it burns. Rather than turning the bush into ashes and dust, it left the bush gleaming and healthy. That’s what God’s love does. It cleans us, and it makes us healthier and stronger.
You could even do a demonstration, depending on how safely you can access a heat source. You could take a plastic action figure, like a super hero, and cover it with wax or with butter. And then you could melt that wax or butter away, revealing the man himself as he’s meant to be. You could show the kids that our true selves, our beautiful selves who were made in God’s image, are underneath all the sin and all the scars that we pick up living as fallen people in a fallen world. God can see through that stuff to his image inside us, and he can burn through all of it, revealing us as we truly are, as we truly should be.
And we should remind the kids that, near the end of the Old Testament, we learned that Isaiah was given holy Communion by one of the seraphim. The angel held out an ember, a burning coal, in tongs, and he placed it in Isaiah’s mouth, but Isaiah was not hurt. That’s because God is this special kind of fire. When we receive holy Communion, we receive God, which is the fire that burns the unworthy. It burns away anything unworthy in us, leaving us clean and restored and healthy.
God is the uncreated flame, and heaven is communion with that flame. Heaven means coming into the fire that burns through us without ever consuming us. Rather than turn us to carbon and ashes, God’s fiery heaven purifies us.
So if that’s heaven, what exactly is hell? Isn’t hell supposed to be a lake of fire? Isn’t hell an eternal burning, a fire that just will not stop? And there’s the moment of realization, of revelation. Both heaven and hell are characterized by fire. They’re the same thing. In heaven and in hell, a person comes to find himself surrounded by God’s fire. Indeed, he himself is actually on fire, burning with God’s fire.
As the Fathers teach us, it’s not that heaven and hell are so different. In both cases, we experience God who is fire. When we die, we draw near to him, and we feel his fire, but the question is: how do we like this fire? St. Isaac of Syria wrote:
Those who find themselves in Gehenna (or hell) will be chastised with the scourge of love. How cruel and bitter this torment of love will be, for those who understand that they have sinned against love undergo greater sufferings than those produced of the most fearful tortures. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart which has sinned against love is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that sinners and hell are deprived of the love of God, but love acts in two different ways: as suffering in the reproved and as joy in the blessed.
For the sinful person who rejects God, his fiery love produces torment and pain, but for the blessed person who loves God and who is relieved and delighted to see his sins burned away, God’s fiery love is just a warm, bright light, purifying and cleansing him.
My husband, Marko, had a great image. What if you had a friend who was a snowman? All winter long, you could run around, playing in the snow together, but when summer came, you would delight in the warm sunshine, whereas the snowman would hate the sunshine and the warm weather. While that heat would heat would feel so good on your skin, that same heat melts snow away. It’s the same warm sunshine, but different people might love it or hate it depending on their perspective or their makeup.
Here’s an explanation that kids can understand. If you really love your sins, you don’t want them burned away. You hate to lose them, and so you hurt when they burn. For someone who loves sin more than goodness, who would choose the devil over God, for that person the eternal fire is eternal torment. But for those of us who want to be better, we welcome the fire, and we yearn to have our sins burned away from us. We are not tormented by the flames that cleanse us and make us holier. We delight in them. For us, this eternal flame of God’s uncreated light is eternal glory and eternal joy and eternal life.
For kids who were raised with an understanding of a loving God, I think it is something of a relief to understand that it’s not that God has decided to torture some people for being bad, but in fact the trouble is that they, when presented with love, reject it and are tormented. God offers love to every one of us, now and in the afterlife, and it’s up to us to decide how we’ll react to that love.
As you close the conversation with your students, you might want to ask whether it makes a difference? Is there a difference to live as a Christian who believes that heaven is a place where angels sit on clouds versus living as a Christ who believes in an encounter with the God who will burn away sins and pain? And maybe you can take the conversation to the next level. When we receive holy Communion, how are we participating in the kingdom of God, heaven, right here on earth?
I thought I’d try to find a neat prayer you could teach your students, one that would bring up this question of heaven. Of course, I realized that we don’t need a clever, new prayer to teach. The right prayer is already very familiar to us:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come.
“Thy kingdom come.” Right there in the Lord’s Prayer, we recognize that God is in heaven and that his kingdom is coming. Not only are we making reference to the glorious future, the second coming, but truly we are inviting his kingdom to come to us right now. The kingdom of God is at hand. It’s already within our grasp. When we say, “thy kingdom come,” we’re asking to be made a subject in that kingdom right now. Perhaps if we point this out to our kids they’ll remember it when they say the Lord’s Prayer, and heaven will echo in their hearts as they pray those familiar words.
You know, especially as kids come into their adolescent years, this idea of heaven can be a very important topic, and that’s not just because offering a teenager an eternity of playing harps quietly in the clouds is a pretty hard sell, but it’s also because our kids are yearning for heaven. It seems to me that all of us, especially during our adolescent years, want to be known and loved. We want to be loved unconditionally, by someone who really gets us and knows us and treasures us. In those years where our parents don’t get us and nobody really understands how we feel, we all want to be utterly and completely understood by an overwhelming, loving presence.
Teens are yearning for heaven, for God, in an earnest way that maybe we old people have forgotten. They may not know that it’s heaven that they yearn for, but it is. If we can raise them with a better understanding of heaven, of how God’s love works, perhaps they’ll understand that the searching yearning inside their hearts is seeking God, and maybe they’ll find him. May we all react with joy and delight as God pours his love down on us. See you next time, God willing.