One man's heaven is another man's hell

FAITH & REASON: This week the Church of England Doctrine Commission issued a report outlining church policy on salvation. Peter Mullen berates the media for their consumerist response.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
All the talk about whether you are "saved" or not, overlooks the main point: would you even want to be? Most commentary on the Church of England's report The Mystery of Salvation throughout assumes that heaven is a kind of prize - as if spiritual rewards were like material goods, though the report itself makes clear that this can't be true.

The problem is that we are so saturated by consumerism that we cannot help thinking of heaven as some sort of upmarket package holiday, endless of course and free - the ultimate special offer. We crudely imagine that heaven is a place where we might be happy.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) heaven is not a bit of what anyone and everyone might fancy: Club Med for the raunchy youngsters, an everlasting debate on the structures of ecclesiastical management for the Synod's standing committee, or even a timeless Test match for me. Heaven is traditionally and clearly defined as the nearer presence of God. Now that I have reminded you of that fact, are you sure you really want to go there - dead or alive?

Consumerism has seen to it that we think heaven is something which is for us. The reality is that it is we who are for heaven. The only question is whether we are ready for it. The purpose of our life is not to try our best at virtue and self-denial in order that we might receive our reward in heaven as permission at long last to let rip and really indulge ourselves. Our purpose is so to order our desires and passions in this world that the holiness of the world will not be a nasty shock.

There is economic convenience in this scheme, for it means that God does not have to provide two sorts of eternal habitation. One will do. The heaven of the devout will be hell for the disobedient and careless. And it is in this sense only that God cannot compel everyone to be saved: for God cannot force us to desire Him.

Spiritual truth is the very opposite of consumerism. That is to say, all talk about salvation and damnation must be seen in the context of Christ's words: "He who seeks to save his life will lose it." The divine economy does not work like the superstore. In the heavenly life giving really is receiving. We are so used to thinking of rewards and punishments as objects that we are blind to the radical subjectivity of salvation. In order to receive heaven as salvation and not as damnation we must make ourselves ready to receive it.

We are not spiritual consumers, free to make up our own minds about which precise form of eternal bliss we would like to sample. We are made in a certain image and form whose purpose is preordained: it is to find our true selves in the person of God. Aristotle knew this and he called it our telos, and it means our raison d'etre. Or, as St Augustine says in his beautiful prayer: "O Lord, Thou has made us for Thyself and our souls are restless till they rest in Thee."

Who then can be saved? How can I receive salvation when my desire for God is constantly being choked by lust for worldly things, when my love for Him is intermittent and lukewarm? The traditional answer is that these things take time and they come only with pain and struggle. And beyond the heaven-hell dichotomy the Church teaches the doctrine of purgatory - which is not so much a place as a process of gradually coming to the true recognition of the things which can really nourish us. Some of us may have to spend a lot of time in purgatory. In fact of course purgatory begins here on earth before we shuffle off this mortal coil.

Think of purgatory as a finishing school for the desires and passions, a place for the ordering of unruly wills and affections of sinful men. Yes, we shall all get through in the end. And cheer up! Remember St Thomas Aquinas said, "Yes, hell exists - but there is almost certainly no one in it."