What is heaven? What is hell? And how do they impact how we live right now?
“Heaven and Hell,” the latest episode of The Story of God With Morgan Freeman (airing Jan. 23) grapples with those questions. They’re questions that have fascinated me, too. They always have, ever since I was a little boy.
In the episode, Freeman and others take an interfaith trip through the Good Place and Bad Place. The show takes us to a cave in Tennessee used by the ancient forerunners of the Cherokee, said to contain artwork depicting the first representations of “heaven” and “hell.” We travel to Cambodia’s beautiful Angkor Wat, where nearly a thousand years ago a king tried to build a Hindu heaven on earth. We visit a Pentecostal church in Albuquerque and a Coptic cathedral in Ethiopia, where the lines between spiritual and earthly realms seem to thin, according to believers.
But I was most intrigued—most challenged, I suppose—by Freeman’s short visit with a pair of Assyrian Christians, a mother and son, newly arrived in the United States.
I’d love to learn more about Assyrian Christianity. According to the show, it’s perhaps the faith’s oldest branch. And its theology of heaven and hell is remarkably, attractively simple: Heaven, Freeman explains, is when you’re close to God. Hell is when you’re far away from Him. I like that. It reminds me of Dante’s Inferno, where hell’s nine circles progressively sink farther and farther from God and heaven, finally terminating in the icy center of the earth.
And yet, Freeman tells us that this Assyrian mom and son fled “hell on earth.” Islamic extremists blew up churches and threatened to kill her and kidnap her son. They fled to Syria, which shortly thereafter was overrun by ISIS. Only once they came to the United States could they feel safe again.
If heaven is being close to God, what happened? Had God moved away from them?
Their story resonates with me, in part, because I recently saw Martin Scorsese’s Silence—a profound, sometimes troubling rumination on faith and persecution, and God’s own unsettling silence in the midst of it all.
The 17th Century Japanese Christians in Scorsese’s film (and the Shūsaku Endō book which inspired it) are likewise under withering attack. The faith is illegal in the Japan of that era: To say you’re a Christian is to hand yourself over to martyrdom. Many are indeed martyred in horrific, torturous ways. So they place their hopes in “paradise,” the heaven beyond.
Relatively early, a handful of Christians are tied to crosses placed along a rocky shoreline. When the tide comes in, the water rises to their necks, battering their bodies as it crashes through them. When the tide goes out, the Christians are exposed to the elements. It takes days for them to die like this. In the movie, we’re told, one lasted a week, singing a hymn toward the end.
In the book, a Jesuit priest named Rodrigues struggles to understand why these Christians must endure so much. In a letter back to his superiors, he writes:
‘Like the numerous Japanese martyrs who have gone before, they now enjoy everlasting happiness.’ I also, of course, am convinced of all this. And yet, why does this feeling of grief remain in my heart? Why does the song of the exhausted Mokichi, bound to the stake, gnaw constantly at my heart:
We’re on our way, we’re on our way,
We’re on our way to the temple of Paradise,
To the temple of Paradise …
To the great Temple …
I have heard from the people of Tomogi that many Christians when dragged off to the place of execution sang this hymn—a melody filled with dark sadness. Life in this world is too painful for these Japanese peasants. Only by relying on ‘the temple of Paradise’ have they been able to go on living. Such is the sadness which fills this song.
Freeman suggests in the show that, for some people, heaven is found in home. It’s a place where you feel loved. Where you belong.
I’d agree that “home,” whatever that looks like, can give us a hint of heaven. But it’s because, I believe, heaven is our real home. Heaven is an eternal place. Our home, all too often, is not. And sometimes it can become a hell. It can feel far from God indeed.
The Iraq that Freeman’s Assyrian Christians once knew as home became a far different place. The Japan that Rodrigues sees—this black “swamp,” as Endo so often describes—was once home to hundreds of thousands of Christians who could worship freely. And even though most of us here will thankfully never deal with such terrors as these, we also know that home—however we define it on this earth—is not always heavenly. Some of us may feel like we never truly “belong” anywhere.
And so we cast our eyes to heaven, to paradise. We’ve seen hints of real home and believe it exists … just not here. We’re on our way to the temple of Paradise, we sing. And as we deal with the pain and difficulty of life, be they big or small, it gives us hope. We believe, as Christians for two millennia have always believed, that even our darkest hells must recoil before the light of dawn.