the suburbs of hell
Sorry it’s taken so long to get this out. I’ve been spending some time in the suburbs of hell. These two thoughts may seem related—a compelling, if oblique, excuse for not having written lately, but they’re really not. Plain old, garden variety non-sequitur. I haven’t written here lately ’cause life has run away with my time, and I’ve been dealing with issues that revolve around the doctrine of hell the way objects circle the bowl before disappearing over the event horizon.
I teach twice a week: a Thursday night study currently on the words of Jesus in the Gospels, and a class on the origins and transmission of Scripture at a local bible college. It seems that no matter what the subject may be or from what premise we start, if allowed to go on long enough, any thread of discussion among Christians will ultimately end up centered on hell. Who’s in, who’s out. Who’s up, who’s down. What false doctrine disqualifies us from God’s ultimate acceptance, and what ultimately saves. I’ve seen it time and time again over the years, and I’ve been experiencing it in these two weekly venues lately. Any idea or concept we discuss is always being judged in the red light of hell.
So I ask rhetorically, why do Christians need to spend so much time circling the suburbs, the drain of hell? I suppose it’s not really a rhetorical question, but like a good lawyer, I think I know the answer before I ask. Why are we so defensive as people of faith about our ultimate acceptance by the God we characterize as all-loving? Why are we so willing to start handing out tickets to hell to everyone around us who thinks differently than we do? Why do we always end up here in these suburbs? I’m sure my rant is betraying my frustration, but at the same time, I do understand. And I do have compassion here.
Then I read about Brian McLaren’s new book, the third in his New Kind of Christian series entitled The Last Word and the Word After That. It’s in this book that he tackles the doctrine of hell–the third rail of contemporary Christianity if there ever was one. Kind of a no-win situation for him to discuss this openly, and that’s the way it’s working out. The reviews on Amazon.com by orthodox Christians are scathing, so much so, that apparently Brian had to beg his supporters on his own website to please post their own positive reviews on Amazon to give a little balance. Brian has apparently (I’ve not read the book) taken the Father’s love to such an extent that he no longer believes in an everlasting hell. Say it ain’t so, Brian. Now I can’t say I know where Brian really stands on this issue or whether I stand with him intellectually, but as Shakespeare wrote, I do believe there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy—and theology. And so I stand with him spiritually. And that’s really the point. Not the views themselves, but how we react to each other because of them. What makes us so angry? Why do we think it’s all right to tear into each other because of our differing views of God and his interaction with us? And again, why are we so fixated on hell?
It all comes down to fear. We’re either living in love or we’re living in fear. Love is characterized by connectedness and unity and fear is characterized by separation—the ancient definition of sin itself. But fear is realized, manifested in anger, stress, depression, anxiety, envy, jealousy, covetousness, greed… Every human psychosis, every single one, can trace its lineage back to fear. Fear is ground zero for everything that wrecks our lives and relationships. Fear is the opposite of love and perfect love casts out fear. To the extent we have those negative symptoms in our lives, we have fear–and we have displaced love. That’s how you know where you stand, after all. Want to get to the crux of every problem in your life? You can ask the same question every time: what am I afraid of? It will lead you to the source of your frustration like a laser-guided missile.
Fear and love are mutually exclusive—this is a point the church seems to have missed. Love is unity and fear is separation, but you can’t get to love through fear. You can’t work for unity without first being unified. The fear of hell’s punishment cultivated by the church over the years that was meant to drive us to God’s love is a self-defeating, contradiction in terms. Fear and separation only breed more fear and separation, never unity and love. Unity requires a clean break with fear, a quantum leap into the unknown of the Good News. A falling backward into the arms of…what? Whom?
We fixate on hell, because we fear it. We fear that God really won’t ultimately accept us. We want to believe we know others are going to hell, because at least we can imagine we’re better than they are, which means we still have a chance. We tear into others and their differing views because they’re chipping away at the carefully constructed walls of our fortress–the worldview and theology that we hope will save us from the inferno.
And because we live in fear, never really trusting that such good news as perfect love really exists, we can never get any further away from hell than its suburbs. We live continually in its shadow, in its smog, with its skyline always on the horizon. It’s a terrible thing to live in fear. Especially when the fear is of our own choosing. Jesus gave us an alternative. We say we’ve taken it, but our obsessions, our lack of civility, and our mailing address give us away. Perfect love casts out fear. Get that and get it all.
Whatever hell really is will be revealed in time. It’s not for us to know such things right now. But we know enough. And we should know enough to let hell be. It wasn’t made for us, and we don’t have to go there, and thinking about it only keeps us in its suburbs every moment of our lives.
Time to move to the country, get some fresh air.