As Billy Joel sings in Only The Good Die Young, why go to heaven when all the sinners, who obviously know how to party, will be having a blast? Stop hiding behind that stained-glass curtain, he tempts young Virginia. What respecting young virgin could resist the sax of Billy? Heaven, to my teenage thinking, would be full of boring souls who didn’t know how to have a good time. Hell, on the other hand, would be the venue to party.
Quite early in our email discourse, as I wrestled with G&J, the SAP wrote that I needed to tell the devil to rack off. I remember reading it with narrowed eyes, as we communicated via the very modern trappings of the 21st century, wondering why we getting, to my mind, all dark ages. ‘Christians don’t seriously believe in hell and the devil, do they?’ I wondered at the time.
In 2003, a research group found 64% of Americans expect to go to heaven when they die, but less than 1% think they might go to hell. Over a decade later, I wonder if those numbers have changed. Not only are there plenty of people today who don’t believe in the Bible’s teaching on everlasting punishment, even those who do find it an unreal and a remote concept. I was the same.
Yet hell is an important part of the Christian faith. If you’re going to embrace the grace of Jesus, then you’re going to have to grab the asbestos cloak and do some fire-walking into hell too. After all, Jesus taught about hell more than any other author in The Bible. Yep, the author of grace, the embodiment of compassion and forgiveness taught about a person going to “hell [gehenna], where ‘their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ Jesus is referring to the maggots that live in the corpses. When all the flesh is consumed, the maggots die. Jesus is saying, however, that the spiritual decomposition of hell never ends, and that is why ‘their worm does not die.’ (Mark 9:43)
So if Jesus spoke about hell more often, and in a fairly vivid, blood-curdling manner than anyone else, it’s not something to ignore. So what is hell?
Virtually all commentators and theologians believe that the Biblical images of fire and outer darkness are metaphorical. That certainly wasn’t explained clearly to me at my school. As a result, as I grew older and began to think and question, I couldn’t imagine some ‘place’ where fires burnt eternally.
Paul describes the everlasting fire and destruction of hell as ‘exclusion from the presence of the Lord.” (2 Thessalonians 1:9.) Separation from God and his blessings forever.
CS Lewis’ description is one that captured me more than any scenes of fire and lava. ‘Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others . . . but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticise it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud.’
Now THAT scares me. Unlike my teenage imaginings, hell isn’t going be filled with sinners who know how to party hard. Instead, hell is a soulless world filled with constant whining, complaining, blaming and hating. It’s humanity’s separation from a loving, giving God who marks us with his grace in the gift of His son, and ‘sings over us’ in his joy. It is living life our way, our terms, our choices. Separate.
Yet we all have a choice about what we say, how we think, what we do. Creating hell on earth, to my mind, is literally the quality of our next thought, word and deed.
There’s a reason why ACDC and Led Zepplin sang about a highway to hell and a stairway to heaven. Sitting in the outside lane on a speeding highway, it’s easy not to think. Set the cruise control and forget. No need to engage the brain. Dumb it down. Disengage. What could possibly go wrong?
The stairway to heaven is slower, takes a little more effort, a little more awareness about qualities and behaviour. Daily I give Him thanks for how God glories in my slow steps. While His grace within me may be one of a ‘million million doors in this world for His love to walk through’, my flawed humanity often forgets to keep that door open. Quite often it’s a case of trapping my (or someone else’s) finger in the door, or slamming it shut as a I stomp about short-sightedly.
Thankfully, climbing a stairway reminds me to look up and look around. Take a breath. Even dance along each step and glory in the joy of the journey. Sometimes hard to remember, but far more fulfilling than cruise control ‘set and forget’.