by Linda Ryan
The official announcement is out. There are 26 weeks or 185 days to go until Christmas. This is a public service announcement brought to you by — well, never mind. Most people don’t want to think about Christmas yet; after all, it’s only a couple of days after the first day of summer.
Here in the Phoenix area, where summer temperatures hover between and 105° and 115° generally, sometimes lower, sometimes higher. This week it has been considerably higher, and wasn’t even the hottest place in the country. Still, three days of being over 117° and at least one or two of them being up over 120°, is it any wonder that I think fondly of Thanksgiving and Christmas when I can go outside without immediately bursting into sweat and finding it hard to breathe, or when the breeze feels like someone left the blast furnace door open?
The joke with my back-home family and friends is that if any of my nephew-in-law’s congregation (he’s a preacher) didn’t seem to want to follow the right path, if you get what I mean, that they should send them out to Arizona where they could get a taste of Hell before it actually happened to them. It might turn them around. Frankly, after living here, I want no part of Hell — this one or that one.
It’s taken me a long time to learn to see the God that I was taught loved people but hated sinners, was really a God who loved people. Period. It didn’t seem fair that even though, as a baptized person, making mistakes would cancel that out and send me to hell. A hard lesson for a child to hear, especially when one had relatives who probably weren’t baptized and thus candidates for the inferno. They were loved, but without that baptism punch card, would they actually go to Hell? What about infants who died at birth or not long after? I never really got an answer I could count on.
The Jewish tradition refers to a place called Sheol. It was a place of the dead where they went and slept after death, but there was no mention or intention of a fiery place that they would be spending eternity. In New Testament times, Sheol got mixed up with Gehenna which was a place where fires burned continually, usually burning trash but occasionally bodies I imagine. In the traditional Apostles’ Creed, it referenced that Jesus “descended into hell,” but that has been changed to “descended to the dead.” Somehow that’s a little easier for me to accept. The word “Hell” has become like a wound that doesn’t totally heal; it doesn’t take much to knock the scab off and the pain and burning sensation to begin all over again.
The first time I heard anyone say that they felt that the love of God was so inclusive and so broad and wide and deep that Hell would be empty because God wouldn’t send anyone to Hell. All were God’s people, no matter what. All of them had the God-spark in them and God would not willingly send a part of God’s self to Hell, right? It took me a while to think that one out, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that it made sense or, at least, sense that I could accept and wrap my mind around. I remember that as a child, we were taught that Jesus loves me like the old song said. We learned that from our earliest days in Sundayschool. Then we got upstairs to “Big Church” we learned that God hated sinners and that we were all sinners. Who and what to believe?
As a child it was easy to accept this because adults told us this was what it was, and we were taught to believe what adults told us without questioning. But as I got older it made less and less sense. Of course what God wants is for us to be good people and to do all the things that God wanted us to do, like care of each other, love each other, help each other, and all the other things that would make for the kingdom of God on earth.
But then someone would point out that surely Hitler would not be allowed into heaven, or the latest serial killer, or the tyrant who created genocides. Certainly God wouldn’t want those people in heaven, no way! It was hard to believe that God is so in love with humanity that even Hitler or Pol Pot or Idi Amin or any person that committed atrocities would be welcome along with people like Mother Teresa or Harriet Tubman or J.S Bach. It doesn’t seem that those evil people should receive the same treatment as the people who had honestly tried to be and do good, but then we get into that question of how much love does God have? Is there only a certain amount of love to go around and it stops at the Hitlers and what have you? Or does God mourn the wrongness of direction of some lives but still loves the God-spark in each even though it has been banked and put behind dark shades. It takes a little more thinking.
Back home we used to have a saying that when the temperature got up in the 90s and the humidity was right around the same mark, it was, “hotter’n Hell.” In Arizona we can have the same feeling when the temperature gets up past a certain point and when the humidity rises, it feels, “hotter than Hell.” I wonder — Is Hell more like a blast furnace or the surface of the sun, some other kind of more than extreme heat? Would that be the kind of place God would put a child that God had created or breathed life into? How hot is hotter than Hell?
We are all children of God and deserving of the love that God offers us. Think about it. There’s a tiny bit of God in each of us and God loves us.
So there we are. I’m looking forward to days when it doesn’t feel like the moisture is being pulled out as if by a suction more powerful than a vacuum, but rather as a pleasant weather. Thoughts of the fires of Hell will have an adjustable scale it seems — what’s chilly to one is pleasant to another, and what’s unbearably hot to that other is merely an inconvenience to someone else. I’ll still say it’s hotter’n Hell if the temperature gets above 115°, but this week I think I will try to maintain the right kind of thoughts about Hell and think of how it can be interpreted. I think I will still believe that Hell’s going to be a very empty place. YMMV.
God bless — and keep cool.
Image: Fire crater