I get asked all kinds of questions when I go to speak to groups about faith. One of the most common has to do with my understanding of Hell. So I tell them a story about a monkey.
The story goes that if you put something inside a jar that a monkey wants, they’ll reach in and grab onto it with singular determination. The problem is, they can’t get their hand out of the jar while also hanging on to the thing they want, but they’re so stubborn that they will not let go.
The result: they get what they want, in a manner of speaking. But it stays stuck inside the jar, along with their hand. They are slaves to their own desire.
Hell is – pardon the pun – quite the hot topic these days, especially after the success of Rob Bell’s book, LOVE WINS: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Though I don’t entirely agree with Bell, it’s a worthwhile conversation.
I’m what some might call a Christian Universalist, which basically means that I’m a Christian by choice, but that I don’t think you have to be one to be reconciled with God. There are lots of reasons for this, including the fact that Jews – God’s “chosen people” – didn’t have a theology of hell in their faith. Rather, their Sheol was a place of rest where the dead would reside until God summoned them all.
Jesus adopted more hell-like descriptions, borrowing imagery from the Greek belief in Hades. There are also lots of references to “the pit” and “the fire,” which many scholars agree is a reference to the big trash dumps outside of town. Here garbage was tossed out and burned, but many “untouchables” also scavenged for food and shelter. Not exactly a place one wanted to hang out.
The inevitable question I get when people struggle with this idea is, “So, you think that when we get to heaven, Hitler will be there?”
Well, yeah. That’s pretty much my understanding of how grace works. If grace comes with an asterisk, it ceases to be grace. Grace is un-earnable, unconditional and universal.
I know this butts up against our human love for “systemic justice,” wherein the good and bad each get what they deserve. But we only have to read Jesus’ many parables about the vineyard workers, the Prodigal Son and so on to find the idea that God’s justice isn’t fair, at least in the way we want to define “fair.”
Another response I get is along the lines of, “So, we can just do whatever we want and God doesn’t care?” Hardly. Jesus himself says we’ll know what is right and wrong, not by following written law, but by discerning justice and righteousness in our own hearts. And as my seven-year-old son, Mattias can tell you (he’s prone lately to daily confessions to me and Amy), misdeeds linger with us, and we long to purge them from our system, or to avoid them in the first place.
In Mark 10, a faithful man asks Jesus how to be a part of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ response: sell everything and follow me. Though this is intentional exaggeration for effect – after all, Jesus had some basic possessions and he had folks who subsidized his ministry – the point is that the only thing that can get between God and us is whatever we love more.
Said another way, the only thing that separates us from God is us. Does this mean we can condemn ourselves to hell? If you mean you’ve blown your chance at angel wings, and all you’re destined for is eternal fire and torture, I don’t think so. But if you mean living a life void of real meaning, a true sense of love and fulfillment, I think that’s exactly what Jesus is talking about.
Does this mojo, good or bad, follow us into the next life? Who knows? One mistake we often make is thinking of eternity as something that happens later, “out there” somewhere. But eternity, by definition, never starts or stops. We’re in eternity right now.
This also drives Jesus’ point home that God’s kingdom is here, now, rather than something to happen way off in the future. Granted, the Love available to us may not be fully realized, but with our help, God’s Kingdom is still under construction.
Setting everything else aside to make room for that Love to be fully realized is what the full potential of God’s kingdom is about. But this Love doesn’t impose itself on us; we have to choose it. The key to our freedom is in letting go.