“I’m convinced that’s what hell feels like.”
About one year ago, I had a nervous breakdown. I texted the line above to a friend. I meant it very literally. In my most desperate hour, as I was crying out for God, I felt nothing. No comfort. No presence. No nothing.
A few years ago, my uncle committed suicide. He had two children (my cousins) who loved him very much. It had been difficult for me to understand why someone would take their own life, especially when they leave behind people they love.
Perhaps one of the most frightening parts of my breakdown was a distinct moment when I realized: “I get it. I cannot live like this.” And I understood, for a moment, what my uncle must have felt. I was not imminently suicidal. However, I was facing the sober realization that, if I continued on like that for much longer, it would get to that point very quickly. The seemingly complete absence of God in my desperation and despair was utterly crushing to my soul. It was as if all light had been eclipsed. Whoever I was calling out to was not there. I was in hell.
And immediately following that, I recognized Love for the first time. Christ revealed in a transgender woman. From speaking and reading others who have had a similar experience as me, there comes an inner knowing. The soul’s recognition of hell and home. And you know that hell is not a place. It is a metaphorical purifying fire that every soul must endure. For some, this dark night of the soul lasts years. For others, it is relatively quick. The good news is God is with you in hell.
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.Psalm 139:7-8
“Religion is for people who fear hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve already been there.”
This quote, variously attributed to many people, is well-known in Alcoholics Anonymous. While society stigmatizes addicts, many of them who recover know something about real spirituality that religious people do not.
True love and intimacy with someone is impossible when the other is threatening you. Who could go authentically to the marriage bed with someone who had seriously threatened to torture them? And falling in love with an abuser has a name: Stockholm Syndrome (thanks to Amanda Cook from Bethel Music for making that connection for me). However, that is precisely what the church asks people to do with god. It’s literally unworkable. Jesus was the embodiment of what perfect Love (God) looks like. Jesus shows us that Love (God) forgives unconditionally. But it seems the “god” of some theologies does not. Jesus loves and forgives even those who do not recognize him. But to some, the “god” who sent him has a cut-off point. That’s really not very good news for the whole world. “Love keeps no record of wrongs”, but apparently god does.
I would argue that, instead of being transformed into the likeness of an all-loving God, we’ve transformed god into our likeness. Most human love does have a cut-off point in practice. We have not been given the correct lens through which to view God. Western Christianity teaches that Jesus took our place in a bloody transaction to appease a god who couldn’t accept us. Jesus was not a transaction. Jesus was a revelation of God. A revelation that Love is completely non-violent. Love understands that its enemies are not evil – they are blind victims of evil. Love forgives unconditionally. Death is not something to be overcome, but something to fall through into Love. Jesus didn’t die so that we wouldn’t have to. He sacrificed himself to demonstrate that we are already one with God. He revealed that the Way to Life and Resurrection is the path of descent. Jesus revealed that death is not to be feared because Love is stronger than death. Death of the False Self is the narrow path to Life and Resurrection. Many do not find this until their physical death.
The distinction between Jesus as a revelation rather than a transaction cannot be overstated. In Galatians 1:15-16, Paul says, “But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles…”
Notice Paul does not say God revealed Christ to him. He revealed Christ in him already on the road to Damascus. This is no small point. Christ was already in him from the beginning, waiting to be revealed at the right time.
The word “hell” did not find its way into the scriptures until Jerome translated the Greek into the Latin Vulgate in the fourth century. By this time, Christianity had become the dominant religion in the Roman empire where doctrines were interpreted and enforced by the most powerful in society. To put a finer point on it: those introducing the punitive concept of “hell” were the most powerful in the Roman Empire, in the same positions as those who crucified Jesus. And even with that, our idea of hell being a place of eternal fire and conscious torment was more of a reflection of Dante’s Divine Comedy:
In his book, Inventing Hell, Jon Sweeney points out that our Christian notion of hell largely comes from several unfortunate metaphors in Matthew’s Gospel. Hell is not found in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. It’s not found in the Gospel of John or in Paul’s letters. The words Sheol and Gehenna are used in Matthew, but they have nothing to do with our later medieval notion of eternal punishment. Sheol is simply the place of the dead, a sort of limbo place where humans await the final judgment when God will finally win. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, in the end “God will be all in all” (15:28). Gehenna was both the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem—the Valley of Hinnom—and an early Jewish metaphor for evil (Isaiah 66:24). The idea of hell as we most commonly view it came much more from Dante’s Divine Comedy than the Bible. Dante’s Purgatorio and Inferno are brilliant Italian poetry, but horrible Christian theology.Center for Action and Contemplation
Below is a chart which shows the occurrence of the word “hell” in different translations of the Bible:
The word “hell” is not found in many translations. However, almost all Protestant Bibles are translated from the King James Version which was translated from the Latin Vulgate. So I suppose Protestants got hit the hardest with the threat of hell.
The language of religion is metaphor.
Spiritual experiences cannot accurately be expressed with language. Metaphor is really the only vehicle we have for describing what spirituality is like. The kingdom of heaven is like little children… the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner… the kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet… the kingdom of heaven is like ten virgins… it’s like this… it’s like that. Metaphor, metaphor, metaphor.
Likewise, fire is used as a metaphor all throughout Scripture.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”Matthew 3:7-12
John is speaking to religious people who are coming to be baptized out of fear of God (like many of us!). But there was no fruit in these people, just as we often see in Christians today. Just as the religious people then claimed their father Abraham as their “ticket” into heaven, many today claim Jesus. But John tells them their False Self will have to be purified with fire. The Holy Spirit will baptize with “fire” and burn any chaff (False Self) – leaving only the wheat (True Self) that is good.
Why does this matter so much? If Christianity wants to move forward, we must throw out this notion of eternal damnation.
Any strong emotion, fear, stress, anxiety, anger, joy, or betrayal trips off the amygdala and impairs the prefrontal cortex’s working memory. The power of emotions overwhelms rationality. That is why, when we are emotionally upset or stressed, we can’t think straight. The IQ points we need to thoughtfully consider decisions are depleted temporarily.Psychology Today
Fear, especially when experienced as a child, stores itself in the limbic brain, which is responsible for our survival instincts and fight-or-flight response. Many of us who grew up believing in eternal hellfire buried this unthinkable notion in our unconscious. Threats of hell “work” because they appeal to our lowest level of consciousness. True conversion does not happen from fear passed down through dogma. True conversion happens from an experiential revelation of the Risen Christ. “Where are you going when you die?” is fear-based religion. It’s fire-insurance-policy religion. It’s a schizophrenic religion that’s not working. And it keeps you spiritually and psychologically stuck in fear.
I was so relieved to discover I was not alone in this. I’ve found many Christians in the church who’ve had this awakening about hell. I found myself in what felt like a secret club of believers who knew this hush-hush secret. We all feel so free with this idea no longer embedded in our subconscious. We feel… well… saved.
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.1 Corinthians 15:22
For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.Romans 11:22
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.Romans 5:18
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.Titus 2:11
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.Luke 3:6
“All” means all. How did we miss this? I believe it largely has to do with our notion that salvation concerns what happens to us after our physical death. In reality, it’s about realizing that you have never been separate from God – except in your mind. “Jesus saves” means “love heals the mind.” (A Return to Love, p. 232)
Early Orthodox Christian art depicts Christ’s resurrection as a universal, communal event. Below are paintings of the Anastasis. It flies in the face of the West’s view of what it means to be “saved”. We often forget that, after his death, Jesus “descended into hell,” and the early art depicts Jesus standing on open gates and pulling people out of hell. Not saving them from entering. In other words, the meaning of his death is not a transaction, not a payment of debt to satisfy god and avoid an eternity burning in flames. It’s a realization that we are in hell until we see that the gate is open and we are free to walk out. He saves us from the prison we are already in. Every body is a Temple of God (meaning a place where God resides) from the beginning.
As Caryll Houselander says, “…reverence must be paid even to those sinners whose souls seem to be dead, because it is Christ, who is the life of the soul, who is dead in them; they are His tombs, and Christ in the tomb is potentially the risen Christ.”
Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us. He came to change our minds about God. God has been revealing himself since the beginning of time, and in fullness through the person of Jesus. The gift is the realization. The seeing.
I once was blind, but now I see. I hope you do as well.
If you want to explore this topic further, I suggest listening to this podcast.