Heaven and Hell are featureless. Stories set in an unending paradise or unremitting torture are not stories at all. They have no arc, no progress, no ending. We relate to stories, it is hard to relate to Heaven or Hell.
So writers create a lobby for eternity. In that lobby stories happen. On a cloud before the Pearly Gates, St Peter provides the punchline to countless jokes. The restless dead walk the earth as ghosts until they are content to move on to their eternal fate.
The last season of LOST features a parallel narrative of the characters’ afterlife. A lobby of heaven where we live odd rearrangements of our former lives: some deeper level of our self-image writ large. Jack died with an unfulfilled need to please his father, he becomes a father, finding redemption in rescuing the relationship with his son. Sawyer’s lifelong ache for justice over the death of his parents is transmuted into a role as a police officer. Daniel becomes the pianist he longed to be, the role his mother prevented him from taking in life. But ultimately this existence is not real, not permanent. The task facing each of us is to remember. Remember our real life, remember our true loves, remember our deaths; to let go of our constructed selves and move on into the light.
In To The Moon, a game, the Lobby is technological not supernatural. At the moment of your death, medical technicians change your memories. They allow you to see your life again but change something. To go back to the moment of your deepest regret, and see how your life could have been otherwise. Or else fulfill your most deep-seated ambition. But ultimately it is a bittersweet prospect, you don’t stop being you, the world doesn’t stop being fickle, resolving one moment of pain can give rise to many more. And above all, your death is still inevitable. Eventually you must move on from your invented life.
David Eagleman’s short fantasy “Metamorphosis” describes the Lobby as of a great hotel or train station. We wait in this Lobby for the ‘third death’, the last moment your name is ever spoken by anyone on earth. The moment you are, forever, forgotten. Then your name is called and you can move on. There are those who linger forever: the famous, of course, but also the unfortunate who has become an anecdote in a tour-guide’s patter. The poignancy of this fantasy is the revelation that, often your name is called and you leave the Lobby, just as the person you’d most like to be reunited with arrives.
In my short story “By Sail”, the Lobby is a sailing dinghy, crewed by several copies of yourself. The shore: the eternal destiny and rest, is just out of sight over the horizon, across a sea littered with rocks and reefs. To sail to your afterlife, you must solve the core conundrum of being human: you must come to understand yourself, to work with yourself, to find peace with yourself. Or else through self-hatred and inner-conflict your will sabotage the endeavor, the boat will be wrecked, and you will suffer a final death.
In CS Lewis’s Great Divorce, Hell is the Lobby of Heaven, a grey and endless suburbia. Anyone can journey from hell to the foothills of heaven. It is a temporary stay, however, they must either return to hell, or move on to the high peaks and strong light of heaven. To do so one must only want to: and Lewis’s characters find plenty of ways to avoid that desire.
Stories explore our hopes and fears. Ultimately the Lobbies we create all speak of one fear. We all fear our failures. We all recognize we have not lived up to our potential. The afterlives we create give us a final chance to act or be different before eternity locks us into its unending stasis.