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.

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...