She leaves the unpacking of that statement to our own imaginations, our own souls. “One of the most interesting metaphors I’ve ever heard for hell is being stuck out on the South Dakota prairie, having to edit phone books interminably. I mean, that’s goofy, but it’s that sort of thing — you find a metaphor that works for you.”
For example, “the whole idea of singing hymns forever in heaven sounds really boring to some people. Now to others, who love hymns and are touched deeply by them, that just sounds like the most wonderful thing. My mother is a little country-church organist, and some of the greatest joy she has now is to go up and play hymns at the old folks’ home in this little town in North Dakota. For her, that image of singing with the angels is a beautiful, blissful image.
“I don’t have to have a picture to [think of heaven]. This is just what I trust it is. There are times when our faith, our experience of God, our experience of the world is just so whole and so good… Now, most people don’t stay at that level, but everybody has some of those experiences. Otherwise, I don’t think they’d stay a person of that particular faith. ‘Where is it? How will we not be bored?’ Those kinds of things really aren’t questions.”
The Bible, however, does not leave us entirely lost in the metaphorical woods. “Jesus, at one point, talked about Abraham and Isaac and Jacob being there, so that says that there’s a continuity of personality. It’s not just that I’m some blob of light in the midst of light. There’s an integrity to our personhood. We’re personal, we’re in relationship with others.… The historic Christian understanding is of a personal relationship…and that our relationships on earth matter. God has commanded that we take care of one another.”
The notion of personal relationship, though part of Espeseth’s doctrine of the integrity of the body and the integrity of each individual life, can overshadow the central point of heaven. Some people “understand it almost solely in personal terms. I know that’s an enormous comfort. I have a cousin who, when my father died, said, ‘Oh, I know that Mom and Dad are having coffee in heaven.’ I didn’t say anything. She looked at me and said, ‘You don’t believe that yet, do you?’ I said, ‘Well, that’s not an image I have.’
“But what I don’t hear people talking about is life with God. They talk about how neat it will be to have coffee again with that person, and not that that isn’t part of it, but it’s not the whole.” The concept of life with God “could enrich somebody’s experience, because it makes us realize that you don’t have to wait until heaven to be in relationship with God. We already have that relationship now, and it will just be greater. I believe we could make it more real now.”
Getting there is a matter of faith. “We are justified by faith through grace. Not by works. That’s the Lutheran passion. That’s our history. Medieval Catholicism had gotten into a position where they were telling people that there were hierarchies and that they could earn their way and so forth. Luther, in his personal torment over ‘What do I need to do? Have I done enough?’ came across Romans and Galatians — he was a biblical scholar. That ‘God has done all for us in Christ.’ It’s not what we do; it’s a gift of God. Faith is our saying yes to God’s yes to us.”
Espeseth acknowledges that her claim has its complexities: “Is faith required? Is faith a work? That’s an interesting argument that we have.” But over particular considerations, she throws this general principle: “God’s passion is to be in relationship with all of creation. I don’t believe that God is interested in figuring out rules to keep people out of heaven. The only unforgivable sin is denying the Holy Spirit. What does that mean? Rejection of God. But as far as specific sins go, I’m not willing to start a list, because I don’t know where that list ends.”
Time for the extreme case. How about genocide? Is Hitler in hell? “I am not in the position of saying what went on between Adolf Hitler and God in the last moments of Hitler’s life. Was that part of his suicide? Did he understand how wrong he had been? Jesus said to the thief on the cross, ‘Today you will be with Me in paradise.’ ”
Father Harry Neely, a Roman Catholic priest who often says Sunday Mass at Holy Cross Mausoleum, shares Espeseth’s belief that we can make heaven more real now by coming to know God. Neely, white-haired, black-spectacled, and black-robed, speaks quietly and at a measured pace. About our tendency to ignore heaven, he says, “We give ourselves an excuse. We think, ‘Oh, well, we can’t understand it,’ so we just think, ‘It’ll be great.’ But the saints were not like that.”
He tells a story from St. Augustine’s Confessions in which Augustine and his mother Monica, in discussing the life of the Blessed in heaven, actually “touched that unspeakable reality that is beyond experience” and then came back. “After that,” concludes Neely, “Monica had no more interest in life. She just wanted to be there.”
Neely grants an unknowability to heaven. “The apostle Paul says — and this is the quote we think of when you ask the question — ‘The eye has not seen, nor the ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, the things that God has prepared for those who love Him.’ We cannot imagine it.
“But you know, faith gives us the power to invest those words with a meaning that we can’t put into words. I know that God is my lover. I’ve had little whiffs of that, little experiences of that light that is not of this world. I get a sip; I don’t get the full draft. But I know it’s something that I must have. If I don’t, I will be absolutely miserable.”