Can you feel the absence of something you don't believe exists?
Over the past few months I’ve been slowly reading Stories of Your Lives and Others by Ted Chiang (it’s the collection that contains the story that became Arrival). Today, I reached Hell is the Absence of God, a story about a world in which the existence of God is established fact and the question that humans face is whether or not they’re going to express devotion - not belief. It’s the story of a man who is not devout, whose devout wife dies and whose soul ascends in to heaven, and who is struggling to work out how he can possibly get to heaven to be reunited with her when he has no inclination to become devout. The best stories make you think and feel. Ted Chiang’s short stories seem to make me think and then feel - and often the feeling is of a punch to the solar plexus leaving me breathless. This was the sucker punch in Hell is the Absence of God:
For most of it inhabitants, Hell is not that different from Earth; its principal punishment is the regret of not having loved God enough when alive, and for many that’s easily endured. For Neil, however, Hell bears no resemblence whatsoever to the mortal plane…. Just as seeing Heaven’s light gave him an awareness of God’s presence in all things in in the mortal plane, so it has made him aware of God’s absence in all things in Hell. Everything Neil sees, hears, or touches causes him distress, and unlike in the mortal plane is pain is not a form of God’s love, but a consequence of His absence.
My brain went into something of a tailspin. I was flying along quite nicely, reading a story and then BAM, the story unexpectedly hit a bundle of my assumptions about heaven and hell. And now here’s me spinning around feeling a little out of control.
Somehow, in some way, through some combination of teaching and reading over the course of my life and the way that met the reality of conversations with people that ended up in the awkward, ’So, do you think I’m going to burn in hell then?’ place I seem to have established some things in my thoughts for myself about heaven and hell. * Heaven isn’t a space bubble or land in the clouds. * I’m fairly solid on the new heaven and the new earth and the belief that in the new creation God’s dwelling place will be among the people (aka, Revelation 21). * I really do not, seriously, have strongly formed ideas about the nature of hell. * In general, I don’t think I think it’s a physical space, and I’m not sure about the possibility of flames if there’s not a physical space, but beyond that…
If I was pushed I would probably have said that hell was being apart from God for all eternity - and that, if I was honest, I don’t quite know what the last call is for making a decision about God and Jesus (in the story, Neil ‘decides’ - effectively - before he dies). However, I realised today that I have absolutely zero idea what that might be like.
As a child, I had all of The Chronicles of Narnia on tape. These are stories I’ve known as long as I’ve known the Bible, stories that shaped me before I understood that they were related to the Christian story that I was learning at church or in doing my ‘bible time’ with my mum. I remember - though I don’t remember how old I was - a moment when I consciously worked out what the Aslan stuff in the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was all about. As a small, The Last Battle was my favourite. It was the tape that stretched first. In particular, I loved the final battle, the end of Narnia and then the new Narnia and the return of all of my very favourite characters, together, in the garden.
I first heard The Last Battle when I was five or six years old. That means that the end of The Last Battle has been shaping my understanding of death and the experience of entering heaven since before my understanding of Christianity went any further than the acceptance of the idea that there was a heaven (good, God there) and a hell (bad, God not there - maybe flamey, but my childhood church was not hung up on flames).
This is the section in which Aslan returns and is dealing with all those who are inside the stable: first with Tirian (who worships), and then with the group of dwarfs who have support
“Aslan,” said Lucy through her tears, “could you - will you - do something for these poor Dwarfs?” “Dearest,” said Aslan, “I will show you both what I can, and what I cannot, do.” He came close to the Dwarfs and gave a low growl: low, but it set all the air shaking. But the Dwarfs said to one another, “Hear that? That’s the gang at the other end of the stable. Trying to frighten us. They do it with a machine of some kind. Don’t take any notice. They won’t take us in again!” … “You see, ” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. But come, children. I have other work to do.”
The others who don’t enter the ‘heaven’ of Aslan’s country, as Narnia comes to an end, look into Aslan’s face and then disappear into his shadow. The narrator explicitly says, “The children never saw them again. I don’t know what became of them.”
The story moves on, and the dwarfs are left where they are, experiencing the world inside the shed as the inside of a shed. What happens to them as everyone else goes ‘further up and further in’ is unclear. But they don’t experience not recognising Aslan as a lack. They don’t believe he’s more than a fairy story. The present they find themselves in is unpleasant, but to them, pretty much everything in their recent life is unpleasant, so really - what’s new? And those who stream into the dark - they’ve looked into Aslan’s face and rejected him, and C.S. Lewis refused to speculate even in fiction on the experience of that.
Chiang puts forward an idea that made me catch my breath: that eternal separation from God once you grasp the reality of God hurts in a way beyond human experience. The move for Neil isn’t from a state of unbelief to belief - it’s one from lack of devotion to devotion - but it is a fundamental change in a human’s relationship with God, at the point of their death.
The books you read as a child shape the way you see the world: what you think is possible, what you think is true. And The Last Battle seems to me to have had a part in shaping what I think eternal separation from God feels like - either it’s a blank, that I don’t really meditate upon, or it isn’t much different from how you’ve lived the rest of your life. The latter is what Chiang puts forward as as the reality of hell in the world of his story for nearly everyone who ends up there. They weren’t devout, they didn’t experience the light of God before they died, and so, hell is business as usual. They’re dwarfs. But in Neil, Chiang has given me someone who experiences the light - or looks into the face of Aslan - and goes to hell, where hell is not disappearing into the darkness and authorial oblivion. And that is a whole lot more of an unnerving proposition to face.