The Tree of Life: Heaven and Hell

From the opening scenes of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life:

“The nuns taught us that there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace.  You have to choose which one you will follow.  Grace does not try to please itself.  It accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked……accepts insults and injuries.

Nature only wants to please itself….get others to please it too….likes to lord it over them….to have its own way.  It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it….and love is smiling through all things.

They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.

I will be true to you…….whatever comes”

In the very next scene a telegram arrives with the news that her son is dead, most likely in Vietnam.

The movie is a story about the struggle to understand how a good God can allow cruelty, heartbreak, and loss.  There are several themes in the movie worth thinking about but the one that first struck me was the film’s portrayal of what might be heaven.  Toward the end of the movie we see groups of people moving across a long beach toward some bright destination.  There is a scene that seems to portray a bodily resurrection and the central family is reunited on that beach.  The people are joyful and free.

I asked myself how hell might be portrayed in the same movie.  What type of end befell those who chose the way of nature?

I can imagine an island within sight of the beach from which there is no escape.  Those on the island are eternally separated from their brothers and sisters and ultimately from God, Jesus, Mary, the saints and the angels.  They watch the unimaginable joy of those who know they are home and experience the agony of knowing they will never make it home.  How painful.

I remember being deployed to Iraq and missing Thanksgiving, Christmas, the birth of a daughter, my other daughter’s second year, my older daughters’ lives, my mom who had recently lost my dad……and my wife.  Family gatherings have been my greatest source of joy and I grew deeply sad every time an event passed that I missed.

I was consoled by the knowledge that I would get home and I could see and talk with my family fairly often by computer and phone.  I also had a family of brothers and sisters that I worked and lived with every day.  Loving that military family and our shared mission kept my mind off of the other pain.

I remember when a fellow Catholic Soldier was killed in an airplane crash while deployed, leaving behind a wife and young children.  I wondered what his thoughts must have been as he lost sight of the ground and saw the side of the mountain approaching.  How did his family grieve his loss?  I suspect that eventually their grief subsided and they looked forward with joy to meeting him on the beach.  But what of those who have not experienced that gift of hope?  Are they at all like the people on the isolated island….feeling the pain of being eternally separated from those they loved?

Most of those who have lost loved ones that I have known eventually moved through the stages of grief and found another focus for their lives.  They missed their parent, spouse, or child and still experience bouts of sadness.  I can imagine that it would be more difficult if they had to watch their lost loved one from the island knowing that they would never again connect.  Painful.

I have thought about that movie a great deal since I first watched it.  The lesson for me is to strive, with God’s grace, the Sacraments, and the Holy Spirit, to choose the way of grace…. every moment of every day.

“For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”  (Matthew 7:14)

What a sobering thought.  Why did He tell us this?

We must seek the kingdom above all…….otherwise, the rest has no meaning.


John Moore recently retired after 30 years of Army service.  He is a husband and father of four daughters.  He resides in Overland Park, Kansas where he is a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish and devoted to the Prolife cause.


Avatar photo


John Moore is a retired Soldier, a husband and the father of four daughters. He resides in Overland Park, Kansas where he is a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage