Have you ever struggled with the thought of Hell? Has it ever given you nightmares? Kept you up at night? Made you feel guilty about something or other you’ve decided to do with your life? Do you remember what it was like when you first heard about Hell?
For me, running into Hell was a soul-wrenching struggle of childhood. I mean, seriously man, Hell is the scariest thing ever!! And my young mind was excellent at imagining the unspeakable agony of actually BURNING. For all eternity! ….. wow….. like….damn…..who thought up THAT idea?
I have shed tears over this. Lots of them. I remember once, as an 11-year-old who had just “given my heart to Jesus” and was realizing the immense gift of salvation, weeping in my bed, like, full out, snotty-nosed weeping, because I knew that my parents had not given their hearts to Jesus in the way that I was told you had to in order to be “saved”. Neither had my sisters. My grandparents. Any of my friends. I imagined this whole world of people I knew, Burning In Hell For All Eternity. And I wept for them. Of course, I was motivated to be a good little spokesperson for God, and maybe I would be instrumental in “leading people to the Lord”. After all, this is the hope right? That before they die, people will find salvation?
But, even a child’s optimism can’t seriously maintain that all people are going to accept Jesus into their hearts. I mean, come on….Maybe you’ll lead SOME people to the Lord. But the others are Burning In Hell For All Eternity. Even the Bible is pretty clear that the MAJORITY of people won’t answer the call.
I pleaded with God to save them. I even offered, in sincere private prayer (with body-shaking fear) to take their place. I remember crying and crying and crying, staring into the Abyss of Eternal Torment for all these people I knew in school, who I ate lunch with, sang songs with, played games with, laughed with….all of them? Burning In Hell For All Eternity?
When I left the church years later, the fear of hell nagged at me, made me wonder “am I doing the wrong thing?” as I lost my religion. As I sang along to REM, part of me twisted in fear. After all, Eternity is a rather long….. time?
I re-encountered this whole issue the other day, in conversation with a teenager who recently had Hell-thoughts surface and was struggling to know what to do with them. It seemed to her as she thought about it, that you kind of had no choice but to believe in God, and in particular, the Christian God, the Jesus story, salvation and all that — because NOT to was…..well, it was to risk going to Hell! Like, what if the Christians are right? So, when we die, all the people who chose the Christian path get to go have this great Eternity of singing and hanging out and stuff. And EVERYONE ELSE?
Burning In Hell For All Eternity?
We talked about whether all Christians, and versions of Christianity, believe in this particular version of Hell and salvation. And about the other Abrahamic faiths, which have somewhat different notions. It brought up a lot of questions, and the conversation meandered a bit….there are a lot of related issues after all…..although, is this “meandering”, or is this exactly the right process of unpacking a whole interconnected tangle of beliefs?
Like, there’s the whole question of why “God” has such a big ego. (Hahaha…..) Why is “He” a jealous God? Angry? Vengeful? Is “He” a he? Does he get offended if you don’t capitalize Him? And sex stuff….that’s an endless rabbit hole of questions….Like, does he REALLY care whether you masturbate? Or have sex with someone you didn’t say some words to in a ceremony once? Why is it better in God’s eyes for someone to be obligated to have sex with a person they didn’t want to marry, than it is for someone to choose to have sex with someone they love but haven’t married? Does he care whether you eat a pig instead of a cow instead of a chicken instead of a monkey instead of a carrot? Why does he care at certain points in history, but not others, if a woman is silent in the church? Or people read novels? Why was it really bad in the Bible to be a homosexual, but it’s not anymore?
Why, why, why — so many things just make no bloody sense if you think about an Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent super-Entity, with the entire Universe of billions of galaxies to pay attention to, yet “he” gets all up in arms about someone putting their fleshy appendage inside some orifice in some specific way or another? Does he care if whales put their fleshy appendages inside each other’s orifices, unless they undergo a certain ceremony first, or that they only use certain orifices and not others? What about bonobos? Elephants? Are we really somehow fundamentally different from them so that our fleshy appendages matter in some way that this God Of All Things finds SUUUUUPER important?
And is it true that “he” likes hymns, but not, say, tribal rhythms or rock&roll or Madonna? Really? And when an athlete hits a ball out of a field with a stick, does this Billions-of-Galaxies God really care that the athlete raised their finger into the air to say “this one’s for you?” And, what about hockey? And cricket? Beach volleyball? Chess? Poker? Jeopardy? The Price is Right? The 100-metre dash in some elementary school’s track&field day?
Does Jesus sit up there watching the Leafs lose the playoffs again? Does a penalty in sudden-death overtime matter, at the same moment as thousands of people are taking their first breath, and thousands of others their last? Or is he watching some alien species of tentacled slime creatures right now, staging a revolution against Gerg the Terrible, the Squid-monster who eats planets in some galaxy billions of light-years from us? Does the immensity of all of existence really fit with our Santa-in-the-sky story that arose amongst a small bunch of mostly illiterate humans in one tiny part of the planet Earth, at one short moment in history, many centuries ago when people didn’t even know what “the planet Earth” was? Or germs? Or physics? Or logic?
And “sin”? Really? Being punished because you used your Free Will in a way that the aforementioned small group of people thousands of years ago decided is “bad”, like say, choosing to believe in some other god, or no god, just seems really bloody small-minded for a God of Infinite Stature.
She wondered how to reconcile all this Hell and sin and punishment with “God is love.” Is the cost of BILLIONS of people’s eternal torment worth….anything? (Wait until you read the Brothers Karamazov, I thought, but kept that to myself….)
But wait, God IS loving! I mean, what about Jesus? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….”…right? Yeah! God incarnated into Jesus, and suffered for a couple of days, and then died (sort of? but he also brought himself back to life?). Because of this decision to create a mini-me of himself as a human, our “sins”, which are our actions that he decides are wrong, can now be forgiven. By him. And ….this all….makes…..sense…..?)…………..
But God also created this whole universe and Reality and logic and everything in the first place, right? He created the whole board game we’re playing, including all the rules, prizes and penalties.
Imagine you meet some person in a bar someday. They have created this new “Reality Game” and they plan to force every person to play it. Those few who play it exactly the way they like get to be in their Eternal Fandom. And everyone else? What happens to them?
“I just press my little button here, that I have labelled “Hell”, and it opens a trap-door, and they fall into an inescapable furnace I’ve created, where they scream in agony. Um, forever. And no second chances by the way. Because, I love them.”
If you ever run into someone like this, my advice would be:
#1) Run away, really really fast. Probably avoid that bar in the future.
#2) Call the police. This person is clearly dangerous. Or they are Bill Cipher, who is even more dangerous.
#3) Whatever you do, don’t worship them, give them control of your life and believe they are the ultimate purpose of existence.