Yesterday I walked into two conversations about Hell. First I was sitting eating my lunch in an empty classroom when a couple of students wandered in. I was doing my best to ignore them, but one was saying, “I have a King James translation and I just don’t understand it with all those wherefores and thous.” And then, later, “I mean, she needs to know that stuff, or she might end up in Hell.”
We’re reading The Crucible, and my students are a pretty religious bunch anyway, but it still freaked me out. Was all this talk about witches and Satan inspiring them to fret about their eternal souls? I was hoping it would make them think, but the trouble with encouraging free thought is that it can go in directions you don’t like.
When I walked in to teach my next class, another kid stopped me and asked, “Hey, if you kill someone in a war, will you go to hell?”
It was an especially strange question for the Christian who doesn’t believe in Hell. I’ve never understood why people were so eager to construct a place of ultimate suffering that is separate from good old planet Earth.
Hell is digging through the rubble of your house, looking for your wife and children, who are probably dead. Hell is bone cancer. Hell is a foreclosure notice on your front door. Hell is people from the next village raping and torturing your neighbors in front of you. That’s enough hell for me.
I don’t mean that I think hell is limited to the extreme outliers of suffering. Hell is also being too scattered to enjoy your life. Hell is twisted, recurring dreams about your ex. Hell is seeing no options. Hell is worrying all the time if you are “good” or “bad.” Hell is believing in a God who is punitive and must send people to a hell after death in the interest of “fairness.” (Hey, guys, you coulda prayed the right prayer if ya wanted to! So sorry!)
At least I got to answer the war/hell question by planting a seed for further thought. ” I can’t answer that,” I said. “But I can tell you different Christians would have different ideas about it. You know, there isn’t one person who tells all Christians what to believe.”
Of course, you could jump in there like a good Sunday school student and say, “Yes there is, spineless liberal! Jesus!” Unfortunately, I don’t recall him saying a thing about Hell. If it was such an important, straightforward religious concept, I think he would have been a lot clearer about it. What I do believe is he was a stand-up guy who wasn’t trying to trick people or hint about an afterlife, and that every time he saw someone in a hell, he tried to help them out of it.
Aside: yes, I’ve read the Bible. Yes, with the guidance of historical and critical research, because I believe in that stuff. The Hebrew idea of what happened after you die was not a heaven/hell thing. It was sheol, land of the dead. Jesus talking about people burning up or being kicked out of somewhere doesn’t say “Hell” to me. Vague, allegorical, certainly confusing. That’s just where I’m at, and perhaps I am all wrong about this, in which case– I’ll see you in heaven.