Hope is one of the most distinctively human and pervasive of all emotions and attitudes. As Samuel Johnson aptly remarked, “The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.” Its pervasive presence, moreover, is an indication of the positive value we place on hope. A life without hope is more than pitiful; indeed, it is worse than desperate. To be without hope is to have no reason whatever to look forward with anticipation, it is to be bereft of any prospect of joy and satisfaction. The worst possible state for a human being is captured in Dante's most famous line from his inscription over the gates of hell: “Abandon every hope, who enter here.”
Hope is hardly an unmixed good, however. The very fact that hope is such a pervasive dimension of human experience is a profoundly telling indicator that all is not well. In brief, hope exposes the fact that our inveterate desire to be fully happy is far from being satisfied. Our desire for happiness and our relentless pursuit of it is as endemic to human experience as breathing, and no less optional for a living rational being, yet the quest for happiness meets at best with sporadic and partial success, despite the ever present efforts to achieve it throughout human history, and the staggering variety of ways in which it has been sought.
In A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942), C.S. Lewis notes that the divine laughter directed at Satan in John Milton's epic poem has offended some readers. Lewis defends the laughter, however, and judges it a mistake to think that Satan should have licence to rant and posture on a cosmic scale without arousing the comic spirit: 'The whole nature of reality would have to be altered in order to give such immunity, and it is not alterable. At that precise point where Satan . . . meets something real, laughter must arise, just as steam must when water meets fire.' This comment portends the central themes in a more popular and widely read book Lewis published four years later, namely, The Great Divorce. Written as a reply to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, Lewis's title encapsulates his essential message that Blake's imagined marriage is doomed from the start by the nature of unalterable reality. The divorce Lewis reckons 'great' is not the tragedy of putting asunder what God has joined together, but rather the futile, and in some ways comic, attempt to marry what cannot possibly be united. He terms it a 'disastrous error' to believe that 'reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable “either - or”', or to imagine 'that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain'.
The doctrines of heaven and hell are climactic components in a dramatic narrative that elevates the meaning and significance of our lives to epic proportions. At the center of this drama is the eternal God, in whose image we were created for the purpose of knowing and loving him. As free actors in this divine drama, we may choose whether or not we accept his will for our lives, with consequences of monumental import. To accept his grace is to participate in the eternal joy and satisfaction that will result when his work of redemption is complete and his will is done on earth, as it is in heaven. To reject his grace is to decline the role God intended for us and thereby to choose for ourselves eternal misery and suffering. There are versions of the doctrines of heaven and hell in religions other than Christianity, but the uniquely Christian picture of God shapes these doctrines in a distinctive way. In particular, the Christian doctrine that the one God exists in three persons gives vivid expression to the claim that God is love in his eternal nature, and created us to share in the loving relationship of the Trinity. The Christian doctrines of the Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection of Jesus reveal the love of God for us and the extent of his desire to be in relationship with us.
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