So let’s talk more about heaven and hell. The topic provokes, shall we say, keen interest—at least judging from response to my comments about it in the last post on the story of the alcoholic monk. And besides that, it provides another opportunity for Christians to deepen their faith through the Gospel of Bill—lessons that Christians can learn from 12 Step recovery. Specifically, what we can learn from our friends the addicts about heaven and hell is, first, that both are very real, and, second, that there is an inextricable connection between heaven and hell in our earthly lives and heaven and hell in our spiritual lives.
But before we just jump right in on heaven and hell, let’s do a quick review of how we got here.
In the last blog about the old friar who could not stay sober, I noted that the pain and confusion felt by those who love a hopeless addict carries some parallels in Christian theology. In both instances no one really can understand why one person recovers and one does not, why one man is “found” and another “lost.” And, as I noted in that post, apparently whether one ends up in “heaven” or in “hell”—in addiction, at least—is not a matter of merit. Anyone who has ever darkened the door of the rooms of recovery will recall brothers or sisters in who, for all appearances, are of high personal and moral caliber but who seem to have the disease of addiction worse than others, who, despite their apparent best efforts, cannot stay sober very long, while others, apparently inferior in terms of moral character or past behavior, are able to achieve and maintain long term sobriety. Why is this so? The most experienced and wisest men and women in recovery cannot say.
Similarly, as has been noted from early on in the history of Christian theology, as early as St Paul and the Gospels, the gift of salvation is given to some, and not others, in ways and for reasons that seem arbitrary, even unfair. Why is this so? How can this be? Again, we do not know. Jesus told the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, some of whom began to work late in the day and yet were paid the same wages as those who had worked all day in the scorching sun. As Jesus noted, this is unfair by almost any measure—and yet somehow it tells us something important about God. And St Paul talks in terms of those who, for reasons not even he can explain, have been “predestined to salvation.” Now while the term “predestination” is an unfortunate translation from the Greek that has led historically to all kinds of silly theologies, yet what Paul is grappling with here is that there is apparently no relationship between merit and salvation.
So it is that both in the world of recovery and in the life of the Christian faith there are those who seem destined to be saved for reasons apparent to God alone, quite apart from whether they are deserving of it.
Now, interestingly, it was my use of the labels of “heaven” and “hell” in the last blog that drew significant comment—much of it plainly uncomfortable that I would resort to such black and white, simplistic and antiquated images. But, once more, on this topic as so many before, the world of addiction and recovery can teach Christians much about the realities of the spiritual life, and I cannot agree to abandon the idea of heaven and hell, or to water it down, just to make us less uncomfortable. That is not my understanding of the purpose of Christian theology, or of this blog for that matter. Instead, let us go deeper with the discussion.
Now, it is probably obvious, but worth underscoring, that we cannot here engage in anything like a full exploration of the various and diverse understandings of the afterlife—heaven and hell—that can be found across Christian traditions and centuries. These include the most obvious “forensic” model so predominant in Western theologies, and so problematic as well, in which hell serves as a kind of eternal prison for people who have chosen to live apart from God, while heaven is the spiritual reward for people who have chosen God. Or, the “theosis” or “deification” model from our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, in which salvation, or heaven, is understood as a slow and gradual process of becoming more and more godlike in this life, such that, at death, we are in some mysterious, but real, ontological way joined with God. While these are fascinating and fruitful speculative journeys for intellectually curious Christians, such pure theological reflection is not my purpose in this blog. Rather it is my hope that, in the struggles and the surrenders of recovering addicts, we Christians can see parallels to our lives in the faith.
Which brings me back to the two lessons of this blog: that, to the suffering and the recovering addict, the idea of “hell” and “heaven” are very real and no mere abstraction, and, second, that there is a direct connection between our concrete and tangible thoughts and deeds, on the one hand, and the and the permanent and spiritual echoes of those actions, on the other.
Those who have spent any time around struggling addicts will tell you that it is hard to see the life of addiction and recovery in any other way besides a kind of “heaven” and “hell.” The hooks of addiction—alcohol, drugs, tobacco, gambling, sex, food—get inside addicts in a way that is cunning, baffling and powerful. These hapless people are—in point of fact if not in purpose of design—“damned”: damned to a life of disease and insanity, damned to chaos and crimes, damned to brokenness and despair. And although people in recovery do not speak in theological terms when they say it, in the 12 Step framework, this captivity to addiction is understood as a kind of “hell.” We are deathly afraid of it and we don’t want to go back there. Equally obvious to those in recovery, there is also a state of being which begins to look very much like what most of us would expect of “heaven”: a state of being in which we are happy, joyous and free, grateful for having been saved and redeemed to a new life of purpose and health, at peace with the world and with one’s Higher Power.
A friend of mine in recovery, once asked if he believed in hell, responded with a quip: “believe in it? For cryin’ out loud, I’ve been there…. ” And in answer to the same question about heaven? “Pal, not only have I been there, but I live there every day….”
So the first thing we learn from our friends in recovery about heaven and hell is that, in some way, some tangible way that we Christians would do well to consider, heaven and hell are to them very real, very present, realities, even if understood primarily in temporal ways.
The second realization we can have in viewing heaven and hell through the lens of addiction and recovery is the link between the temporal and the eternal. This is the truth that, in addiction as in the life of the spirit, the idea of a spiritual hell is inextricably connected to a series of temporal decisions and choices that we have made. For an addict learns one thing, if he or she ever stands to be free from addiction, that actions matter, that the rules apply to me, that all the pain I experience and foist on myself and on others is simply but profoundly a natural consequence of a thousand bad acts, and that, unless something changes, the path I am on leads to death, indeed to hell.
So given this unavoidable truth about the natural consequences of my daily and practical behavior, how could it be that things could be any different when it comes to the spiritual consequences of my actions? How could anything other than spiritual suffering and death come from a progression of behavior that has brought physical suffering and death? The short answer is that it can’t. Actions have consequences, and tangible actions have permanent consequences, as many a recovering addict will attest. We wish we could undo what we once did, but we cannot, and it is plain that the consequences of what we did—even assuming forgiveness by God and man—are permanent.
Now this understanding of hell is really no different from that offered by various teachers of the Christian way over the centuries. So we remember Jesus’ parable of the rich ruler and Lazarus—a story that ends with the rich ruler tormented by fire as he sees the truth of what his life has been. Dante’s Inferno presents things in much the same way. In Dickens, we see Marley, Scrooge’s former partner and now Christmas Eve’s ghostly visitor, who is enwrapped by heavy iron chains, forged, link by link we are told, by a lifetime of actions fed by habitual greed and selfishness. And CS Lewis’ Great Divorce features a busload of departed souls taking a tour of heaven, most of whom choose to return to hell, that world being more familiar and less frightening to them.
So we learn from the addicts and from Christian thought that there is such a thing as hell, and that the suffering we know there is surely and inextricably linked to how we have lived day by day and moment by moment in this life.
The final question, then, is this: is the same thing true about “heaven”? Is our redemption and joy in eternity tied naturally and incrementally to our good actions? The answer, logically, would seem to be yes, it must be so. But, of course, recovering addicts and instructed Christians know that the answer to the question, surprising as it is, is “no.” Against all natural experience and expectations, against all moral and spiritual logic, we are surprised to learn, in recovery and in Christian conversion, that we have been saved, through no merit of our own but merely through a simple and profound surrender, we have been given a new life and we are welcomed into the loving arms of God and reborn.
We Christians call this “grace.” And it is, of course, the miracle and the scandal of both recovery and Christianity, that people who plainly and obviously do not deserve to be saved are saved nonetheless, simply and solely because of the unreserved and uncontainable love and mercy of a loving and merciful God. And in response to this scandal, an entire civilization called Christendom—with its cathedrals and libraries, its hymns, art and literature—was built to try to acknowledge, celebrate and contemplate this stupendous mystery.
In contrast, I suggest that it is too easy for Christians nowadays to treat this gift of grace as the end of the matter rather than as the starting point, to take it as a given rather than as a gift. But here, again, we learn from the addicts, alcoholics, the compulsive gamblers and the others. For they teach as a first principle of recovery that one cannot simply receive the gift of grace and then call it good. Instead, they know and practice the reality that the only way to stay sober is by working with other addicts, that what is not given away will be lost, and that the only way to keep the gifts of recovery—heaven, if you will—is to give them away freely. Which is why it is a first principle of recovery that one must constantly be helping others, or else one will relapse and lose everything again.
And so it is that, to use language that will ring some bells for those familiar with Christian theology, addicts may believe that they have been saved by grace, but they act as if they are saved by works. We Christians should perhaps rethink our lives, if not our theology, in this light, for I suspect that all of us would do well to practice this habit, as do our friends the addicts.