Monday, 13 March 2017

Heaven 'n' hell...

I’ve just finished a book, The Doors of Heaven, by Richard Brooks, a spittle-flecked fulmination on the afterlife, based entirely on the book of Revelations. It would be difficult to write a coherent book based on the bizarre prophesies of Revelations; thankfully, Brooks doesn’t even try. If nothing else, the book offers an insight into the mindset of total religious conviction; at no point in The Doors of Heaven does the author doubt the veracity of his source material. Every word of the Bible - even Revelations - is the literal truth.

He lays his cards on the table right away. “There are only two possible destinations at the end of life’s journey”, he writes. “One is heaven. One is hell”. There are no doe-eyed virgins in the Biblical heaven. Though Brooks is keen to go there, and wants readers of the book to join him, the attractions of heaven are not immediately apparent. “Heaven is not (and never will be) a place of idleness. For a start, the praise of God in heaven continues day and night without ceasing. Once there, we shall be like the angels of God in this respect - while nothing will be toilsome, laborious or painful about our work, every moment will be spent in the delightful worship and service of our glorious and gracious God”.

Read that again: “every moment will be spent in the delightful worship and service of our glorious and gracious God”. That’s what heaven is like (Christopher Hitchens called it a "celestial North Korea"). If heaven doesn’t sound very appealing, just consider the alternative. “All that scripture says of the awfulness of hell is not only true, but true eternally. For ever! The lake of fire goes on burning. The hungry worm goes on feeding. The rubbish dump (Gehenna) goes on rotting and smouldering. The darkness goes on spreading its cloak of gloom. The wailing and the crying is always heard. To be condemned to hell is truly to be condemned for ever”.

Brooks wastes no time in speculating about the fate of those who have the temerity to worship other gods. The Bible says they’re all going to hell… and that’s good enough for him. “It is not all the dead who are blessed. There is no blessing on the Christless dead; they rush into an undone eternity, unpardoned, unholy. You may put their body in a splendid coffin; you may print their name in silver on the lid; you may bring the company of mourners to the funeral, in suits of solemn black; you may lay the coffin slowly in the grave; you may spread the greenest sod above it; you may train the sweetest flowers to grow over it; you may cut a white stone, and grave a gentle epitaph to their memory; still it is but the funeral of a damned soul. You cannot write “blessed” where God hath written “cursed”.” (note to any members of my family who are reading this: don’t engage this guy to officiate at my funeral).

Towards the end of the book Brooks adopts a more confidential tone, as he addresses unbelievers. “Oh! that God would make you thirsty for salvation and thirsty for himself. You need to see the value of your soul and to realise that you are in danger of eternal ruin without Christ. You need to feel as a real burden the weight of your unforgiven sin, and to acknowledge that it is against God, first and most important of all, that you have sinned. You need to have laid upon your conscience what it is to be guilty before God, to be unclean and separated from him, grieving him, under his last judgement. You need to see that the only one to whom you can turn for help and relief, the only one who can bring you any remedy and hope, the only one who can reconcile you to God, is the Lord Jesus Christ”.

What is sin, you ask? “The slightest transgression of God’s law, and the commandments, the minutest departure from God’s spotless holiness, the tiniest shortfall from God’s unbending standards is sin”. Ah, right. A lustful thought just popped into my head, unbidden; that isn’t going to help.

Brooks warns believers not to assume they’re going to heaven. “However unpalatable, unpleasing, unattractive, unacceptable, or unsavoury anyone may find this doctrine to be: hell is real, just as heaven is real. And real people are already there, including some we have known already in our lives. And real people will yet go there, including, it may be, some who are reading this book”. Gulp…

He ends the book on a more cheerful note. “It is death that brings us to this unchangeable, eternal rest, and which explains how a Christian’s death-day is better than his birthday, and why a believer’s dying day is his best day. This accounts for the fact that so many of the martyrs welcomed the messengers who came to tell them of their impending execution, hugged the stake, or clapped their hands in the midst of the flames”.

Though written in 1998, The Doors of Heaven reads like it was written two or three centuries earlier. As is usual, with this kind of book, there is no evidence whatsoever that anything in this blessedly brief diatribe is true. I don’t really approve of burning books (any more than I approve of burning idolators, heretics or blasphemers), but maybe I’ve been too hasty…

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