Often when we don’t have a really good clue about something, we tend to make caricatures about it. One good example of this involves the concepts of heaven and hell. Hell is often portrayed as a massive cave filled with fire, red minions, and Satan himself (bifurcated tail and hayfork at the ready). Heaven, on the other hand, is full of clouds with Saint Peter outside a gate, looking at a large book to see if people (and other animals) should be allowed inside. But what is heaven and hell like from a spiritual perspective? In the second episode of The Story of God with Morgan Freeman (Monday, 9PM/8CT Nat Geo), the focus is the afterlife—and it seems to bring up more questions than provide answers.
Of course, we can look up to the stars and get a sense of wonder and awe, or consider hell as a fearful place, as Freeman did growing up. The question becomes a simple one: “How have these unseen places changed the way we live our lives on Earth?” In the episode, he takes a look at a number of different perspectives—the Cherokee Indian version that mimics reincarnation; the Ethiopian church’s attempt to exorcise demons to eliminate hell on earth; a Pentecostal church bringing heaven to earth via speaking in tongues; a Hindu king’s attempt to mimic heaven in the form of Angkor Wat; Assyrian Christians escaping Iraq, only to move to Syria and face a worse life dealing with ISIS; and Mayan cenotes where heaven is found in underwater caverns (see top picture).
The focus of the episode is more along the lines of heaven and hell being a reality here and now. Is heaven a place on earth in a form outside of that 1980’s song by Belinda Carlisle? Can we make life so bad that hell cannot be conceived of as being any worse? It’s difficult to tell, as there really isn’t an in-depth explanation of what some faiths believe (specifically Christianity, although it is given more attention here than in any episode of The Story of God with Morgan Freeman so far). Since people cannot typically come back from either location, all we have to work with is the here and now.
That brings us to the final example of the program—a lady named Krista Gorman who, while having her daughter, lost her pulse for eight minutes and had an experience of going to heaven—“my heaven,” as she put it, filled with waterfalls, green hills, and angels flanking her sides. Krista was asked by an angel if she wanted to return to earth, and when she said yes, everything went in reverse and she returned to the hospital bed she was originally on. When asked what her religion was by Freeman, Krista responded, “My religion is love.” It seems to be an anti-climactic ending to what could have been a fantastic episode. Instead, I’m not sure if it leaves the viewer wanting to learn and/or discover more.
If heaven is simply love, as Freeman notes to end the episode, we obviously don’t experience it enough in the lives we live. We’re too busy with work, kids, politics, and other outside obligations to really enjoy life. There has to be something more, something beyond the tangible and physical. The Bible talks about both heaven and hell quite extensively within its covers, but both are a bit nebulous. Hell is a place where the presence of God refuses to inhabit, depicted in Revelation as a lake of burning fire where torment occurs for eternity (see 20:14-15). Heaven, on the other hand, is full of splendor and glory, having a distinct size (1500 miles wide x 1500 miles long x 1500 miles high), lots of gold and precious jewels, trees for healing, water of life from God’s throne, and gates fashioned out of individual pearls (see Revelation 21:9-22:5). It sounds incredible, but there’s one thing in common between the two places—something called the Book of Life. It’s pretty simple—if a person’s name is in there, they can enter heaven. If not, hell. A person gets their name in there, according to Paul, by “declar[ing] … ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believ[ing] . that God raised him from the dead” (Romans 10:9-10).
“[Heaven and hell are] not just ideas; they’re part of us . . . part of what we yearn to escape, but what we yearn to become,” says Freeman at the end of the episode. Death can be scary since few have seen what lies beyond. But the goal on earth is to get to the destination we want for ourselves. If we know the way, we can follow it.