Monday, 31 October 2016

A reassessment of Heaven, Hell and Christianity. A correction of the literal version seen on the walls of medieval churches.

A thin figure in a greatcoat, clutching a rifle dressed with a bayonet stands shivering on the fire step as officers blow their whistles for a dawn attack. Unable to make his limbs move, he is transfixed by the imagining of the molten rods of metal passing through his flesh, tearing away his battledress and shattering his bones that machine gun bullets represent for him. His terror is increased as a colleague falls backward into the trench. His mind is plagued by the thought of physical combat with bayonets with a German soldier and the image of a bayonet being twisted in his intestines. He shivers and whines to himself and, later, as his surviving fellows return, they seem to register him but judge his presence unworthy of engagement after their trials. Ever after his life in their presence is hell.

At the time of the crucifixion Peter was humiliated by a girl who asked him three times if he wasn’t somehow linked to the man who had been arrested and who was to be executed. Denying it he sat shivering by a fire finally brought face to face with who he was. His responses to the girl were angry and bitter, something she didn’t deserve. It was the deliberate choice of Jesus, with perfect courage, to embrace his destiny that exposed Peter for what he was. This is an excellent paradigm for understanding how the presence and actions of Jesus revealed the human sin of cowardice. Jesus didn’t tell Peter he was a bombastic coward – his perfect actions laid it bare for Peter alone to know. This realization, would, in itself, have been agonizing, like a crucifixion, as they destroyed all his preconceptions of the brave, confident man he had previously styled himself to be.

For the cowardly soldier and for Peter these moments represent a descent into hell. To live day after day in the knowledge of their true nature would have been intolerable. Judas, whose nature was similarly revealed by Jesus’ following of his destiny, found it so intolerable that he hanged himself. This is how an awareness of sin is given and what it is like to suffer it. The medieval depiction of hell with devils stabbing sinners with pitchforks is an excellent poetic evocation of this state. Sin is hell.

Fortunately, just as Peter’s realization of his cowardice was as painful as a crucifixion, the story of Jesus was not complete. He wasn’t going to leave Peter lost in his sin and the hell it represented – heaven was still available and was achieved by Jesus. A few days later, on the road to Emmaus, the defeated and disillusioned (in himself) Peter meets Christ and realizes that the last word has not been spoken. In the days which follow he slowly begins to understand that, on the cross, his cowardice was crucified and can see why the realisation that he was guilty of it felt like a crucifixion. This identification with the process that Jesus has undergone continues. Jesus has survived the crucifixion somehow and, so, Peter discovers, he has survived it too and emerged as free from the cowardice from which he suffered. This final realization is one of delight. Being able to confront the world in future unshackled by such cowardice (because he is aware of it) is, for him, in the special parameters of his life, heaven on earth. It means that he will be brave enough to face final martyrdom of a very physical kind.

This is the meaning of heaven and hell in the context of christianity. It is certainly not understood by many people who would style themselves as Christian.

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