One of the most controversial Christian doctrines concerns the reality of hell.
Yet while almost the whole of the tradition (not least Jesus) maintained belief in a form of post-mortem judgment, there are many different views on what that means.
One of these diverse perspectives comes from North America’s most famous preacher of fire and brimstone: Jonathan Edwards.
In a prior post (here), I was critical of Edwards’ treatment of the subject. But in this piece, I’d like to examine an aspect of his thought that is, at least, intriguing.
For Edwards, hell is the presence of God himself. And so is heaven.
He builds this view on Scripture. Revelation 14:10 speaks, for instance, of a torment that takes place “in the presence of the Lamb.”
On the one hand, this portrait could be taken as a macabre depiction of a sadistic Christ who derives pleasure from watching the torture of those who worshipped “the beast.” This makes Jesus look like a rogue CIA agent who begins to enjoy the sight of waterboarded prisoners; or like a mafia goon who gets a thrill from plucking toe-nails from his enemies. And this Jesus seems hard to square with the merciful Lord who walks the pages of the Gospels.
But there is another way of reading Edwards’ claim that God is the substance of both hell and heaven.
One word: Mozart.
AMADEUS AS THEOLOGY
In the movie Amadeus, we are shown two different reactions to the breathtaking beauty of Mozart’s compositions.
In the audience, there are those who hear this music and experience pleasure, worship, and a moment of transcendent union between the author and the audience. Perhaps you can relate. A concert can be a foretaste of heaven.
Yet in Amadeus, there is another figure in the audience who experiences the music differently. To Salieri (Mozart’s jealous rival), this same music, in this same theatre, from this same orchestra feels like nothing less than torture. Not because it is terrible, but because it is perfect.
Salieri wants to be Mozart. Or kill him. And in the end, he chooses the latter.
Amadeus is a parable of hellacious experience.
As sinful humans, we want to be God. Or kill him. And on Golgotha, we chose the latter.
Yet as with Salieri, the music gets louder after its composer dies. It rises from the grave. And the same song strikes us as either ecstasy or torture. Not because it’s terrible, but because it’s perfect.
I have no idea whether this is a good analogy to help one grasp the Christian concept of the afterlife.
I’ve never been dead.
And I don’t listen to Mozart.
It is however, a call to cultivate not only “ears to hear” the music of God’s holy love, but the “taste” to find it beautiful. Heaven is a party thrown for Prodigals, and an invitation to experience the Father’s presence in a way unlike the “tortured” elder brother.
Enjoy this post? Check out my new book on understanding the big story of Scripture: “Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements,” available with Video teachings to help church small groups.
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