HELL. As a child growing up there weren’t too many words that could incite so much fear into my little body. I had never seen the place before, but the grown-ups at church made sure I knew what it looked like. A burning lake of fire. Gnashing of teeth. Yelling. Torture. Thirst. Devil with a pitchfork…optional. It was made perfectly clear I could end up burning for eternity next to Jeffrey Dahmer or Hitler for simply telling one too many lies or not being a Christian. Hearing the call to be saved each Sunday made it even tougher. No I didn’t know where I would go if I walked out of church right now and got hit by a bus. I also wasn’t sure what would happen if I actually died before I wake or woke. You get the point. After seeing the seventies version of A Thief in the Night I knew heaven was where it was at. More than twenty years later, I remember the refrain from I Wish We’d All Been Ready which was kind of like the theme song to this eschatological horror movie. Skip to 0:54 seconds to hear the refrain that still haunts me: “There’s no time to change your mind, the son has come and you’ve been left behind.” It is a Christian song, but it scares me still. Hell was the place you did not want to go and it was one size fits all.
However, very few things are one size fits all except maybe pashminas and ugly hats. As I grew older, it became difficult to continue to live within the binaries of a conceptualized hell I was forced to believe in as an attempt to get me to “act right.” I needed to reimagine heaven, hell and who got to go. Maybe it was not one size fits all. My interest was further piqued when I read a book called Love Wins, by Rob Bell. While I do not remember it line for line, I do know it had an impact that stayed with me.
Earlier this year an article popped up in my Facebook feed that sought to describe what hell would be like based on your Myers-Brigg personality type. As an INTJ, I’m basically an OCD introvert who rather plan, think about the future and watch Netflix with my fish than hang out and party. Not totally inaccurate. Hell for me, according to the article, is whenever I open my mouth to say something intelligent, something completely idiotic comes out instead. That sounds awful. As the one who will correct a typo in a social media post or text message I HATE to sound stupid. I’m obsessed with vocabulary. Onomatopoeia. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. See how smart I am? While not meant to be serious, it does make one wonder. If we all are created as unique individuals with different life experiences could hell or the notion of hell be more individualized?
Recently, a TV show and movie I saw brought this back to mind. The first was this scene from Greenleaf (which I love). Pastor Greenleaf gets a call from his brother-in-law Mac who is in jail awaiting trial for sexually assaulting underage women in the church.
Mac: Do you think there is a hell? Someplace where people get punished for all eternity?
Pastor: I’ve never been much for this God of punishment. I know the Bible says it’s a fact, but I’ve never seen any evidence of it myself. Most sin, to me, seems like it brings its own suitcase of pain when it walks through the door. That being said, I think when we die Mac, we go immediately and completely into the pure presence and love of God. And for some of us, depending on what we’ve done, to discern in that moment how much damage we did, how good it could’ve been otherwise… that’s going to feel like hell.
Those lines struck a cord in me. One, because it encompassed the idea that there is in fact nothing that can separate us from the love of God BUT it also does not exonerate us from the choices we have made that have negatively impacted ourselves and others. It made hell not only some transcendent otherworldly place we go to when we die, but also something so existential, so inward, so simple and so human. A character in the movie 13 Hours quotes this line from mythologist Joseph Campbell: “All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells are within you.” Could hell be something experienced even before death?
After promising to sell all my earthly possessions, I got the opportunity to see The Book of Mormon on Broadway. Ok it was a date sponsored by my fiancé and it was awesomely offensive.
I laughed and cringed at the same time. It did what it should. Got people talking. Would you expect less from the creators of South Park? In short, two Mormons are sent on their two year missions trip to Uganda. Upon arrival, the Ugandans sing a song called Hasa Diga Eebowai. On its face it seems like a happy song, but when interpreted (for the show) it essentially means forget God (much more vulgarly stated). I was offended at first. Then I began to think. These folks felt as if they were in hell on earth, because it appeared as if God had not intervened on their behalves in the midst of disease, poverty, murder, rape, etc. While not as overt, I knew people who had abandoned God, because they felt God had abandoned them. Hell for them was their present. It was not a scary unearthly place you go to if you are immoral and corrupt. It was their everyday reality and that reality cared little about how “good” you were.
As satiric as the Myers-Brigg article or the song may be, it does make you wonder if the construct of hell, or heaven, is malleable. Who we are and what we do may not only determine where we go, but what it looks like when we get there. In short, our very acts are creating our future spaces. While I have no clue what an after death/transcendental heaven or hell looks like I do know what it’s like to experience personal heaven or hell in this life. Moments so blissful there seemed nothing better or so low hell didn’t seem scary, because I was living it.
This is less comforting to people. If hell can be now and my actions may or may not play a role in me experiencing it, what does that mean? For those whose moral purity hinges on this concept it means a lot. It is just as easy to find a hell to put people in as it is to find a way to make ourselves exempt from it. When it comes to heaven we want to be selective. Some folks have to “not” go. Otherwise, how can you justify all these good things you did? If it is not action based and everyone gets to go then what makes it so special?
Perhaps we are missing the point. What if we stopped focusing on who is going where and be intentional about not only creating heaven for ourselves and others, but not making anyone else’s life a living hell? Maybe that is the lesson. To stop being so wrapped up in where we go after we die and get to living the best life we can now.