What The Hell? (Part 1)

“No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,” {Mr. Brocklehurst} began, “especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?”

“They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer.

“And what is hell? Can you tell me that?”

“A pit full of fire.”

“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there forever?”

“No, sir.”

“What must you do to avoid it?”

I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: “I must keep in good health and not die.”

Jane Eyre, Chapter Four

It’s the skeleton in the closet of evangelical Christianity, the outer darkness bordering the hallowed gates, the topic we’d rather not think about or talk about, thank you very much, unless someone decides to express doubts or questions about it, and then it’s a central pillar, an untouchable doctrine, to be defended with bared teeth and unsheathed claws, giving no quarter and no mercy.

What (the) hell am I getting myself into?

When I was a kid we had a set of cassette tapes that were a dramatization of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I was pretty young– like, 9 or 10– and listening to it of my own accord (why I don’t know– maybe we hadn’t gotten our collection of Adventures in Odyssey albums yet? The production quality was pretty atrocious by today’s standards, but I wasn’t picky at that age.) At one point in the story, the main character, Christian, and his companion, Hopeful, are allowed to look into a door in the side of a hill in the Delectable Mountains. This, according to their guide, is called a by-way to Hell, “a way that hypocrites go in at.” There was an auditory glimpse of hell– it involved tribal-sounding drums and distant incoherent yelling. Not exactly The Exorcist, but I remember feeling distinctly spooked.

One Adventures in Odyssey episode included a story told by Mr. Whittaker about two boys who grew up in the same neighborhood. One was the typical bad kid, got involved in bullying, stealing, hanging out with the wrong crowd, and when he died he went to hell. The other was a good kid, went to church, always wanted to do the right thing, became a successful politician helping people, and then when he was killed in a car crash he found himself in hell because he never trusted Jesus. I remember that the devil had a British accent. The audio faded with the good kid yelling, “Noooo!” as the British-accented devil laughed in the background.

A Christmas Carol was another part of my piecemeal education on hell. Each Christmas we usually watched the 1984 version with George C. Scott as Scrooge. That one isn’t particularly frightening– their special effects budget was evidently not the highest, so the damned ghost of Jacob Marley looks rather like a washed-out Ursula from The Little Mermaid. But one year my family went to a theatrical production of A Christmas Carol given by a local church. Jacob Marley was played as a tormented, wailing man suffused in a fiery red light, a representation scary enough to imprint itself on my youthful psyche and add to the haunted closet in the back room of my spiritual brain.

Because it doesn’t get more hellish than Mordor, right?                                                                  Artwork by Rod Mendez, http://fav.me/d2ytqt2

I can’t remember ever being taught specifically about hell, either in a church setting or at home. We were reformed Presbyterians, not southern Baptists; we didn’t have hell-fire-and-damnation pastors, and though we talked a lot about salvation and Jesus saving us, what he was saving us from was shrouded in gloom and euphemism. We talked about “the lost”, all those people out there who either didn’t know about Jesus or didn’t like him, but we didn’t really talk about their destination– we all knew they were hell-bound, but we didn’t think it was polite to mention it.

I do remember being wracked with guilt in my nine-year-old self over the eternal destiny of the neighbor kids we played with, who didn’t go to church and sometimes said, “Oh my god” and had parents who smoked cigarettes. I internalized my Sunday school lessons about “witnessing to your friends” and felt very deeply my failure to have the courage to talk about Jesus when we were running around outside playing hide-and-seek. Why couldn’t I talk about it? On the Adventures in Odyssey episodes, leading people to Jesus was a piece of cake– and then everyone was crying and hugging and full of rapturous radiance afterwards. But my neighbors would go to hell and it would be my fault.

In high school my engagement with hell became more literary. I read Dante’s Inferno and parts of Paradise Lost. I was discovering C.S. Lewis’s adult works, and read The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters of my own volition. I also learned a lot of church history, and at some point that included reading Jonathan Edward’s sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I was engaging more intellectually with the tenets of Reformed faith, and though I still felt guilt at my deep-seated reluctance to go up to strangers and tell them why they needed Jesus, this was softened by the reformed belief that salvation is 100% God’s work. Nobody was going to hell because of my failures; it was up to God to decide who to keep and who to toss.

I don’t think that anyone ever told me that the only option for people who didn’t know/accept Jesus was burning in torment for all eternity. I think it was just another of those things I absorbed. Anything else was Unbiblical. And anything that got slapped with the Unbiblical label might as well have had the nuclear waste symbol on it. You just didn’t go there.

I’ve decided to go there.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t call myself a Christian and yet continue to ignore hell. That haunted closet in the back room of my spiritual life? I’m flinging open the door and staring down the ghosts. I have commenced my knock-down drag-out fight with hell.

I’m tired of Do Not Enter signs on my faith. I’m tired of silence and skirting and pat answers. I’m tired of hell being the one thing that we must not doubt, and yet there is no thrashing out of the full implications of what hell means. If you call yourself a Christian, then hell matters– it matters enough to wrestle with, to question, to test.

I will be asking all the questions, and listening to all the voices. Nothing and nobody is off-limits. If God is real, and if God loves me, then I don’t believe he’s threatened by this. I believe that Truth is meant to be tested and explored; it’s not a barbed-wire fence to keep us out, but an ocean inviting us into the waves. So I’m diving in.

More than anything else I want to start conversations– with ourselves, and with each other. This isn’t something that we can afford to ignore. Hell isn’t a domain only for the experts, a topic off-limits to anybody but theologians in their ivory towers. We want to push hell away towards eternity, but what you and I believe about hell matters in the here and now, influencing how we see God, how we treat our neighbor, how we view the world we live in, how we think about heaven and salvation. This is not “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.” Hell goes to the core of our lives.

I believe I have one surety, who is Jesus. Maybe you’re not sure of him, or maybe you want nothing to do with him (perhaps because you’ve been threatened with hell.) I welcome you here. I am not trying to sell you anything, nor threaten you with anything. I hope that whatever your story, whatever your beliefs, you will keep reading.  I want to hear your thoughts and stories. I want to form a safe space for the expression of questions, doubts, and wrestling. If hell is something you’d rather not think about, I hope you’ll press into that discomfort and ask why. If you, like me, have been haunted by that dark closet, then I invite you to join me in flinging open the door. We have nothing to fear from shining light into the darkness.

So come join me for one hell of a ride!

2 thoughts on “What The Hell? (Part 1)

  1. I am so glad you’re diving into all of this, it can be such a lonely, confusing, painful thing to muddle through alone. I’m eager to learn from you and your other readers in the posts to come!


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