Sometimes hospital patients ask me what I believe about the afterlife: who goes where, how the destination's determined, what it's like. I always tell them that I don't know, and that we can't know until we get there (although, like everyone else, I've heard stories.)
I do have theories, though.
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you may have figured out that my theology's often a tad unconventional, or at least takes forms of which many more conservative Christians wouldn't approve. I once reassured a distressed patient, worried about the ultimate destination of a reprobate relative, that God loves everybody. I'm pretty sure this opinion wouldn't be considered heretical in most quarters (even conservative ones), but this particular patient frowned, scowled, glared up at me from the gurney, and snapped, "You're too liberal."
Well, maybe. But I don't and can't believe in a God who shuts people out, which means that I have a really hard time with the concept of hell as maximum-security-prison. Hell as a state of misery in which we trap ourselves and which we carry with us, Milton's "this is hell, nor am I out of it"? Absolutely: been there, done that. Hell as a shame-born compulsion to flee whomever loves us, whether God or other people? Yep; we've all seen that, right? But hell as the eternal, inescapable, x-strikes-and-you're-out corner to which God sends us forever because we've been bad? Doesn't work for me.
So my idea (undoubtedly heretical) is that we all wind up in the same place, and that how we respond to our neighbors determines whether it's heaven or hell for us. This is similar to the anecdote, probably apocryphal, about the Chinese vision of hell as a sumptuous banquet at which the guests are starving, because they've been given six-foot chopsticks and can't feed themselves: heaven's the exact same set-up, except that the guests are feeding each other with the chopsticks, instead of trying to feed themselves.
Last night, it occurred to me that I imagine whatever-comes-next as working more than a little like a good emergency department. Everyone's taken in, regardless of creed, color, attire, or ability to pay; everyone's treated with respect and compassion; everyone's healed and made whole. One of the things I really like about this idea is the vision of the souls in the most pain being first in line for treatment -- every ED has a triage system -- rather than being sent to a corner to writhe in eternal torment.
Of course, as in any ED, there may be patients who walk out AMA, or who become indignant at the idea of those people being treated first -- didn't somebody famous say "the first shall be last?" -- or who refuse to comply with treatment. And for them, maybe this place is hell.
What about staffing, you ask? Well, maybe those who've been made healed and whole joyously volunteer to help heal others in turn. I'm imagining this as a place where the healers love their work and never get tired. (I'm also imagining actual ED staff rolling their eyes at this vision and muttering, "Heaven forbid!")
Okay, so I'm weird. I'd much rather spend four hours volunteering in the ED than trying to make small talk at a cocktail party. (Cocktail parties: instant hell.) But this metaphor makes me happy.
I probably won't be sharing it with patients, though. "Oh, my vision of the afterlife? Actually, it's kinda like where you are now, only with even better pain meds." I don't think most of them would get it, and who can blame them?