A parable is told about a man who asked God to show him the difference between heaven and hell. So God led the man to two doors. The first was opened to reveal a room with a large round table. A pot of delicious soup sat in the center of the table, but the people sitting there were like skeletons.
Emaciated and starving, each person held a spoon with a long handle, so long that it was possible to reach the soup, but impossible to return the spoon back to their mouths. God said to the man, “You have seen hell.” The second door was opened, and the setting was exactly as the first one: The same large table, same pot of mouthwatering soup, and the same impossibly long spoons.
The one and only difference was the condition of the guests at the table. They were well-nourished, plump, laughing and talking. The man turned to God: “Lord, if this is heaven, I don’t understand.” God answered, “Heaven requires only only skill, my son. Those in heaven have learned to feed each other, while those in hell think only of themselves.”
I thought of that parable for the first time in a long while when having coffee the other day. It was a local cafe and two men planted themselves at a table next to me. I wasn’t intentionally eavesdropping on their conversation, but they were speaking so loudly and unguardedly, that it was impossible not to hear every word.
They chatted about work, golf, family, and finally settled on the topic of the miserable state of the world. One said, “I wish Jesus would just come back today and get us out of here. Then everybody left behind would have to sort this mess out.” This statement was followed by a near gleeful exchange about God’s coming judgment on the world. It left my coffee and mood a little cold.
It was not so much their eschatology, that is, their beliefs about the end of the world, which chilled me. I have been familiar with their exact system of thought since my childhood, drinking it down with my mother’s milk. No, it was their selfishness that made me shiver.
Theirs was a sort of theological egotism, a religious greed: “I got my ticket to heaven, so to hell with the rest of you.” That’s not heaven; it’s the furthest thing from it. But I suppose it’s a difficult thing to give a damn about the world, or the people in it, when our greatest hope is to escape it or quarantine ourselves off from it.
We must confess and abandon this nefarious self-centeredness of ours, treating faith like a privileged and walled country club, while the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are left scraping for crumbs like a beggar outside the rich man’s gate. Selfishness cannot enrich us. It can only leave us wasted and rawboned, creating a living hell, with no escape to heaven.