I’ve spent a lot of time in my life thinking about hell. I suppose that’s an odd way to start a blog post, but there it is. I don’t know when I was first introduced to the idea of hell, but I can remember from a very early age being aware of the fiery pit I’d be thrown into if I was bad. Funny, as I write that now it occurs to me how similar my childhood image of God was to Santa Claus: a sort of old white guy in the sky, making a list of who’s naughty and nice. Only, instead of being given either a favorite toy or a bag of coals, I’d get eternity either in the clouds or burning in a fiery pit. After a junior high visit to a Baptist church camp, I think I must have prayed for Jesus to come into my heart about 500 times, afraid that if I didn’t pray the right way or ask for forgiveness for each and every sin, I’d be destined to hell. I could go on about this process for a while, and how my views of heaven and hell (and transcendence, for that matter) have changed over the last few years, but I’m more concerned at the moment with talking about the implications of telling someone they are going to hell.
I had a friend ask me recently if I’d been aware of the conversations going on in the PC(USA) about comments that were made at a recent conference of people who gathered to talk about the inception of a new Reformed body. The problem, the speaker asserted, is not about a lack of clarity or divisions in the church, or ineffectiveness. The problem is that “people are going to hell…I wonder who is ready to be a servant and a partner and a soldier in an army that is advancing against hell?…Will you devote the rest of your life to be part of such a church?” (The Presbyterian Layman, vol 45, No.1/Jan/Feb 2012).
Now, I’m not entirely certain about the full context of this quote; but, from what I can gather as one of the members of the offending denomination from which members of this conference wish to depart; and, considering a big part of their frustration is about the PC(USA)’s changing ordination standards (opening up the way for LGBTQ people – including those just like me – to be ordained), I think it’s safe to assume that I am likely one of those headed to hell. I, and a whole lot of people who, at least to me, seem to be faithful, with a genuine concern for how to maintain unity as a body in the midst of an ever-changing world. So, while I can happily disagree with the gentleman’s implication that I am going to hell, I am deeply troubled by his claim and his language.
On one hand, I am frightened by the militaristic language that calls for a charge against hell, because I wonder about who that army is going to fight against. More troubling, though, is how easy it is to dehumanize a person (or a group of people) who is demoralized in such a way. If I am able to write someone off as immoral, hell-bound, then how am I able to see them as my neighbor, or as part of the body of Christ with me? How can I listen to them, protect them, advocate for their basic human rights? What’s more, if I see them as bound for hell, and I see my job as a soldier in the war against hell, what’s to keep me from doing all I can to make sure they are not able to follow through with their “agenda,” to do all I can to prevent them from equal access to jobs, safety at home and work, to having a family, and being part of a faith community?
After a while, being told that you are going to hell starts to wear on you. Hearing time and again that you are what is wrong with the world starts to wear on you, starts to dig in, bury itself in your gut, in your bones. You carry it with you; if you have kids, you pass it along, they carry it in their bones. You start to recognize that the laws and policies of the world were not written for you, that “equality,” is a relative term. Whether alienated because of race, class, sex, sexuality, gender identity, it seems that for too long the tendency has been to simply cut off the limb found to be most offensive, or to set up barriers that make sure we don’t actually have to interact. If we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.
Gregory of Nyssa states that:
“If my sister or brother is not at the table, we are not the flesh of Christ. If my sister’s mark of sexuality must be obscured, if my brother’s mark of race must be disguised, if my sister’s mark of culture must be repressed, then we are not the flesh of Christ. It is through and in Christ’s own flesh that the ‘other’ is my sister, is my brother; indeed, the ‘other’ is me….The establishment of the Church is re-creation of the world. But it is only in the union of all the particular members that the beauty of Christ’s body is complete.”
This notion of being a body is fundamental to the Christian experience. Being a body, though, is difficult, particularly when the realization of it opens our eyes to the fact that we are no longer able to dehumanize the “other,” or to send them to send them to hell. It’s messy, and it involves opening up to the notion that the Spirit might move in ways we do not expect.
Stranger things have happened.