On Earth as it is in Hell
The Challenge of Social Distancing, and How To Upend its Curse
There’s something I’ve been thinking about lately regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not a medical or economic thought. No, it’s way more important than that. This thought has deep theological undertones to it. Undertones that make me shudder and fear. With notes of darkness and sadness. The thought is simply this: Social distancing is the closest, I hope, we ever get to Hell.
I trust I have your attention.
Down deep, something feels wrong in us as we are distancing from society, even if it’s for a noble purpose like flattening the curve and protecting those who are vulnerable to the coronavirus. We ought to pay attention to the skewed sense in our souls when we hunker down for the next few days or weeks. Because that sense has more to tell us about eternal realities than we may initially think.
The God Who Moves Toward
One of the grand themes of God is his desire to move toward. God moves toward himself in the Trinity. Out of the abundance of his own community he creates. Each successive day of the Creation story in Genesis 1 seems to move toward the creation of humankind. In fact, in Genesis 2, the only thing that isn’t good is the fact that man is alone. So God causes Adam to sleep, he creates Eve, and then he presents her to him and the two move toward one another in marriage and family.
Ah, but what about after they sin? Does God not separate us from himself? Surprisingly, no. In fact, God approaches Adam in the Garden in one of the most blatant attempts to move toward us. Ironically, it’s Adam and Eve who create social distance and move away from one another.
Sin separates. That’s always been true and will always be true. It’s such a First Principle of life that C.S. Lewis in his classic work, The Great Divorce, suggests that Hell itself is a place of ultimate separation, not just between humankind and God, but between us and each other. Lewis comedically portrays series of small disputes between neighbors as leading people to move away from the center of town out into the fray, further and further apart from one another, where each person can be fully contented in their isolation with nobody to bother them or infringe upon their rights and freedoms. In this way, Hell is ultimate isolation.
The opposite is true of Heaven, and that’s because the opposite is true of God. God is not one to move away from relationship, rather He moves toward others. Therefore Heaven is a place of peace and rest, not of disputes and weariness. Heaven is a place of comfort, not pain. Heaven is a place of unity, not division.
In John 14, Jesus depicts Heaven as a mansion with many rooms where we will all be together. In other portions of the New Testament, Heaven is a wedding celebration, where the guests eat in close proximity and dance hand in hand and people from all walks of life and all corners of the earth and all eras of history are crowded into a beautiful ceremony.
At the center of the heavenly mansion and at the center of the heavenly feast is one person, Jesus Christ. He is theologically the God-Man, the one who has moved from heaven to earth to come to us. Jesus is the incarnate truth that God moves toward us, not away from us. Even in his ascension, Jesus told his followers that he would go, prepare a place for us, and then come again that we may be with him (John 14:3).
Hell is a place where we worship ourselves by ourselves. Heaven is the place where we worship Jesus Christ with the whole family of faith. One is socially distant in fear. The other is perfect community, eternal family, moving toward one another in love.
Bringing Heaven To Our Socially Distant Earth
While we are in a moment of pandemic action, where extreme measures are necessary to halt the physical spread of a dangerous virus that has the power to upend life itself, we must be aware of the effects of social distancing upon our soul. This is a paradoxical moment where what is required for our physical health is quite detrimental to our spiritual health.
One of the ways we guard the health of our souls is by staying in constant communion (read: “community”) with God in prayer. I’m reminded of the model prayer Jesus gave to the disciples when he taught us how to pray, “Our Father, in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
The implication of this prayer is that we are praying it together. At the risk of oversimplifying our faith, one of the ways heaven touches earth is when we live in community with one another and move toward God together. Your soul was not made for social distancing. So while we increase the physical distance, we must at the same time decrease our spiritual distance from one another.
Which means now more than ever we need to proactively choose to use technology beyond just our entertainment, but rather for our spiritual enrichment. Build rhythms into your day that set your mind, heart, and soul upon the gospel. While we are sheltering in place, do not suspend your faith. Perhaps now more than ever is the perfect opportunity to read the Bible together with those who are physically present in your home. Even more, we ought to exploit the extreme connectivity we have in this generation and saturate ourselves with the gospel that God has come near to us! While online church is a poor substitute for whole-life fellowship, it’s the greatest opportunity we have in this season of life to push back darkness, to find deliverance from our enemies, and to see “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
Yes, for every Zoom chat, live-streamed service, podcast recording, Facebook post, or Instagram video that I see, my heart yearns even more for heaven. But my soul feels less of Hell. And only God can do that. Only God can move toward us, even when we need to move further away from one another.