One of the things I like about The Truman Show is that we don’t really know how the story ends. (If you’ve never seen the film, I must warn you that I will be spoiling some major plot points.) The last we see of Truman, he steps through a dark doorway into an unknown world that he can’t possibly understand. This is immediately following a plea by Ed Harris for Truman to stay. Telling him that the world Harris has created for Truman is more beautiful than the world he has never seen.
The primary catalyst that pushes Truman to leave is the memory of a girl he met when he was younger and seemingly fell in love with. The one that got away. He is haunted by her throughout the film and her memory begins to shape his life. He holds on to the only memento from his time with her: a red sweater with a 1” round button pinned to the lapel. The button reads, “How’s It Going To End?” “I was wondering that myself,” Truman says to her. As it turns out, I’ve also been wondering the same.
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books about heaven and hell from various Christian perspectives. I should also preface that I have written this article from a largely Christian perspective, seeing as this is the lens I am looking through. As a young boy, I grew up with a vivid fear of going to hell engrained in my psyche. This was instilled through countless sermons asking questions like, “Where would you go if you died tonight?” This fear tactic has been used throughout churches and denominations in recent decades to convince individuals into making a decision to follow Christ. This involves a prayer in which someone confesses and accepts Jesus. Traditionally, this prayer is the first step in someone becoming a Christian.
Even after getting “saved” in a church service, I would inevitably repeat the process again and again as a teenager, always afraid that maybe I had not done it correctly. Afraid that maybe I didn’t mean it enough. I’ve heard this same story from countless individuals and seen firsthand the effects of this repetition on the psyche. No matter how much I may have loved God in my youth, the fear of eternal punishment was a far more influential and vivid emotion. A doctrine built around fear develops that fear to be more powerful than love. A fear of God is transformed into a fear of what God will do to me. But what happens to us when our motivation for following Christ is only driven by a desire to not be punished, like a woman who won’t leave an abusive relationship?
The act of love as presented by Jesus is meant to be one of pure selflessness. A literal self-sacrifice. I know that the Bible is not regarded the same way universally, and maybe it’s not your thing. But 1 John 4:18 is an interesting read if you have the time. Love motivated by how I benefit from a relationship is counterintuitive to the love Jesus commands us to have. Even if you uphold the most strictly conservative and traditional views of heaven and hell, God is not motivated to save us from eternal punishment. He would not be content to redeem us and send us packing. His motivation is so that we can be in relationship with him.
Many recent scholars are beginning to look back at old traditions in which the idea of hell has different connotations or characteristics. Throwing away imagery such as fire and suffering and in some cases throwing out hell all together. The practice of reshaping our traditions is, in my opinion, a healthy and necessary part of our struggle with scripture. The purpose, of course, being to strengthen one’s understanding of God’s character. As I study the redefining of hell, such thoughts have led me to wonder about the nature of heaven as well.
Our fight to avoid hell is strongly contrasted with our desire for heaven. There is a growing amount of literature where individuals claim to have died and seen this indescribable place. But even with books like Heaven Is For Real being outed as fictional, people still want to know what happens when we perish. Images of golden streets and mansions typically dominate modern thinking. Maybe something that resembles Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back. I have often been privy to conversations that start with, “When I get to heaven, the first thing I’m gonna do is…” This infinite speculation sparks a single question for me. If heaven is filled with all this cool stuff, would we care or notice if God was not there?
If Christians are so sure about what heaven is, and we’re so sure how to get there, why not just drink the Koolaid? Spare ourselves the pain and heartache of a cruel world? I know this sounds cynical, but perfection beats out imperfection all day, right? The most common response to this argument has to be the great commission. The part of the Bible where Jesus tells his disciples to go make more disciples. Christians most often interpret this as getting non-believers to accept Jesus as their savior. So now we circle back to warning people about the hell that awaits them.
My purpose for writing this is not for me to explain my views on the afterlife. I’ll keep that to myself for now. However, I think that, if you believe in an afterlife and you believe in God, it is safe for us to categorize heaven and hell each with a distinct characteristic. One being the full presence of God, the other being the absence of God. Let’s apply these definitions to my earlier question. If Heaven is represented as a beautiful and perfect place but God is absent, then it is in fact hell, seeing as God is the overall defining presence.
Taking this approach to the life beyond allows us to reframe our everyday thinking. For a Christian, this means we can truly love God not for what He will do for us, but on a desire to be in relationship with Him. Selflessly.
This thought process can also reshape our view on the world in which we live. If we believe in a living and active God, then we believe we can participate in relationship with Him today. I believe this is what Jesus means in the gospel of Matthew when He says that the Kingdom of Heaven is now. To keep this going, the Great Commission ceases to be about getting people to heaven and becomes teaching people to be in relationship with God himself. Thus inviting people to continue in that relationship.
I believe strongly that our preoccupation with heaven and hell has caused us to forget that what we do here on earth actually matters. We use these beliefs to justify our actions and to shape our views on the characteristics of the Divine. Please don’t misread me though, I believe the speculation and study of a life beyond ours is meaningful and important. It has brought hope to a great many individuals. But I think it has taken precedence over simple instructions by Jesus such as loving our neighbor as ourselves. Personally, my hope is that I would still be a follower of Jesus if there is no afterlife at all.
To bring it back to Truman, his motives seem very similar in my view. Leaving the dome and the life he was born into, Truman must have been filled with great anxiety and fear. Ed Harris was right about one thing. The world he created for Truman was perfect and predictable. Free of many of the fears and troubles we have as humans. But if it meant being apart from his true love, for Truman that life was not meaningful. By stepping through that door, he is taking an awful amount of risk to be with her. His love supersedes his fear. Maybe we should stop worrying so much about the ending, and be in the present for a bit.