Love, the Absence of Love, and learning to love
Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory
“Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord” –St. Augustine
Our culture loves the idea of an afterlife. The idea of a “better place” after our lives on earth has captivated the human imagination since the dawn of man. Images of the afterlife are everywhere in popular culture; people laying on clouds, tiny demons with pitch forks, St. Peter and the Pearly Gates, are scenes we all recognize among many others. Unfortunately though the popular culture does not reflect what the Church actually believes about the afterlife. We have many misconceptions which can make the afterlife seem contradictory to what we believe, leading to doubt and cynicism. I have found that the best way to think of “Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory” is to instead think of, “Love, the absence of Love, and learning to love.”
What is Heaven (Love)? One of the first things to acknowledge is that Heaven is beyond our capacity to describe it. Scripture has referred to it as a banquet, a wedding feast, the heavenly Jerusalem, among other images. All of these descriptions give us an idea of what Heaven is, but they do not completely give us the essence of what it truly is. Heaven at its core is life in communion with the Trinity, which is the ultimate expression of total self giving love. This is why we say that God is Love. “How great will your glory and happiness be, to be allowed to see God, to be honored with sharing the joy of salvation and eternal light with Christ your Lord and God… to delight in the joy of immortality in the Kingdom of heaven with the righteous and God’s friends” –St. Cyprian. Heaven is not as the world portrays it, passively lying on a cloud while playing a harp; rather in Heaven we will find our ultimate fulfillment and joy. This joy will never subside, never fade away, and never be taken away. We will be enraptured into the mystery of Love as we see God face to face.
Communion through love is a two way street. Though I can love someone unconditionally, I can not force someone to love me in the same way. Love is a free choice of the will, if it is forced, it is not love. Accordingly, the one thing that God cannot do is force you to love Him. He loved us into being, and loves us unconditionally for all time, but He can not force us to love Him in return. If Heaven then, is total union with God who is Love, then there must be the possibility of rejecting Love. God does not “send” anyone to Hell, we choose Hell for ourselves by rejecting God, choosing not to live through love in Him. Unfortunately some of us may have seen this in our own lives; some choose alcohol or drugs over their loved ones, others choose their career or material possessions over their friends and family, others choose to love themselves rather than others. “The doors of Hell are locked on the inside,” –CS Lewis. As much as a family may love a drug addict, until the addict realizes that they love their family more than the drug, they will never overcome their addiction. Like wise, Hell is when we say to God, “I know you love me, but I love this [drugs, sex, money, fame, self, etc] more!” God grants us our wish, an existence without the One who is Love.
Sometimes an addict realizes their faults, their mistakes, their weaknesses, and resolves to change themselves. It is not an easy process, and there is a lot of pain. We may realize the extent to which we unknowingly hurt the ones we really should have loved. We might feel foolish for making so many mistakes or for ignoring the warning signs. An addict’s loved ones may be willing to take the addict back, but they will insist that we go through rehab before we return home. This is the true essence of Purgatory. Purgatory is when we say to God, “I love you and want to be with you, but I need some help working through these issues”. Just like rehab, we learn to fully love God rather than the thorns and issues that plagued us. We learn to re-prioritize our wants and desires. This requires soul searching, and we will have to deal past pain to understand why we acted the way we did. In this way Purgatory is the place where we “learn to love”. We cannot enter into communion with Love, if we cannot love. God has given us a place where we can work on our issues before entering Heaven. This is why we pray for those in Purgatory, to help them and aid them as they discover the true nature of love, just as we pray for those in rehab or the hospital. Purgatory is a spiritual hospital where we learn to love, so that we can fully embrace the love that God is offering us.
As we can see, the three realms of the afterlife all exist because God loves us. He has given us a place to be in total union with Him, a place without Him, and a place to learn how to love Him. It is important to view the afterlife through the lens of love, because God who is Love desires all of us to be in communion with Him. The three spiritual realms which we call Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory are the realization of this love that God has for us.