This post is chapter 14 of theologian Randal Rauser’s new book What’s So Confusing About Grace?, a memoir chronicling a journey out of fundamentalism and into the messy gospel of grace.
So how do people end up in hell if it is not simply because they goofed? To answer that question, I’d like to take a journey back for a moment to one day in kindergarten, just a few months after my conversion. It all started with a cookie, but not just any cookie. This was a special cookie.
First, I should provide some background. We’d been looking forward to Friday the whole week, for it was the day the entire kindergarten class would be able to decorate our very own gingerbread cookies with candies and sparkles. Then the cookies would be baked in the school oven and at the end of the day each of us would be able to take our very own creation home. My creative process went very well. I channeled the inspiration of Michelangelo as I expertly placed the sparkles in the frosting trim and planted several brightly colored Smarties buttons on the chest.
A Brief Sidebar on Smarties
Just for the record, I grew up in Canada and so I’m referring here to Canadian Smarties which are similar to M&Ms. Thus Canadian Smarties are a very different confection from American Smarties which are called Rockets in Canada. I tell you this because I want to be clear that I would never dream of using American Smarties/Rockets (chalky medicinal pellets that they are) as buttons on a gingerbread cookie. Some things should not be done.
My masterpiece was taking shape. Then came the waiting: restlessly I endured the day, staring blankly out the window, anxious to be reunited with my stellar handiwork waiting with the other lesser cookies on cooling trays in the back of the classroom. Finally, as the last bell rang, the teacher told us that we could go get our works of art. In a flurry of excitement, my classmates leapt out of their chairs and began seizing their prize cookies like a herd of frantic shoppers fighting over bargains on Black Friday.
I refused to submit myself to such indignities, choosing instead to make my way calmly through the crowd. Eventually I got to the cookies and began to scan the cooling trays, looking for my beloved creation with the brightly colored Smarties buttons. Strangely, I couldn’t see it anywhere. As the last few cookies disappeared and my classmates gathered their belongings and began to filter out of the room, I became increasingly desperate. One by one the remaining cookies were claimed by their rightful owners until there was one orphan cookie left behind. And it didn’t have Smarties buttons.
By this time I was frantic. Panicked, I informed the teacher that some miscreant had stolen my work of art. While doing her best to act like she cared, she assured me that all the cookies would taste much the same. Anxious to get on with her weekend, she picked up the one remaining cookie with a napkin, dropped it in a bag for me, and shuffled me off to the door.
As I fumed on the ride home, my mom did her best to calm me down. She promised to take me to the mall on the weekend, suggesting that maybe I could even get a toy (to calm my wrath, no doubt). When that didn’t work, she resorted to pragmatic reasoning by pointing out that I still had a cookie of my own. Admittedly it didn’t have Smarties buttons, but it was still a perfectly fine cookie.
And then as if to rub still more fistfuls of salt into my gaping wounds, she echoed my teacher’s point that gingerbread cookies all taste pretty much the same anyway. So what did it really matter who decorated this one? A cookie was a cookie. My dad would make the point a little differently: “Cookies all look the same six hours after you eat them,” he said. (Et tu, dad?) Anyway, my mom ended her speech with a stoic reflection: sometimes bad things happen in life. By sitting there just being angry, you don’t hurt anybody but yourself.
It all made sense, of course: Mom’s points were perfectly reasonable. But it didn’t matter: I would not be consoled; I would not be reasoned with. By the time we arrived home my sulk had blossomed into a full-blown seething rage. This wasn’t my cookie, and that was all that mattered.
As I got out of the car I looked down at that disgusting monstrosity mocking me from its plastic bag. (Imagine a snide, cocky version of Gingy from the Shrek movies.) Overcome by contempt and hatred (yes, hatred), I wanted nothing more than to grind this imposter into gingerbread dust. I despised that intruder. I loathed its disgusting frosting trim, its mocking, jelly eyes, its abhorrent licorice buttons. (Who uses licorice for buttons?) I needed to do something about that mocking confection!
At long last I decided on a course of action. Shaking with fury, I walked up to the side of the big, empty ravine beside our house and I pulled that damnable confection from the bag. As I held it tightly in my hand, the hot tears began to roll down my cheeks.
Determined to get back at the cookie thief and to show the world my utter contempt for this gingerbread fraud, I reached back and, with all the force I could muster, I cast the cookie into the ravine. It sailed out into the blue sky spinning end over end and then disappeared into the shrubs far below. Temporarily satisfied and yet still strangely tormented, I turned back and walked toward the house.
So what does that dramatic little story of childish angst have to do with hell? A fair question! Here’s the central issue. I was so consumed by my own sense of injustice and victimization that I was determined to deny myself happiness and joy. And not just myself: I wanted everyone else to suffer too: the teacher, my mom, and most of all, the wretch who took my cookie. I would have stolen the happiness of all of them, were that only possible.
But that made no sense. My teacher and mom had offered wise counsel. No doubt all the gingerbread cookies did taste pretty much the same. What’s done is done and by continuing to seethe I wasn’t hurting anybody but myself. Regardless, none of that mattered: the fact is that I would rather nurse my miserable anger and my sense of offense than to make the best of my situation and enjoy the cookie that I now had.
When I was in university I first encountered C.S. Lewis’ penetrating reflections on hell and they provided a far more sensible approach to damnation than the notion that you go to hell by goofing up. In The Problem of Pain Lewis suggests that hell is a self-imposed state of alienation from God. As he famously put it, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”In this moment, that was me. Sure, the issue was trivial and the rage and rebellion short-lived, but in that moment, that was me. I would rather be alone, cookieless, standing on the edge of a ravine and hating the world than accept life’s events as they had unfolded.
I was determined to punish the world . . . when in point of fact, I was only punishing myself.
Lewis picks up the same theme in his fictional exploration of hell, The Great Divorce. The book explores the concepts of heaven and hell within the framework of a dream motif. In the story, we follow the Narrator on an imaginary journey up from hell and on to the borderlands of heaven. With this clever literary backdrop Lewis offers some penetrating observations about the self-destructive nature of sin. At one point in the story the Narrator observes a woman (the Lady) who is now reconciled to God in heaven as she appeals to the husband of her former life to abandon his self-destructive behavior and join her in the heavenly state. Sadly, he refuses. I can’t help but see in his defiance echoes of my own gingerbread cookie rebellion.
At the same time, there is an important difference. In my state of rebellion I had a hope of making my mom and some other folks miserable. But in Lewis’ story the man no longer has that power: his former wife can no longer be manipulated by his bad decisions. Nobody, including her former husband, can steal her happiness from her now. As she wisely observes, “Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing.” But the emotional blackmail which once enslaved many will continue no longer. The sober lesson is that the residents of heaven cannot have their joy stolen by those on a self-destructive course who simply want to steal the happiness of others. The universe will not be held hostage to those who choose their own misery.
The Narrator is unsettled by the blunt recognition that the Lady is now free to pursue her own joy regardless of the decisions of her self-tormented husband. From his perspective it seems callous that one is able to find peace and joy when others suffer, even if their suffering is self-imposed. The Narrator expresses his reservations to his guide on the journey, the Teacher: “Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his self-made misery?” The Teacher replies by returning to the woman’s point: “Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it, or else, for ever and ever, the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves.” In short, if some people remain determined to punish the world, the world may need to move on as they are left alone to punish themselves.
And so it was for me in that moment. Deprived of my cookie I would prefer to remain in misery and anger rather than accept the cookie I had received (not to mention a toy from the mall, and the wise counsel of my teacher and mother). A trivial incident, to be sure, but the basic idea was the same. As I looked back years later I could see that in principle this kind of self-destructive tendency resided within me, a spark which, if fanned into flame, could erupt into a lake of one’s own self-imposed fire.
Needless to say, Lewis’ conception of hell is as far away from the Somebody Goofed view as could be. Rather than stumbling into hell by chance because “somebody goofed,” one ends up there because time and again, one has chosen to foster bitter hatreds and resentments over the promise of reconciliation and the offer of true happiness.
Damnation is, in essence, self-damnation. It’s the rage that leads one to stand on the edge of the ravine, determined to be miserable, anxious to punish the world, shedding tears of rage as a gingerbread cookie tumbles into the abyss. It was with great relief that I finally abandoned the Somebody Goofed vision in favor of Lewis’ view of hell as self-imposed exile.
This shift in my theology went a long way toward reconciling hell with God’s goodness, love, and mercy. Hell is still a miserable place of suffering and alienation, but it is a destination that we fashion and choose for ourselves, not one that God plans as a cruel trick and then springs on us when we least expect it.
While that shift in perspective dealt with some significant objections to hell, not every problem was solved in the process. While the theological benefits of viewing hell as self-imposed exile were great, the existential payoff was significantly more limited. And to see why, we only need to return to the reality of that kindergarten kid engaged in the colossal self-destructive rebellion of tossing his own gingerbread cookie into the ravine. The disturbing fact I had to face is that I was the one who had exhibited that irrational, self-destructive resolve to deny myself happiness; I was the one who had exhibited that spark of rebellion.
And that meant that I needed to consider whether I still had the potential to produce such sparks. Even more disturbingly, I needed to ask whether it was possible that one of those sparks was smoldering even now deep in my twisted flesh. Though all looks fine on the surface, it could be that the seed of damnable rebellion had already taken root deep within like a coal seam fire that can slowly burn hidden in the bowels of the earth for years before it finally bursts forth in a hellish display.
Photo via Pixabay, edited by Dan Wilkinson.
About Randal Rauser
Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta. He is the author of many books, including What’s So Confusing About Grace? (2017), Is the Atheist My Neighbor?: Rethinking Christian Attitudes toward Atheism (2015), The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails (2012), and You’re Not as Crazy as I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices and Hardened Opinions (2011). Rauser blogs and podcasts as The Tentative Apologist at randalrauser.com.