Of heaven and hell

(Thoughts after the Manchester terrorist attack)

It is, of course, great to see this statement from the Muslim Council of Britain after the terrorist attack at Manchester Arena on May 22, 2017.

It’s what we expect from people who are our brothers and sisters and neighbours; from anyone who believes in an all-merciful, all-compassionate God, or even in no God at all.

But still there’s something that makes me more than a little sad about it. The statement includes the words, “May the perpetrators face the full weight of justice both in this life and the next.” Possibly those who framed the statement are wanting to say to the radicalised, and to potential terrorists: “You may think that if you kill infidels and die in the process you will go to Paradise; but you are deluded. It’s a sin for which you will be punished in hell.” It’s a message they need to hear, though one fears they will have been so indoctrinated that they will simply not believe this voice of authority, over the ones that radicalised them.

And still there’s something that makes me more than a little sad. It is the way that more fundamentalist forms of religion - Christian as well as Muslim - talk about heaven and hell at all. Haven’t we got beyond the need to use language about some form of existence after this earthly life, as a lever to make people behave the way we say they should? Be good, and you’ll enjoy ‘heaven’ after this life; do evil, and it will be an eternity of punishment in ‘hell’. Still worse were all the centuries when heaven-and-hell language was used as a way of forcing the oppressed to put up with the injustices of their exploitation by the rich and powerful.

I believe in a God who loves us, and who wants us to enjoy life in its fullness. As it happens, the way of living that Jesus taught was and is directed to that end. “Be perfect then, even as you heavenly Father is perfect.” God wants us to be like God, because God delights in us, God wants to share God’s nature and life with us. It’s not about future reward, or lack of it: it’s about having that quality of life now.

I wish the world religions would declare a hundred-year moratorium (if not a for-ever one) on talking about the Hereafter, and spend their energies talking about Life Here and Now: how we can live it the best we can, and make it possible for everyone else on this small blue jewel-planet to do the same.

Written on May 23, 2017