Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Drawing by a Child - VM - Rudiger Krause

Child’s Drawing: Heaven and Hell

Thoughts on Robert Coles' The Spiritual Life of Children

by Rudiger Krause

Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:3

I praise you, Father, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to little children. Matthew 11:25

For some obscure reason I pulled Coles' book The Spiritual Life of Children (1990) off the shelf in order to re-read it, recalling how much it had meant to me when I first read it years ago. Again I marveled at Robert Coles' wisdom, humility, insight, sensitivity and fine writing as he recounts his conversations with children in North America, Europe and North Africa. Much of the book is comprised of the children's own words. Here is the passage about the drawing above:

“The silence of the drawing session gave way to the silence of a Swedish boy who had finished doing something and was now staring resolutely at an American man who was, for his part, staring at a drawing – and drawing a complete blank.

“It is heaven and hell.” The hint was not enough. “In heaven you're way beyond everything; you're not you anymore – light as a wisp of a cloud or like the wind going through a meadow. In hell it is very intense. You're stuck – you're stuck with yourself and with all that's weighing you down from your life: very tough!”

That commentary having been offered, the boy surveyed his picture and decided to help the viewer. He took a ruler and a pencil, drew a line: “Heaven is here, hell is there. I may have made a mistake just then.” What did he mean? “I made the difference (the distinction) too clear - too final!” He had originally, in fact, let his heaven gradually merge with his hell and then had drawn the pencil line as a teacher does: to teach. He decided to erase the pencil line but had immediate second thoughts: “It is all guessing, so I won't worry!”

Later we talked about his picture, which was utterly abstract, yet with plenty of suggestive immediacy. A boy who had sounded like a skeptic, supremely wedded to the here and now, let crayons create the basis for a spoken theology as sophisticated as it was unpretentious: he saw heaven as the loss of the self into an almost unimaginable lightness and hell as a condition of overbearing self-involvement. Not for this boy devils or angels. Not for him Jesus or Satan. Not for him the Lord in any form – or humanity either, after death.”

What more can I add? Coles and the child have already said all that could possibly be said. But the scriptures cited above make me realize that there is something I can add. We live in troubled times. We may need to find a way to heed Jesus' words to become like children. And it is a book like The Spiritual Life of Children which may just shine a light on that way, a book in which we find the conversations between a wise adult and a series of children with their fervent and earnest questions and imaginings, their wondering, their blend of innocence and wisdom rooted in their hearts.

The drawing Heaven and Hell depicts these two realities side by side rather than up and down, actually touching and not separated by a wide gulf. The contrast is established primarily through the use of colour – bright, warm colours for heaven, dark ones for hell. Yet warm colours are also used to depict fire in the center of hell. There is more definition to the hell side of the drawing, with the ladder or staircase and other more expressionistic details.

Notions of heaven and hell are rooted in scripture, yet not in any clear-cut, definitive manner. Much of what has traditionally been thought, believed and imagined (expressed for example in Dante's Divine Comedy) is not scriptural at all. We live in times when many are searching for ways to overcome simplistic and dangerous oppositional thinking. A pictorial representation like this child's drawing helps me to remember and contemplate that the line between good and evil, between heaven and hell, runs through each human heart, including my own.


Drawing by Martin from Stockholm, published in Robert Coles, The Spiritual Life of Children, A Peter Davison Book, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1990.

Rudiger Krause is a father and grandfather, retired teacher and "eternal" student, amateur artist, gardener and activist who lives simply in Vancouver, Canada.

ArtWay Visual Meditation November 25, 2018