I enjoy the annual photos of Hell, Mich., covered in snow. Yeah, Hell has frozen over – hah-hah. You know me, I love a bad joke. Plus, it’s good to have some fun at hell’s expense.
We don’t do that nearly enough.
Hell is serious business and a hot-button topic (get it?) for a lot of people. Growing up Catholic, I was reminded of hell all the time and how we’re one bad decision and one ill-timed death away from being turned into crispy critters. Permanently.
We were taught what to avoid so we could steer clear of that place down there. There was a list of sins that could send us straight to eternal torment — usually the ones involving s-e-x. Others were not as egregious and would land us a stint in purgatory, which is sort of like a suburb of hell but with a more lenient emigration policy.
Limbo was another potential destination – kind of like heaven-light for some of the unbaptized. Basically, you get to visit the heavenly ice cream shop but you only get one scoop instead of two. (FYI, the church has since removed limbo from the Register of Theologically Historical Places and shuttered it. No yard sale was involved, as far as I know.)
Even as I squirmed about the prospect of eternal torture, part of me thought the whole concept simply didn’t add up.
For one thing, the whole stay-out-of-hell approach turns life into a negative. Life becomes about avoiding something instead of immersing yourself into something. It’s like being a decent parent solely because you want to avoid being reported to Children’s Services. What kind of parent is that?
Then there’s the whole roadmap-to-hell part.
The different denominations and religions that are fond of hell have very different ideas about how to avoid it. For centuries, Catholics insisted that Protestants were automatically going to hell, and vice-versa. (Here’s a thought: If they both turned out to be right, then there would be no Christians in heaven. How about them apples off the forbidden tree?)
When the tour guide lacks a reliable map, you know something else is in play. Maybe they just enjoy scaring people or controlling people or beating them up with a rolled-up map of hell.
But here’s what has always bothered me the most about the popular concept of hell: It turns God into a psychopath. God is an unconditionally loving parent who will absolutely turn on you in an instant. Sees you when you’re sleeping, knows when you’re awake, dumps a lump of eternally burning coal into your stocking if you make a bad choice.
The unconditional lover becomes the heartless torturer, just like that. If you knew a parent who treated their kids that way, you’d call Children’s Services to have them protected, right? And the courts would send the parent off for a psych eval.
So why do we hold onto this image of God and hell?
Well, maybe because what really, really, really scares the hell out of us is the notion that we are unconditionally loved, just as we are. Screw-ups and all. No matter what we do. And so is everyone else.
If that’s true, it changes everything – how we see ourselves, how we treat others, the way that we live. Everything gets turned upside-down.
Unconditional love? That really makes us squirm. We prefer the crime-and-punishment model that fits our mindset. We want grace to have an expiration date, a you’ll-get-yours moment when we’re rewarded and we can enjoy watching others get charbroiled.
I’ve gotten to the point where I no longer even think about hell, except when I see a photo of the snowbound town in Michigan. I couldn’t care less — whatever God wants to do with me, I’m cool with it.
Truthfully, I am expecting a wild party like the one the prodigal son got when he returned home after violating pretty much every rule. (Hey there God? For party-planning purposes, I really like cake, especially date-nut or dark chocolate. You’re paying attention and taking notes on this, right?)
One interesting thing happens when you stop being concerned about hell: You’re free to start putting yourself fully into each day. Screw-ups and all. It’s liberating. You start to encounter God when you’re no longer afraid.
Love replaces fear. And everything changes.