I’m not going to quote Scripture here. My intent isn’t to scare the crap out of anyone either – mostly because I don’t believe that God is out to scare the crap out of people.
When you ask most people to describe hell, they most commonly give you some variation of Dante’s Inferno where people are suffering punishment actively pursued by God for people’s sins. It is usually something that involves great pain and torture. It involves fire and demons.
That makes for a great movie, but I don’t think that’s what hell is at all. I think it’s time for us to let go of Dante’s poem as a description of hell. Most people don’t realize that Dante wrote in many of his opponents into the poem – guess what their fate was.
You want to know hell is?
It’s the belief that when someone’s life is out of control, they must exert more control in order to straighten things out. The problem though is that the person is already over controlling their life, and it is leading to ruin or keeping them in ruin. This exertion of control separates and pushes people away. It creates walls and divides – shutting others and God out.
I see it often in people who are abused, addicts, homeless, poor, hungry, etc. There are those who reach out to help these people – to pull them out of their hell. Yet…Yet, they reject the help. Why? Maybe its fear. Maybe it’s because change is an unknown – the victim knows what to expect and so it gives a sense of control. Maybe grasping that hand means admitting defeat or admitting they aren’t in control. And that can be scary for people.
Hell is the desire to be in control of your own life. It’s the old line that the serpent gave Eve in the garden. Hell is separation from God. Sometimes its self-imposed. Other times it is imposed by others. But too often we choose to remain in our hell.
Hell is rejection of God’s love. Hell is rejection of being vulnerable. Hell is being an island that is untouched and not on the map.
God is love. When we reject God, we are rejecting love. I think that because God is love, God lives the attributes of love – being patient, kind, not forcing itself on others, etc. So when someone rejects God, I think God honors that – and at the same time continues to pursue the person, always offering grace, forgiveness, mercy, love, and peace.
Hell isn’t God actively punishing a person. Hell exists because God is love and God loves creation so much that God allows people to reject God and love. Hell is self-torment.
God doesn’t need to actively punish us – we do a fine job of that to ourselves and to others.
Look at the world and see what kind of Hell we impose on ourselves and others. Mass shootings, excuses, lies, rejecting strangers, separating people, corruption, violence, war, broken relationships, greed, pride, exploitation of people, materials, and the planet, materialism, consumerism, nationalism, racism, and all the other -isms that exist.
Yet, in the midst of this, God’s reign, God’s kingdom breaks in. And God invites us to participate in the unfolding of God’s reign. Love is invitational. Hell separates and divides. Love doesn’t force its way on anyone. Hell controls and manipulates. Love is patient. Hell can’t wait and demands unwavering compliance.
God’s kingdom is unfolding in our midst – right in the midst of Hell itself. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can not overcome it. We are called to be light to the world. Forget what others will do – because we follow God, we follow love. Love doesn’t force itself on others. It invites others to participate – always. There will be plenty who reject this invitation. So be it. Keep doing it.
We aren’t called to change minds. We are called to live out the love we have been given. Our lives will show how God encounters us and changes our lives. Those who see this and want it will come – all are welcome. Others will criticize and reject our means. So be it. Keep doing it.
We aren’t called to win arguments. We are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and those in prison. Others will criticize us and hate us for doing this. Many will say that what we are doing is dangerous and risky. Many will say that these are worthless or not human. So be it. Keep doing it.
We aren’t called to change society or be the culture police. We are called to love our enemies, especially when it is not deserved. We are called to be peacemakers in the midst of violence and war. We are called to show mercy especially to those who lack mercy. Many will say that we are not patriots. Many will say that the way of peace doesn’t work. Many will say that might makes right and that the ends justify the means. So be it. Keep doing it.
The way of a disciple of Jesus is not popular. It does not match with the ways of this world. It is in contrast to Hell. It is acknowledging that we are not in control at all and that we can not control others. They will do what they will do. So be it. Keep doing it.
The way of a disciple of Jesus leads through the same path that Hell offers – death. The difference is this – Hell drives people with fear of death, forcing those trapped in it to grasp onto life – even a hellish life. The way of Jesus goes through death also. But it is a stop on the way to resurrection. It is letting go of life as we know it and try to control it. One must go through death in order to experience resurrection. Resurrection is death defeated. Resurrection is Hell destroyed. Resurrection is out of our hands and out of our control – completely.
At some point every one of us will experience actual physical death. Jesus promises resurrection. In baptism we are called to die daily so that we might experience resurrection daily.
Hell proclaims that death has the final say – and that we must do everything we can to avoid it. Except we’ll never win that battle. We can only delay it.
Jesus proclaims that death doesn’t have the final say – it is a step on the way to resurrection. We can’t avoid it and there is nothing we can do to prevent it. Instead, let go. Loosen your grasp. Step out in faith into the unknown. God has done everything that needs to be done. And God invites us into right relationship, into love. God invites us out of hell and into God’s reign.