Back when I was drinking, I kept running into born-again folk who would give me encouraging words like "You're goin' to HELL, boy, if you don't stop drinkin'!!" And I distinctly remember thinking a number of times, "It's too late, moron...I'm already there. I'm already in Hell. So much for your spiritual discernment crap..." (And so on...)
My minimalist Catholic upbringing told me I wasn't going to Heaven, anyway - because somewhere I'd heard that if I'd thought it, I'd done it - and even by age 8, I'd already thought a lot. I knew I'd never be able to get "caught up" in confession - so I knew I was done for. Period.
In defense of the Catholic church, I'm sure the priests and monsigniori talked about Jesus, and salvation, and hope of eternity - but I wasn't hearing it. Somehow, the message that I heard was that my scorecard was going to stay in the red, and I was going to die, and that was it. Heaven was for all you "good" people, who really knew Jesus and really lived sin-free lives. So when folks talked about "you need to do x or y to get to Heaven," it bounced right off me. You see, I'd already judged myself, and found myself ineligible. Damned and done-for. It's not a comfortable place to live, as you might imagine...
My drinking career only intensified those feelings. I was completely unable to tell the truth to anybody - about how much I hated myself, about how much I hated God for letting me get to this point (as if God stopped caring for all of the world, and bent down to screw with my life!), about how much I hated trying to act OK, you name it. I hated everything and everyone - most especially myself. Love, compassion, and concern were things that people talked about, but of which I had no experience - either giving or receiving.
About the same time, I discovered an earthly definition of eternity - the knowledge that my life was somehow already completely and totally over, but that somehow I wasn't going to die. It seemed I was going to live in this twilight half-life with no hope of ending, except for suicide. But I'd watched others try, and succeed, at that option - and it didn't seem to help any. It just left the problems, and only took them out of the solution.
Shortly after getting sober and returning to church, my pastor at the time (the late and very-much-missed Tom Housholder) encouraged me to read CS Lewis' classic The Great Divorce. I really, really grooved on the image of "the grey town" as Near Hell, or Purgatory - the grey, unending drizzle, neither light nor dark, stretching out seemingly forever, barren, uninhabited, terminally lonely and terminally hopeless. It sure sounded familiar...
But it was the image of Heaven that really got me - that Heaven would be like Earth, but more real. The image of people newly arrived from "the grey town" as ghosts, insubstantial and needing to be "thickened up" with the love and knowledge of God, was a riveting understanding of Heaven that I'd never heard before - but one I fell in love with instantly. Those images are still a lot of what I hope for in Heaven and fear in Hell, I guess.
About a year sober, I went with an AA friend to a bible study at this pastor's house. The topic was heaven, and this pastor proceeded to describe an entire hierarchy of servants of God in heaven. In this pastor's cosmology, Heaven was going to be a lot like a corporate headquarters, with the good people milling around on the middle floors, the really, really good people on the top floor with Jesus, and guys like me (who had wasted so much of their life of faith) working as the janitors and mail-clerks for the Heavenly Headquarters campus.
At the end of the study, the pastor actually went around the room and asked us how we felt about what he'd presented, and where each of us thought we'd be in the Heavenly hierarchy. I was the last one to speak, and remember the gasps in the room as I told them that I'd been a drunk, a thief, a liar, a cheat, and things I wouldn't even mention in polite company - and I didn't give a damn if I ended up cleaning toilets in Heaven, just so long as I got in. (My friend never suggested I attend that bible study again - something that I still give thanks for to this day.)
Today, I have come to this peace on the topic:
I am a sinner, through and through. I am saved by grace, through faith...not through any magic transformation of my sinful self into something pure and sinless. Folks who are a whole lot less sinful than I (from fellow seminarians all the way up to nationally-known evangelists) assert that they haven't gotten "struck pure and holy" yet.
I've stopped keeping score of my sin, and am trusting in the grace and love of the One making the invitations to heaven.
I find no evidence that Paul ever stopped qualifying for the Romans 3:11-12 text he wrote:
As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one."Or the classic confession in Romans 7:18-19:
I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.And I'm right there with him here, too:
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:24-25)I have hope of Heaven - a resurrection to the true spiritual body I would have had as a follower of God - not the wreck and ruin that my sinful life has made of this flesh. My prayer has always been that the "resurrection of the body" means that the folks disfigured by disease and calamity and selfish stupidity will not have to wear their earthly wreckage for eternity.
I have hope of a reunion with the saints - all who have died in faith. I'm looking forward to that reunion, yet I also think it will pale in comparison to being in the presence of the unending love of God. For years I had a list of questions for God - what were You thinking of when you created chiggers?, for instance - but I have a growing sense that those questions will fade to insignificance.
I am also a firm believer in the "already and yet not-yet" understanding of the Kingdom of God. I see its inbreaking in everyday miracles of faith, and life, and love; I have come to see God's fingernails on the hands of everyone caring for "the least of these," whether around the world or down the block. I try daily to break the bonds of the eco-terrorism that our culture (especially U.S. culture) breeds. And I try to do what I can to work for those who are "outsiders" - both in terms of social justice and in terms of the supposed "family of faith." That song that says, "I wanna be Your hands, I wanna be Your feet - I'll go where you send me" is a tough pledge to make - but I'm at least willing to pray to become willing to say those words.
Last of all, I've found an answer to the question, "So who gets to go to Heaven, and who ends up in Hell?" The best answer I've heard is, "It's none of your business who goes where - no more than it is mine. My hope is to work like going to Heaven depends on me; and pray like it depends on God."