There was a time when I wasn’t sure about heaven.
God seemed too distant—too big—to go to all the trouble of tending to my eternal needs. I thought His time was better spent keeping the planets in motion and tending to the angels. Angels were much more worthy of His attention than little me. Little, scrawny, dirty me.
That wasn’t always the case. As a child, I believed heaven was there much like I believed West Virginia was there. Our sister state resided just over the mountains, there but not seen. Heaven was much the same, just over the horizon of my life.
I don’t remember when I started my doubting. My teenage years seem the likely culprit, that time when the head swells with knowledge and the heart is found tender and broken by loves unfulfilled and dreams unmet. That’s generally the age when God goes from nearby to far off, and we wonder why He moved. That was me. Heaven was relegated to that corner of my mind occupied by stories of Atlantis and Santa Claus, both of which may have been real enough once upon a time but were now covered with thick layers of exaggeration. The world opened up just as wide for me at eighteen as it does anyone else. It took up all my vision. I could not see heaven anymore.
That lasted until my mid-twenties. Another milestone in life, one just as important but not as celebrated as the teenage years. I was married by then, working, trying to get something—anything—published and not quite getting it. I remember my wife and I were renting a small house on a farm, and I remember getting up early one morning and sitting on the porch, staring out at the alpenglow coming over the mountains and the cows grazing in the pasture. That’s when I realized that heaven was real. Seems strange, doesn’t it? That I would fully return to faith by staring at cattle. But that’s how it happened. It was as if some small part of me finally understood that I was made for better lands. That we all were.
With heaven now firmly entrenched in my mind, my thoughts then went to the prospect of hell. An old man named Luther Campbell died a few years later. A good man. Raised up here in town, was called to war in Korea. Came home, married, had kids and then grandkids. Spent thirty years at a job down at the factory that he absolutely hated, but did it anyway. For his family, he said. Everything about Luther revolved around his family.
Luther wasn’t a Christian. Sundays were overtime days at the factory, and that’s where Luther worshipped. For his family, you see. I remember sitting there at his graveside wondering where he was and figuring he now had all the overtime in the world. He was a good man, I kept telling myself. Wonder what God did with him?
Luther wasn’t someone like Hitler or Stalin. Those guys deserved hell. Not Mr. Luther Campbell, a good man who just wanted to provide for his family. If God was love—and I believed He was—couldn’t He see that? Couldn’t He see that we all struggled though this life, taking our turns with our feet held to the fire? That we all hurt, we all cried, we all felt the weight of sadness?
Don’t we all deserve heaven in the end?
Yes, I thought. We do. So I went from wondering if there was a heaven to being convinced there wasn’t a hell.
All that was years ago.
Things are different now.
I’ve learned much since then, life being the ultimate classroom. I still believe in heaven, now more than ever. Still believe we were made for better lands. I still believe that God is love, too. But I do believe in hell. I suppose that answers my question about where Luther Campbell’s soul now resides. It’s tough for me to deal with that sometimes. I miss him and want him safe and well. But I figure God whispers to us throughout our lives and in many different ways, and it’s up to us to listen. I think that in the end, He doesn’t send any of us to hell. We do that ourselves.
My doubts now tend to revolve around humanity rather than God, which I suppose is more justified but just as painful. I’m daily amazed at the good we can do, and I’m equally amazed at the harm we can inflict. I suppose that’s why I no longer wonder about heaven and hell. I know both are there. Because I can see the seeds of each in us all.