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The sweet hereafter

Recent depictions of heaven and hell go well beyond fluffy clouds and fiery infernos

By Lisa Van de Ven

We have an image of what it might look like. A simplistic image, left over from our early years, but an image all the same. Clouds. White togas. Harps, perhaps, playing in the background. Or fire. Brimstone. A horned man in red. These images of heaven and hell are thrown at us from childhood, in cartoons, storybooks and maybe even parental lectures. “Aren’t you the little angel?” my mom might say. (My brother was the devil child, not me.)

But what does heaven really look like? How about hell? Popular culture today seems more obsessed with avoiding such questions altogether, focusing instead on eternal life (vampires are the current craze, living on and interacting with their loved ones forever). Some culture makers choose to take a deeper look, though, and their takes on the afterlife aren’t as simple as the images we consumed as kids — images that gave us easy answers. Heaven and hell aren’t always so black and white.

Take the 2009 book Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlife by David Eagleman. A tiny tome, considering its purpose — to explore the nature of the hereafter — it gives you exactly what it says it will: 40 different versions of the afterlife. Gone are the white togas and brimstone, at least for the most part. Instead, there are tales of coupled creators going through marital woes, of a benevolent God who tries to include everyone only to make nobody happy, and of a suburbia where only the sinners live on into eternity. “God has grown bitter,” Eagleman writes in this last story, entitled “Perpetuity.” “Nothing continues to satisfy. Time drowns Him. He envies man his brief twinkling of a life, and those He dislikes are condemned to suffer immortality with Him.”

It’s not exactly the image of hell we’re used to seeing. Or is it heaven?

In times past, the difference between the two was easily defined: peaceful bliss versus eternal suffering. Today, though, we see something new: stories of the afterlife that straddle the two, neither purely evil nor purely good — asking more questions than they answer. In heaven, do we look down on those we love and suffer the pain of missing them, and if so, how can that be considered the bliss we’ve been promised? Or in hell, are we forced to experience eternal damnation just for a few earthly transgressions — and if that’s the case, is it fair punishment?

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” reads the inscription on the gates of hell in Dante Alighieri’s classic “Inferno,” the first part of the Divine Comedy and one of the most well-known literary depictions of the underworld. Written in the early 1300s, Dante’s portrait of hell’s atrocities is still familiar all these centuries later: nine circles, from Limbo to Lust to Fraud and Treachery, with Satan at the centre, trying to escape not from fire but from ice. Hell held more weight in Dante’s time than it does now; in fact, a 2011 Ipsos Reid poll found that only 19 percent of Canadians actually believe in hell, compared to 29 percent who believe in heaven. But what do these people believe in, exactly? How does our secular, modern world inform their views?

In the 2012 documentary Hellbound?, Canadian writer and director Kevin Miller finds that the image of hell isn’t so universal. Talking to people at all ends of the belief spectrum, he meets those who think the souls of sinners are annihilated completely, those who think God will forgive all sins, and those who argue hell is just a story to help us make sense of life. Members of the notoriously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas believe that more than 99.9 percent of people will go to hell, while Brian McLaren, author of A New Kind of Christianity, points out that preaching damnation is also a tool to make people fall in line: “You need a very big stick to threaten those who threaten you,” he says.

If hell is so variable, is heaven too? For Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, the answer is yes. In his acclaimed 1998 film After Life, the dead spend a week in a faceless building being processed through to their final eternity. They’re asked to choose a single memory from their entire life; it will be the one thing they leave with, their own personal afterlife, recreated so they can hold on to the feelings it evokes. Sometimes, though, memories are double-edged: one woman remembers meeting a man who was finally good to her, only to find out he had a wife; another man tells of making a movie date with his aging spouse after years of a quietly unfulfilling marriage, but she dies before it actually takes place. Both good and bad are tangled together so closely, it’s hard to tear them apart.

What’s also notable about After Life’s limbo is the absence of judgment, save for the self-judgment that comes from the dead themselves. God isn’t waiting to make the final call.

Of course, there’s no way of recognizing (at least in this life) what the afterlife looks like; we create our own vision based on our beliefs and world views. Books and movies such as After Life and Sum offer stories to feed that vision, some in which God is present and some in which God is not. There’s another scenario, too, that Eagleman ponders in Sum: one where God is there, but is not what we’ve spent our lifetimes expecting.

In the author’s story “Oz,” the deceased is confronted with a face “larger than the moon’s orbit” — the kind of sight that inspires poetry. But this powerful image is just an illusion; behind it is a “wrinkled little man,” stooped and gout-ridden, “swaybacked and balding.” “It is not the brave who can handle the big face, it is the brave who can handle its absence,” God says.

So is that heaven or is it hell?

Lisa Van de Ven is a freelance writer in Toronto.
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