My friend, Deb Sampson, has been collecting a set of responses from all over the Diocese of Colorado to an adaptation of 50 questions from Christian Piatt's book, Banned Questions About the Bible, to be used for a class at her church, Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. I was honored to be asked to participate, and here are the questions that I chose to answer:
#6 -- If people have to be Christians to go to heaven, what happens to all of the people born before Jesus or who never hear about his ministry?
I think of heaven as being united with God, and I think of God’s time as being without beginning or end (God, the alpha and the omega). Jesus IS God. God is Love. Knowing Jesus-God is knowing Love. Knowing the stories of Jesus-God’s ministry is just details. So, in God’s time, in eternity, people in their soul form have an endless opportunity to choose to be united with God. God never gives up on his beloved Creation, which includes all people.
#15 -- How can God be all-loving yet allow people to be thrown into hell?
I think of hell as being separated from God, from Love. God created people in God’s image, with free will. Love is an act of will. People choose to love or choose not to love. God is Love, and God-Love allows people to exercise their free will.
#19 -- Where are all the miracles today? If they were so prevalent in biblical times, why don't any happen today? Or do they and we just don't notice?
Miracles are all around us, everyday, everywhere, but we have succumbed to the distractions of our egos and our lives. Humankind is narcissistic. We tend to see the world only through the lens of our own selves. That narcissistic lens is like a permanent cataract that distorts our vision. As with cataracts, our vision isn’t good enough to see all the small daily miracles all around us. We only notice miracles if they’re huge enough to drop on our houses and heads and shake our world.
Think about the joy that a child, a young innocent, takes in simple things like blowing bubbles or mushing up a sweet, ripe fruit. Think about the occasions when you’ve stopped suddenly and noticed the fragrance of blossoming honeysuckle or the smell of wet grass after a rainfall. When we can step outside of ourselves into a stiller, simpler moment, we then have the eyes to encompass the miracles, because we see with an inner vision as well as through our physical eyes, and that inner vision is connected to God, the source of all miracles. Miracles are messages from God, invitations to come and see “my Creation and that it is very good.”
#23 -- Hell, Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus are all labeled as “hell” by one or more Christian groups. Are they really the same? Are they all places of fiery torment? Are such things to be taken literally, metaphorically, or both?
All of those names for hell refer to the same thing, which is separation from God who is Love, separation from Love. Separation from Love is experienced and embodied by each person differently, in different intensities at different times, triggered by different external life events of all sorts – from loss of a parent to loss of a partner to loss of a job or loss of an ideal, etc.
Because love is an act of will, separation from Love carries with it the added pain of self-hurt, of self-inflicted injury that our soul recognizes as such even when our conscious mind believes that the hurt is other-imposed. It is that self-denial of our willful withdrawal from Love that is sinfulness manifest. And that sinfulness and self-denial imprison us in our own individual hells.
Certainly there are instances of separation from Love that a person can experience as torment so strong that it feels like one is being consumed by an unquenchable fire, but there are also instances of separation from Love that feel like a complete absence of feeling, a disembodiment of self, a numbness that feels more like being frozen solid than like burning up. You can call it a metaphorical feeling, that burning up or being frozen solid, but the person experiencing it knows it as real and palpable and present, now.
In one of the reviews that I read about Piatt's book, the writer made the point that it's not necessarily the answers that matter, but that the conversation continues about these important, and perhaps occasionally, impertinent questions. I agree.