I sat through a lot of church services as a kid. A LOT. And even in my most fervent phases of drinking the Christian cool-aide, it was always a grueling experience. I would show up with all due good intention, but the minute the drone of the priest’s voice begins, I either nod off or begin to fidget. The words of the sermon would wash over everyone like a grey wave.
But occasionally, bits of the sermon would worm their way into my conscious mind and my internal philosophical discourse. Like little seeds of ideas sprouting in my imagination. One such seed was this bit about a camel passing through the eye of a needle.
The bible verse goes like this:
Jesus said to his disciples, “Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
As the sermon goes, on the one hand, this statement is a hyperbolic absurdity – common slang back in the day for saying that something is impossible. Ain’t no camel ever gonna pass though no itty bitty eye of a needle. The priest begins to unpack a message about surrender and humility before God. “The Lord says that the possession of riches prevents the owner from following Him, and endangers his eternal salvation.”
(Quoted from some website full of canned sermons)
This becomes a commentary about the superficial values of the world, about how we spend all our time and energy striving after Stuff and Things when what we should really be spending our energy on is Serving God and having good family relationships and community.
Alternately, the priest may talk about the doctrinal supposition that there was a gate in the wall of the city of Jerusalem named “the eye of the needle”. A back door. A small, carefully guarded back door opening, just barely big enough for a camel to squeeze through. A rich man attempting to enter the city after sunset would have only this one option for entering the city, otherwise risk camping outside the city walls for the night. It would be necessary for the camels to be unpacked, and the goods and possessions to be handed through the gate piece by piece, and then re-pack the camels to carry all the stuff to the actual house that the person is going to. That’s a lot of extra work. By this example, Jesus is not saying that it’s impossible for rich folks to get into heaven… it’s just more work for them, cause they’re gonna have to unpack all their stuff to get down to the core of who they’ve been and what they’ve done.
Right about here, there is a strong metaphor to be made about standing naked before God, more to be said about surrender and humility and the like. But I like to take this metaphor several steps further into metaphysics…
The Eye of the Needle is a singularity. A black hole. What happens to things as they pass through a black hole? How could a camel pass through the eye of a needle? Piece by piece, that’s how. As objects are pulled into the gravity of a black hole, they are pulled apart, molecule by molecule, into a linear string.
A gnostic interpretation of Jesus’ teachings focuses on this statements from the Gospel of Thomas:
Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the (Father’s) kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father’s) kingdom is within you and it is outside you.
When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”
From this statement, the act of “entering into the kingdom of heaven” has nothing to do with death and the afterlife, but rather with a transformation of spirit that happens within a person’s own soul. And looking back at the “eye of the needle” statement, we can see some of the mechanism for how this transformation happens: one piece at a time. With humility and surrender. To be completely undone, to be dis-assembled into one’s component parts, passed through a singularity and enter into a new dimension – a new way of existing in the world – to be re-assembled as a new being. To be reborn.
There is death, just as death is an integral, interwoven part of life. We die a thousand tiny deaths as we choose one path and not another. We choose to participate in one reality and not another. To “enter into the kingdom of heaven” is to take full responsibility for creating our reality around us, and to take full responsibility for the lives we live. This life, this world, this existence, this is it.
By this reasoning, Hell also exists as an energetic reality that one experiences here on earth, in this life. Hell is an experience that we create. And just like the characters in CS Lewis’s “The Great Divorce,” we all individually choose to live a life of love and connection and communion, or to live a life of isolation, separation, loneliness.
As a more gnostic interpretation of the common statement, “ye have only to ask for forgiveness and ye shall receive it” [a very liberal paraphrasing of Jesus’ words to one of the thieves he was crucified with]… the decision of whether to live in the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, or to live in Hell on earth, is a choice that we make inside ourselves. Forgiveness, God’s love, salvation, these things are already given to us. They always were, they always have been. We have only to show up. To accept the grace that is ours by birthright.
But therein lies the trick. Because in order for this to work, we have to truly believe that we are worthy. We have to believe it with our entire being. Because the reality we create around us is made up of the things we truly believe, deep down, when no one else is looking.
“If you want to view paradise, there’s nothing to it. Simply look around and view it.”
– Willy Wonka