Of the hundreds of books I read as a girl there are only a handful that still sit on my shelves: Lord of the Rings, The Glass Bead Game, some of the Narnia books and this book: Jane Eyre. It is, of course, a love story. Through TV and film adaptations almost everyone knows the story: The young orphan girl who becomes a governess and falls in love with her employer. But I will leave the reader of this blog to discover that for themselves because I want to look at another aspect of this book. Hidden in its 500 or so pages are some extraordinary ideas about heaven and hell.
But first: Why talk about Heaven and Hell? Well, I said in an earlier blog that no-one wants to talk about miracles but everyone wants to talk about what happens after you die. Even people who have no intention of ever stepping foot in a church are thinking about it. (The most bizarre question I had recently was about what happens to battery chickens after they are killed. And no, I don’t know the answer). Charlotte Bronte lays bare a lot of the mythology surrounding this and, I think, gives us a better way to consider this whole question.
The book starts with Jane as a young girl being brought up by her Aunt, who dislikes her. She is introduced to the patron of a school, Mr Brocklehurst, and Aunt Reed gives him some advice:
I should be glad if the superintendent and teachers were requested to keep a strict eye on her, and above all, to guard against her worst fault, a tendency to deceit. I mention this in your hearing, Jane, that you may not attempt to impose on Mr Brocklehurst’
Well might I dread (thinks Jane), well might I dislike Mrs Reed; for it was her nature to wound me cruelly: never was I happy in her presence. However carefully I obeyed, however strenuously I strove to please her, my efforts were still repulsed, and repaid by such sentences as the above. Now uttered before a stranger, the accusation cut me to the heart: I dimly perceived that she was already obliterating hope from the new phase of existence which she destined me to enter. I felt, though I could not have expressed the feeling, that she was sowing aversion and unkindness along my future path: I saw myself transformed.. into an artful noxious child and what could I do to remedy the injury?…
‘Deceit is, indeed a sad fault in a child.’ said Mr Brocklehurst; ‘it is akin to falsehood, and all liars will have their portion in the lake burning with fire and brimstone’
So here is my quick image of the lake of fire. This is really Hell as a threat. If you don’t do what you are supposed to do then this is what will happen to you! I’m not convinced. Something in me says that Hell would not be that obvious.
But hidden in this passage is another kind of hell, a much more immediate one. I drew the picture below for a study we did about a year ago on the parable of the Sower. The parable is about the word of God. It falls on different sorts of ground, and some falls among weeds and thorns. In Matthew 13 Jesus explains this:
22 “The seed cast in the weeds is the person who hears the kingdom news, but weeds of worry and illusions about getting more and wanting everything under the sun strangle what was heard, and nothing comes of it.
Jane, in her childish way, is internally voicing a fear that many of us have: That we will be unable to escape our past, that sins and injustices, real or imagined, will follow us wherever we go. That the small green shoots of a new life, a new start, will be strangled by what we have brought with us from our life before. Recently I said that I did not believe in Hell. ‘What do you mean by Hell?’ I was asked. ‘A sort of cartoon Hell with fire and brimstone’, I answered. But I do believe in the kind of Hell that Jane imagines, a hovering of fear over everything we do.
And for a while, after she goes to school, this fear seems to be realised but two people come into her life who change her views. The first is a kindly teacher called Miss Temple. The second is a slightly older girl called Helen Burns.
Helen seems to have an almost supernatural ability to put up with difficulties and forgive those around her. She is constantly accused and punished for the slightest transgressions, yet accepts this without complaint. As Jane gets to know her one thing is clear. Helen is dying. A fever breaks out in the school she attends but Helen is not dying of Typhus, she is dying of consumption and she has known for a long time. In the middle of the night Jane wakes up and feels that she must go and visit Helen. As it is a cold night she gets into bed with her to keep warm. Then they have the following conversation:
“I am very happy, Jane; and when you hear that I am dead, you must be sure and not grieve: there is nothing to grieve about. We all must die one day, and the illness which is removing me is not painful; it is gentle and gradual: my mind is at rest… By dying young, I shall escape great sufferings. I had not qualities or talents to make my way very well in the world: I should have been continually at fault.’
‘But where are you going to, Helen? Can you see? Do you know?’
‘I believe; I have faith: I am going to God.’
‘Where is God? What is God?’
‘My Maker and yours who will never destroy what he has created. I rely implicitly on His power, and confide wholly in His goodness: I count the hours till that eventful one arrives which shall restore me to Him, reveal Him to me.’
‘You are sure, then, Helen, that there is such a place as heaven; and that our souls can get to it when we die?’
‘I am sure that there is a future state; I believe God is good; I can resign my immortal part to Him without any misgiving. God is my father; God is my friend; I love him; I believe he loves me.’
‘And shall I see you again, Helen, when I die?’
‘You will come again to the same region of happiness: be received by the same mighty universal Parent, no doubt, dear Jane.’
There seems little need to comment further. If we trust God then we must trust him to look after us after we die. We do not know, cannot know and, perhaps, should not know exactly what heaven will be like. If I live out an average lifespan then I have about another 25 years on this earth and I don’t feel any need to rush towards my end. After all, with all its difficulties and challenges, God has put me here. I shouldn’t throw it away. But, I’m not afraid of death, or only in the way that we are afraid of anything new that cannot be altered.
Jesus has very little to say about it. Only when he is nearing his end he says (John Ch 14 – The Message):
‘Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready. I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live.’
But I don’t think that God’s home will be like a large hotel with a discreet manager catering for our every whim. He will be more like a generous host, present in everything, reaching out to all his guests. And there lies the problem. Because, what happens if you have spent your whole life sneering at Him, thinking you are better than Him, or doing your very best to ignore His existence? What happens if you are so ashamed of who you are that you have tried to only show your ‘best’ side to him? Jesus tells a few stories about God inviting people to a feast and all the good, respectable people giving their excuses and not turning up. These same good, respectable people who couldn’t bear to be with God while they were alive will suddenly be face to face with him. Its going to be pretty uncomfortable to be living in his home, in his presence every minute of every day.
I’m sure I will return to this theme but, to complete Charlotte Bronte’s vision of Hell and Heaven, we must speed forward in the book to Jane as an adult. She is living with a family of two sisters and a brother. She has discovered that this family are actually her cousins. But rather than settling down to a comfortable life with them she is presented with a dilemma: Should she marry her cousin and go with him to be a missionary in India?
St John Eyre Rivers must be one of the most interesting characters in 19th Century fiction. He is intensely religious but not spiritual. He appears to be more concerned with those on the other side of the world more than the people around him. He wants to do good but is prepared to destroy Jane, both physically and emotionally, in the process. As the daughter of a clergyman Charlotte Bronte must have known people like this. Indeed, to me, this has the ring of truth. There are many people, inside and outside the Church, who feel that the best way to do good in the world is to leave the world they know and enter another. Maybe they are right for themselves but ,like Jane, I feel rather uncertain about this. But I know two things: Anywhere in the world there is good to be done (however outwardly comfortable it seems) and to do good without wanting to, without Joy, is a lifeless and almost cruel thing. He is described thus:
… he seemed of a reserved, an abstracted, and even of a brooding nature. Zealous in his ministerial labours, blameless in his life and habits, he yet did not appear to enjoy that mental serenity, that inward content, which should be the reward of every sincere Christian and practical philanthropist.
For him Heaven can only be reached through Hell. He will be given his ‘reward’ only if he first denies himself every softer human quality. You have to ask yourself what kind of room Jesus will be preparing for him. Maybe a bare monastery cell, if he’s lucky!
There is a lot of nonsense talked about life after death and I hope I’m not going to add to that. But on the other hand there seems no harm in playing around with ideas on this topic, just as long as we don’t think we know anything for certain. But first I have a personal admission to make: I know a lot about computer systems. Not the sort of systems that run the laptop I’m writing this blog on, or the WordPress software that is publishing it out to the net but big corporate database systems. And very strange things they are. For a start they are never switched off. Also, the system the office users see is completely different from the system I see, which consists largely of patterns of data. And there are other people, who look after the low level functioning of the database and servers who see yet another side which is mostly composed of processes which move the data from one place to another. So, like a living thing the whole system is constantly changing and working, even when no-one is using it. Even when it is ‘down’ the core of it is still functioning.
So, why does this matter to our thinking about life and death? Well, because last week we copied this system from one physical computer to another. We took an image of the essence of the system and put it in a file. This image couldn’t do anything, it was essentially dead. We then copied this into a working system which ran exactly like the one we had copied it from, but it was on a different physical computer, in a different building. For the computer system this was quite a traumatic process. It was unable to communicate with the outside world for a couple of days. For a short while it had no data at all.
Metaphors are dangerous things and I don’t want to push this too far but it seems to me that (from the clues in the bible) this copying process is a lot like what happens when we die. Luke Chapter 20 says:
34 Jesus replied, ‘The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”.[a]38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.’
So, we will have a new type of body, be ‘like the Angels’. The only account we have of this kind of body is that of Jesus himself. When he came back from the dead he could appear and disappear at will, He was clearly different yet was also ‘himself’. If we are to continue after our own deaths then, however different we are, some essence of ourselves must continue. And just like my computer system that essence can only be transferred at the moment of our death. This means we must be more like Helen Burns than St John Rivers. It is what we are, not what we do that matters, if we are to meet God in his home. One of my favourite Christian songs is ‘Dance’ by the Newsboys. This seems to put it perfectly:
Faith is the substance
Faith is the key
Faith is gonna take us
Where we’re meant to be
So, if we believe, really believe in God; If we trust, really trust in Jesus then we will be changed by Him. Then what we do will always be right because it will come out of who we are. Then it won’t matter if we get to Heaven because we will already be living in the Kingdom of God.
Firstly I want to apologise to anyone who was expecting the next blog to be on ‘Mind and Cosmos’. I will get back to that, but not just yet.
If you have never read ‘Jane Eyre’ (or only been forced to do so at school) then I would really recommend doing this. The book has a lot more in it than any of the film/TV adaptations. For those of you who prefer to listen to your books there are some very good audio versions available.
‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell. Brilliant, controversial and very readable. Surely the rewriting of this theology for our age.
The next post will be on ‘The Rage against God’ by Peter Hitchens, and why England is now a secular Nation.
And finally, If you want to reach me leave me a message here: