BOSTON — Pope John Paul II recently spoke to an audience in Rome about heaven and hell, challenging the traditional view that these are physical locales.
"More than a physical place, hell is the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God," he said. Also he added: "The images with which hell is presented to us by Sacred Scripture must be correctly interpreted. They demonstrate the complete frustration and emptiness of a life without God." At the same time the pope "dismissed the notion of heaven as a 'physical place among the clouds,' adorned by pearly gates and harps" (The [Nashville] Tennessean, Aug. 1).
Other faiths have made similar statements, marking a shift toward a more spiritual interpretation of Scripture. A commission of the Church of England declared in 1996 that descriptions of hell as fire and furnaces were left over from the Middle Ages and should no longer be used.
The founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, presented a radically spiritual view of heaven and hell in "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," published in 1875. Her statements regarding heaven and hell as states of thought, rather than physical locations, stirred opposition. Almost 125 years later, these statements are beginning to find widespread support.
"The evil beliefs which originate in mortals are hell" (Science and Health, pg. 266). Sinful behavior and mistaken views of our relation to God bring the mental condition described as hell, "self-imposed agony" (see pg. 588). Doesn't believing in envy, hatred, revenge, selfishness, disobedience, etc., result in mental anguish and torment? Such thoughts make you feel separated from God, from divine Love. Hell, then, is more a present state of doubt, discouragement, and despair than it is a future condition.
But this mental state lasts only so long as the sin - the mistaken belief - that made it. So when we reject sin, cast it out, and replace it with the truth of God, hell and its sufferings cease.
Likewise, "Heaven is not a locality, but a divine state of Mind in which all the manifestations of Mind are harmonious and immortal, because sin is not there and man is found having no righteousness of his own, but in possession of 'the mind of the Lord,' as the Scripture says" (pg. 291). Heaven isn't only the absence of sin but the presence of pure goodness. We can experience heavenly harmony right now, on earth, through knowing God. Through expressing Godlike thoughts in doing good.
Turning to God for guidance, recognizing your inseparability from God, you can find more of the goodness, happiness, health, love, associated with heaven. It can be said heaven is awareness of our unity with God, while hell is feeling separated from Him.
Jesus described "the kingdom of God" as "within" us (Luke 17:21). That introduces heaven as essentially mental and always available. In a series of parables (see Matt., chap. 13), Jesus likened heaven to "a grain of mustard seed" that grows into a haven of rest and shelter. Also to "leaven" that transforms a whole mass of dough. Such parables illustrate how spirituality and holiness unfold to us in thought. Even if your concept of God and goodness may seem slight, it can, will, grow to transform your life.
In another parable, heaven is compared to a fishing net where the good is preserved and the bad is thrown out. This illustrates the saving aspect of God that protects what is good in human consciousness, while destroying what is evil. There is no condition so despicable that it is beyond God's healing power. God's love for us preserves every grain of good, while casting out whatever is unworthy.
Science and Health explains: "The design of Love is to reform the sinner. If the sinner's punishment here has been insufficient to reform him, the good man's heaven would be a hell to the sinner" (pgs. 35-36). I think of this as the transforming "oven" of divine Love. To the righteous, Love's warmth is like the warmth of an oven causing dough to become bread. However, to the sinner, the effect is like putting an ice cube into the same oven, where the ice melts and eventually disappears.
The same divine Love that nurtures goodness until it grows into usefulness and productivity destroys the cold selfishness of sin and belief in evil.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society