We all have these ideas of what Heaven and Hell look like. Much of this comes from great writers like Dante who is known for his famous work the “Inferno”. We imagine Hell to be filled with fire and darkness, mixed with physical torture. This also partly comes from the bible where Jesus compares Hell to a “fiery furnace”. These are excellent visuals to help describe the horror of Hell but not accurate in their literal sense. The same goes for Heaven where we are told it is a land flowing with milk and honey. We imagine gold gates or streets of gold and white clouds. As for purgatory, we have no real sense of it since it is not mentioned in the bible, but just a state of cleansing on our way to heaven. We usually picture some type of limbo where we wait in something like a doctors office.
All of these theologically make no sense and we can be fairly certain these spiritual places are nothing like what we imagine. The feelings we get when we think of these places in this way may be accurate (that is why Jesus used analogies like this), however these are spiritual places. If these are spiritual places (at least until the final judgement when we are reunited with our physical bodies in the resurrection of the dead) then our feelings will come from spiritual experiences in these places. What I’m saying is you won’t be happy in heaven because there are clouds and golden gates, you will be happy because you’re in the presence of God. The spiritual reality doesn’t seem exciting to our mortal minds, but it will be so much more profound than anything we experience on earth.
But what about the other two? Purgatory and Hell? I’d like to steal a theory from my favourite author and philosopher, Dr. Peter Kreeft, and develop it a bit. He suggests that Heaven and Hell may be the same place! Yes, I’ll say that again for those of you who didn’t catch it, Heaven, Hell, purgatory, all the same thing. How would that be possible? Well, for people who repent of their sins and love God, the experience of being in God’s presence will bring them ultimate peace and joy. However for those who are so self-centred that they love themselves more than God, the presence of God will be horrible to them. So when Scripture talks about the “fire of Hell” (Matthew 5:22) and the “light of Heaven” (Rev. 22:5) maybe it is talking about the same thing.
The light of God is beautiful to those who love him, but the light of God is a fiery Hell to those that do not. Purgatory is simply Gods light burning away our attachments to sin and evil. Hell would be the same process except our attachment to sin is so strong that we get burned up with iour sins in the process. So like Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” we lose our self, our identity, the “I” that makes us, us. We can no longer say “I” just as the demoniac says in the scriptures when Jesus asks his name,
“Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’” – Mark 5:9
Then we get burned up with our sins because our sins become who we are instead of the “I” that God gave us. That is to say our soul gets burned up with our sin, just as Golem jumped into the lava chasing after his precious, the ring, which represents sin. So Hell is really just the purification process, the same as purgatory, but when it cleanses away all the sin, there is nothing left there to experience the light of God. Dr. Kreeft also believes souls can be destroyed so this would be the destruction of the soul. Jesus speaks of the destruction of souls,
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
– Matthew 10:28
Fire and torture is pretty scary, but I believe this is far more terrifying. To lose your identity, to lose your soul, what could be more horrible! The descriptions and the art and pictures we create in our minds, help us to clearly identify what Heaven, Hell and Purgatory are. I think when we look at them in new ways, it helps us to get out of that horribly inaccurate idea of God tossing people into Hell. Also, it stops us from thinking Purgatory is going to be some kind of punishment before we enter Heaven. Instead we see these places in a new light that gives us a deeper understanding of who God is and how He acts. Most importantly though I think it helps answer the question, why does Hell exist at all? The simple answer is Hell exists so that people may choose between their sins and God. This view of Hell helps us understand how important our “free will” is and the consequences of our choices.