Ye cannot in your present state understand eternity...but ye can get some likeness of it if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all their earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on Earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”; little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven; the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,” and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.
I love this theory of Heaven and Hell that expands past our limited understanding of physical locations. When we consider Heaven and Hell to be literal places, we lose an incredible depth of meaning in both. In doing so, we dilute them into a simple reward and punishment system God uses to control our Earthly behavior. We lose the nuance of relationship that has no physical manifestation in pillowy clouds and golden gates. We lose the despairing emptiness of the absence of God in exchange for fire and brimstone. What we are left with is a life where all is meaningless except to finish with more positive points than negative in order to end up in the “good place”. And I have a hard time believing this was God’s intent.
In the beautiful allegory, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes eternity as not only reaching past death, but stretching out before and during our lives as well. Through the grace of God, we rest in the assurance that eternal Heaven means our entire life will be colored in that brightness. So, when you are experiencing sorrow and nothing seems to be going right, know that a Heavenly eternity means that all will be experienced with the full and complete presence of God. For, “even the darkness will not be dark to [God]; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to [God]” (Psalm 139). There is such a deeper sense of hope in this perspective of Heaven. Suffering is no longer a necessary means to earning our way to the “good place.” Rather, it will be but a tiny blip in the expanse of eternity, and we will experience it through a heavenly lens in Communion with the Divine who transforms all darkness to light.