An Illinois man left the snow-filled streets of Chicago for a vacation in Florida. His wife was on a business trip and planned to meet him there the next day. When he reached his hotel, he decided to send his wife an e-mail. Unable to find the scrap of paper on which he had written her e-mail address, he did his best to type it in from memory.
Unfortunately, he missed one letter, and his note was directed instead to an elderly woman whose husband had passed away only the day before. When the grieving widow checked her e-mail, she took one look at the screen, let out a piercing scream, and fainted.
At the sound, her family rushed into the room and saw this note on the screen:
Dearest Wife, just got checked in. Everything prepared for your arrival tomorrow.
PS. Sure is hot down here.
I found out this week that there is a town in Michigan called Hell. When it was founded back in the 1800s, people from nearby towns would visit Hell’s general store. What a great excuse to curse.
“I need some flour.” “Go to Hell.”
“Mom, I don’t know what to do.” “You can go to Hell for all I care.”
“Where’s your husband?” “Ah, he’s gone to Hell.”
In the summer, there’s no place hotter than Hell. In winter, Hell freezes over.
Many people thought it would be a cold day in hell before they would be caught dead in a church. Many thought hell would freeze over before they would become a member of a church, and actually enjoy participating.
Life has a way of surprising you doesn’t it? Here you are, participating in a world changing spiritual community. Your soul is not dangled over the hot coals of hell’s terrifying grill. Your spiritual life is not lived in the shadow of fear’s flames. You don’t burn your feet on the burning embers of hell’s pathways.
You walk your own true path; forging your own spirituality and choosing a path with heart. You storm the gates of hell with a love that melts all traces of fear. You turn the heat down on hell by choosing love over fear.
For a long time I thought it would be a cold day in hell before I would give a sermon on hell. Well, first frost has hit Hell and here I am giving a sermon on hell.
Do you want the good news or the bad news?
The good news - There is no reason to believe there is an actual place of eternal suffering after life called hell.
The bad news - There is a place within you where you torture yourself with judgment and fear. This is the hell that you put yourself in and through.
The good news - there is a way out of hell.
The bad news - the only way out of hell is to go through hell. You’ve already been to hell. You’ve survived it before and you know you can survive it again.
There is no literal hell or eternal punishment. There is no judgment other than the one you put yourself through. The carousel of perfectionism and fear of failure - that’s hell. Choose to end the madness. It isn’t serving you, and it ain’t serving the world.
The History of Hell
The main message of western Christianity? Scare the bejeesus out of people and then tell them there’s only one way out - be a good Christian. It’s a potent form of social control.
This is tragic when you consider that it was only in the fourth century after Jesus that hell became institutionalized in the church.
Origen was one of the most significant fathers of the early Christian church. In the 3rd century he was still speaking about hell as a place where sinners could be rehabilitated. The Council of Constantinople in 543 rejected Origen’s view. From that time forward, western Christianity was divided between two perspectives; the majority who believed in hell as eternal punishment, and the minority who believed in a one-time annihilation of sinners.
Even the teaching of Jesus is ambiguous when it comes to hell. Matthew 10:28 speaks of the body and soul being destroyed in hell. The word that is used for hell is Gehenna. Gehenna was a valley on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It was notorious as a place where some had practiced child sacrifice to Molech. It was also used as a place to dump the bodies of executed criminals. Because of this dark history, it became a garbage dump. At the time of Jesus there would have been continuous fires burning to consume the city’s garbage. Dogs lurked around the fires waiting for scraps of food. When the dogs fought over the food, they would have made the sound of gnashing of teeth.
It’s possible that Jesus was referring to this location when he spoke of hell. He wanted to describe the most tortured human experience; and the image of Gehenna captured something of the terror of the experience.
It’s tragic that so many people have been held in fearful captivity to a doctrine of such dubious origins. The doctrine of hell makes a mockery of Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness. Maybe as a way to break the tension, hell has provided low hanging comic fruit to television shows such as The Simpsons.
There’s a fun episode of The Simpsons where Homer sells his soul to Satan for a donut. Homer is sentenced to a night in hell where he is fed enormous quantities of donuts. They underestimated Homer and he eats every donut in hell. Homer is acquitted but Satan curses him with a giant donut head as a reminder of his gluttony. Not to be put off, Homer begins snacking on his own donut head.
What do people believe about hell today? While over 80% of Americans believe in a heaven where people live with God forever, only 63% of Americans believe in hell where people are punished eternally. But it gets more interesting. When the question becomes more pointed, “Do you think you will go to hell after death?” only 1% say they are going to hell. Nearly 2/3 of Americans believe in hell but virtually no one thinks they’re going there. Jean Paul Sartre was right; “Hell is other people.”
What is Hell Then?
Comedian Jim Carrey has a fun definition of hell. “Maybe there is no actual place called hell. Maybe hell is just having to listen to your grandparents breathing through their noses when they’re eating sandwiches.”
If hell is not an actual place, what is this journey of inner torture?
Unlike the hell of western Christianity, inner hell is not a condition that other people put you in. Hell is a condition you put yourself in when you forget who you are, at your essence, and lose your path.
People and situations will come your way that will test your resolve. They will push you, maybe push you around. People will project all their greatest fears onto you, and make your life miserable for a time.
Don’t fear these people. They can’t ultimately harm you. They can throw stones at you, hurt your body, even break your heart but they can’t touch your soul, the part of you that is untouchable and unbreakable.
Let me illustrate with a simple story. A violent samurai warrior confronted a peaceful Zen monk. The samurai lunged at the master with a sword saying, “Don’t you know I’m a man who can run through you with this sword without blinking an eye?” The monk looked up at him and said, “Don’t you know that I’m a man who can be run through with a sword without blinking an eye?” The samurai immediately put his sword down.
Hell is not what other people put you through. Hell is allowing your life to be ruled by fear. Hell is losing your center and ending up in a world of judgment.
This is good news. Other people don’t put you in hell. You don’t have to wait for other people to get you out of hell. You can get out of hell even while the difficult circumstances continue.
Love the Hell out of Yourself and Others
How do you get out of hell? Homer, not Simpson, but the ancient Greek poet Homer, recorded the myth of Persephone the goddess of the underworld. Persephone’s mother Demeter was goddess of agriculture and fertility. One day Persephone was gathering flowers in the garden when the earth opened up and Hades, god of the underworld, abducted her. Demeter desperately searched for Persephone and in the process sparked a massive global famine. Eventually Hades relented and allowed Persephone to return to Demeter, unleashing earth’s fertility once again; the movement from winter to spring.
However because Persephone had eaten the forbidden Pomegranate fruit in the underworld she was sentenced to spend several months a year in the underworld. Each year, during her absence, Demeter wept the world into winter.
wintHow do you get out of hell? The same way you survive a Michigan winter. You go through it. You embrace the darkness and the damp cold and see what it has to teach you. Use your time in the underworld wisely. Draw every ounce of the courage, wisdom and insight that the underworld has to offer you. Rise out of hell with new strength.
This will be our sixth Michigan winter. The first winter was a novelty. The second winter was a revelation. The third winter was a drag. I never thought the fourth winter would ever end. Winter has its own beauty and challenge. As someone who grew up in a climate where the temperature never went below 40 degrees, a Michigan winter has an awesome mystique. Six years later, I respect winter but I don’t fear it.
It’s the same with so many of life’s challenges. Emerson once said, “When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.”
Hell is a religious myth intended to hold you captive to fear and the church’s teachings. Stand up to the myth and pull its beard. You will find that it comes off in your hand. You cannot be denied. You are an adventurer, storming the gates of hell and fear.
Like the persistent goddess Demeter you will find that love prevails eventually. Love the hell out of yourself and others.
I honor the gods and goddesses, heaven and hell, within you. I honor your incredible courage and strength to storm the gates of hell with love and conquer fear and judgment.
So have no fear of those who persecute you; for nothing is covered up that will
not be uncovered, and nothing secret will not become known. What I say to
you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the
housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather
fear one who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold
for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by God. And
even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more
value than many sparrows. - Matthew 10; 26-31
Heaven and hell are within us, and all the gods are within us. This is the great realization of the Upanishads of India in the ninth century B.C. All the gods, all the heavens, all the worlds, are within us. They are magnified dreams, and dreams are manifestations in image form of the energies of the body in conflict with each other. That is what the myth is. Myth is a manifestation in symbolic images, in metaphorical images, of the energies of the organs of the body in conflict with each other. This organ wants this, that organ wants that. The brain is one of the organs. — Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive - to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a facade designed to conform to external defitions of who and what we are. - Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
For Further Reflection (Questions that can be used privately or in groups)
1. What are your beliefs about hell?
2. Why do you think western Christianity has persisted with a literal belief in hell?
3. In what ways have you been in, and survived, your own hell?
4. Do you think there is any merit to retaining some notion of hell (metaphoric or otherwise)?