“Grandma, why aren’t you going to heaven?”
I was 11 at the time, and was sitting on the front porch of Grandmother’s small trailer watching the people and cars go by. The smell of lilac and tea rose perfume wafted over from her. White permanented hair glinted in the sunlight. Perfect Oregon summer days demand divine loafing, which my grandmother knew well. Sitting in such a beautiful place with such an enlightened woman gave me the courage to blurt out the question that had haunted me for years.
My conservative religion had taught me that our elect family had it made in the afterlife, while this celestial being next to me was headed elsewhere.
Ironically, my family was falling apart while Grandmother’s home was a safe haven for a young lad. The gross dysfunction at home had me questioning the ideology my father taught us a few years back…
“Having denied the Holy Spirit after having received it,” my father read out of the Mormon scriptures. He looked up at our little family, circled around him. “That means, if you hear the gospel, join the church, and then leave, you’ll be cast into outer darkness.” I nervously swirled my finger in the green-gold shag carpet. Mormon hell sounded horrible to my 8-year-old ears, but Dad was considered wise in the teachings of the church. He continued reading, “These are they who shall go away into the lake of fire and brimstone, with the devil and his angels.”
“What about Grandma?” I piped up.
The descriptions of afterlife “kingdoms” in Mormon theology sound a lot like a Price-Is-Right gameshow, where Door #1 is the excellent prize, and includes things like gold paved streets and rampant polygamy. Doors 2 and 3 are okay, but a big letdown compared to the first. Mormons add in a fourth door, which is no prize at all—eternal suffering, damnation, and utter aloneness in outer darkness.
Door #4 is reserved for those who left the faith. In the Mormon final judgement, rapists and murderers fare better than apostates.
“Well,…” he stammered a little, “since she left the church, then she…”
Mom cut him off. “Well, we don’t really know, that’s for Heavenly Father to decide.”
Dad cleared his throat, “…yes, of course, but we have the scriptures right here and Brother Joseph was clear. That’s what the revelation says.” He quickly moved on to the game part of our Family Home Evening, and the frightening images were dispelled for a time.
When I was a baby, my grandmother had joined the Mormon church for a year, then left. One time I asked her why, and she said, “Oh, I just didn’t agree with Joseph Smith.” I suspected there was more to it, but didn’t enquire further.
Now, she looked over at me with eyebrows raised. “What makes you think I won’t be in heaven?”
“It’s in the scriptures,” I said. “What if I never see you again after you die?”
“The Mormon scriptures you mean?”
She set down her sewing project, smoothed out her floral print dress and took in a deep breath. “There are some wonderful things in your church, but I don’t agree with all of them. God loves everyone exactly the same. Finding heaven is just returning to what’s already inside us. Jesus taught us that.”
She watched me as I puzzled through her words. “What if Satan makes me go to outer darkness too?” I winced a little as I imagined a mean, scary devil, hands on Grandmother’s and my shoulders, escorting our Doomed Dead Souls down to the fiery place of biblical description. Then it dawned on me: at least I’d be with Grandmother. I grinned at the thought. Any place would be brightened by her radiant presence.
“Hell,” she continued, “is forgetting who we are completely. But just remember, Life forgets so it can re-remember, and everyone eventually remembers. Do you see? There’s really nothing to worry about.”
I still wasn’t sure I understood, but her words felt good so I relaxed.
It was some 28 years before I began to understand what Grandmother was trying to tell me. I had finally come to the end of my failed religious career, and was pondering on my recent “Santa Claus” moment. If Mormons were right, I calculated, then at very best 0.02% of humans could cash in for Door #1. The rest of us were not so lucky. Had God really made a huge mistake with over 99% of humanity? Like Santa visiting every chimney in the world in one night, the fantastic odds didn’t seem so plausible.
So why suffering? Why are we here? Where was the Heaven that Grandmother spoke of.
The first time I really re-remembered, I had begun a practice recommended by a friend. “Just start paying attention to your thoughts, how they make you feel, and how actually true or untrue they are.”
Mind Inquiry flipped my world. Like most humans, 98% of my thoughts were prattling, mean, frightened scenarioizing. And most were factually empty. A few were nice.
If most of my chronic thought patterns are anxious, is that why I’m depressed? Isn’t that hell? Could I be creating my own experience?
Who or what is really there when I’m not thinking a thought?
If thoughts are so insubstantial, are past and future a dream? Is there anything other than Here and Now?
After a lot of soul searching honesty, I eventually discovered my Human Condition Glitch—the belief in thoughts. I laughed at the silliness of “hell.”
Would Grandmother go to heaven?
“The Kingdom of God is at hand.” I heard my grandmother quoting from the gospel while her hand reached out and grasped at the air. I suddenly understood that when I knew her in my youth, she was already there—Grandmother had been speaking to me from “Heaven” all along. The easy, bright clarity of childhood flashed before my eyes. A new window reopened on the world, untarnished by all my excessive adulting.
The great teacher, Yeshua of Nazareth lamented, “The Kingdom of Heaven is spread upon the earth but men do not see it.”
This is all there is. Hell is made by us—attachments, aversions, dogmas. Heaven is realized when we stop helling.
How do you hell up your life? Who would you be if you dropped all your stories?
I’d love to hear back from you. Did this story resound with you? What is your experience of Heaven and Hell? Do you fret about whether loved-ones will make it to heaven? What if you didn’t worry?