Carl Hiaasen, in his novels about criminal and cultural mayhem in Florida, offers frequent observations about the physical character and emotional register of American life. The observations are often casual, even fleeting. In Hiaasen's latest book, Basket Case, the narrator at one point says, "From the pancake house I drove directly to the county morgue. The contrast in ambience is not especially striking."
We all know what he means. The communal spaces of the built American environment have undergone a great convergence. Go back a hundred or two hundred years and these various spaces—tavern, courthouse, church, hospital, shop—seem palpably distinct in feeling. Go to the equivalent places now and you will be in the grasp of a single sensibility. The atrium of a Hyatt, the reception area of a law firm, the meeting annex of a church, the viewing parlor at a funeral home—locales such as these have become nearly indistinguishable. The colors and carpeting, the plant life and artwork, all seem to derive from common templates. If there's music, it's the bittersweet sax and candyland jazz that leach from recessed speakers everywhere.
These locales have one other thing in common. They are places where we mark time, cool our heels, hold our horses, keep our shirts on, and otherwise negotiate the transitions between episodes of productive activity. They are the physical embodiment of the state known as limbo—the most prevalent condition of modern life.
In traditional Western conceptions of the afterlife the Big Three permanent destinations have long been heaven, hell, and limbo (purgatory was merely an unpleasantness for transients, the afterlife's O'Hare), with most of the attention being devoted to heaven and hell. In recent years religious leaders have done a significant amount of new thinking about both these places.
Pope John Paul II, for instance, has stated that heaven is not a "physical place among the clouds." The Catholic theologian Richard McBrien, drawing on developments in the natural sciences, has observed, "We are no longer forced to choose between believing either that heaven is a city in the sky somewhere or that it doesn't exist at all. Now we can think of heaven as an alternate state, perhaps as another dimension." Revisionism about heaven may soon extend to Muslims. Islamic martyrs, according to a famous passage in the Koran, can expect a heavenly reward in the form of plenteous virgins. According to an article in The New York Times, new scholarship suggests that this expectation is the result of a serious mistranslation that occurred in antiquity, and that "virgins" should actually read "'white raisins' of crystal clarity."
Hell, too, has undergone a metamorphosis. A couple of years ago the cover of Christianity Today, a prominent evangelical magazine, posed the question "Hell: Annihilation or Eternal Torment?" This may not sound like much of a choice, but the annihilationist view of hell (damnation as nonexistence) actually represents a moderating of the traditional Jonathan Edwards view ("The pit is prepared. The fire is made ready"). The Church of England has formally abandoned the notion of hell as a fiery domain, and so have most Catholic theologians, who along with liberal Protestants now tend to see hell as a state in which "a person suffers from the deprivation of God."
And then there is limbo. The concept of limbo first gained wide appeal in early Christian times, as a humane response to a perceived theological injustice. If entry into heaven required baptism, as Christian doctrine stated, then what fate awaited the souls of innocent people who missed out on baptism through no fault of their own? What about infants who died before baptism? What about virtuous folk outside the Christian world, or anyone who lived before the advent of Christianity—including revered figures among the Israelites, such as Abraham and Moses? Was hell the only option?