The Great In-Between

Theologians have revised our notions of heaven and hell. But one other destination deserves attention

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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?

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Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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