When I was in my teens, there was a song by the then popular singer Belinda Carlisle called “Heaven is a place on earth”. Someone asked me recently if this is something that the Church teaches, or if it is just some poetic phrasing that gives us all some sort of whimsical hope in the midst of much suffering and pain.
First of all, I suppose we have to ask how we’d define ‘heaven’. Is it a place where there is no suffering or pain, no disappointment or sadness? Is it a state where one is fully in divine union and as it were, seeing God ‘face to face’ and not die? Is it life with no end? If ‘heaven’ is any of these (or all of them), then I suppose it’s not too right to say that heaven is a place on earth.
Secondly, what is ‘place’? If by ‘place’ we mean a physical location, where all those mentioned above are experienced, then certainly, it would be akin to believing in the existence of the fictional Shangri-La featured in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon – a fabled city synonymous with an earthly paradise.
But if by ‘place’ we mean a place in time, a moment, a snatch of reality, then yes, perhaps it is more plausible that heaven is a place on earth.
Jesus himself taught his disciples to pray “your kingdom come”. Many of us don’t stop and linger enough on this phrase when we utter the Lord’s Prayer. Some may even harbour mental images of Armageddon and for this reason, want to gloss over any such thoughts as quickly as possible.
But what are the values and principles of the ‘kingdom of God’? Any of the beatitudes of Christ would be a good description. When one understands what blessedness is; when one embraces (not merely tolerates) poverty that opens one to an abundance; when one truly knows the gift of tears through which one’s own vision of life is cleansed or when one doesn’t stop living just because others are putting down life. These moments don’t last for a long time in this life as we know it. At most, we catch snippets and glimpses of these and are given insights to heaven.
Just taking Matthew 25 to heart, and knowing that in our outreach, we have clothed the naked, fed the hungry, visited the incarcerated allows us to see that the hidden Christ awaits us in these people and gives us a chance to experience a ‘place’ on earth where heaven can be touched.
Richard Rohr said it so well when he said that it is heaven all the way to heaven and hell all the way to hell. There is a certain ability that we have in us to make the choices to give others and ourselves that heavenly experience for albeit a brief moment in time. Conversely, I believe that we too hold in our choices a brief moment of hell every time we are party to the inflicting of suffering, pain, or any form of killing. And eternal extension of this would be hell to the hilt.
Yes, as much as heaven is and can be a place on earth, so too can hell. How real it is, I suppose, has a lot to do with how much I contribute consciously towards it and cooperate with the grace of God.