It is interesting how three different things can all at the same time present interesting and challenging notions about the nature of Heaven (and Hell). I have just finished reading both The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and Surface Detail by Iain M Banks. In addition, I have just finished watching Supernatural season 5. In all of these, ideas about the afterlife are very strong, different, and really not entirely in line with Christian orthodoxy.
In all of them there is a sense of Heaven as a construct. In The Lovely Bones it is really a literary device, a construct to tell the story in the way it is told. What we see of “heaven” is also constructed to be a place to hang out until the dead person comes to some sort of resolution. While this is the most traditional view of heaven in some senses, Christian symbology is totally missing – there is no God, no angels, no sense of redemption – really it is a fun place to hang out and from which to check out the world .
In contrast, Supernatural does have angels – although God has gone AWOL. Angels are not kind and loving – they are totally fiery old testament types. Heaven itself is also something of a construct – tailored to the individual, it is a constant re-run of the best moments of your life. While Supernatural engages with traditional Christianity, it does it in a reality where the Archangel Gabriel pretends to be someone else so he can have an affair with Kali, and the other Gods get together to discuss the annoyingness of the Christian apocalypse. This play with ideas where Heaven is never really on your side, even if Hell is definitely against you problematises uncritical religious devotion – even if God does exist, we really do need to question his motives.
Surface Detail pre-supposes a post-Christian universe, but one in which familiar notions of Heaven and Hell persist among varying different cultures. The notion that one will be punished in Hell if one is a wrong-doer is made real as virtual reality technology and devices which allow you to store you soul for “re-vention” have come into being. The truly terrible thing about these Hells is that the hideous tortures that people undergo there are software – created by someone on the outside. In this universe the Heavens are multitudinous – all constructed, mostly without religious overtones. They are places where one’s digital construct goes to live after bodily death – for ever, or until one fades away.
These notions of Heaven and Hell are not entirely post-Christian – Surface Detail provides a pretty clear critique of this aspect of current religions while Supernatural definitely questions and challenges it, interestingly without deviating far from Christian mythology. In fact, in both it is the use of a very literal interpretation of Hell and angels and the like which creates the critique and the questions. What I find particularly interesting is the way that these works are able to utilise the construct of a Heaven and hell without accepting the religiosity which goes with it. Supernatural uses the constructions as primarily as part of its narrative – it isn’t a religious critique first and foremost. Similarly, The Lovely Bones seems to use the notion of Heaven without engaging at all with any Christian (or other religious) iconography at all. Surface Detail uses the ideas to demonstrate their socially constructed role at certain developmental phases of cultures as well as exposing the evil emptiness at the heart of the use of Hell.
Heaven and Hell are constructions, constructions which usually serve a purpose which relates to social control, In these works they are constructions as well – but constructions which serve a narrative purpose and which, in general, manage to reveal their own scaffolding.