April 6, 2014 by lucieromarin
It’s a rainy, rainy Sunday here, and watching it beat against the window reminded me of a funny experience a few years ago with unexpected theological results.
Well, the first thing to say is that if you’ve had endured many horrible years with unbalanced parents, teachers or clergy, and you’ve fled from any teaching about Hell as a result of it, my one little blog post is not going to resolve every problem, answer every objection, or, more to the point, heal every wound. That being said, I still think this story is worth telling!
When it comes to thinking about Hell, we have to remember that a) the Protestant and Catholic teachings about Hell are markedly different, and b) the Protestant ideas are better known, and are, in fact, assumed to be common to all Christians.
Chief amongst the differences is the question of whether or not persons in Hell are there by choice, and whether or not they want to leave. The world is full of people, Christian and non-Christian, who believe that the damned are in Hell (or are thought to be in Hell) either contrary to or irrespective of their own wishes, and that they would like to be released, but are kept there either because God is just or because He is mean (depending on how you feel about Him.)
(A sci-fi aside: I most emphatically don’t recommend Dan Simmon’s novel Hyperion, which is all kinds of b-grade, but I will say this for it; I think his cult of the Shrike is an excellent representation of the way God appears in certain forms of Christianity, and his description of persons trapped in an endless sea of pain for no good reason is a faithful representation of what we make Hell sound like. In other words, I don’t see it as an attack on Christian teaching, but a representation of what people genuinely feel that teaching is. A lot of the book was silly, but that aspect of it wasn’t.)
This is in stark contrast to Catholic teaching, which is, in fact, that Hell is freely chosen, and that the damned remain there not only because they cannot leave, but because they would not leave, even if they could.
Well, you can see the difficulty here. While it’s nice to think that Christianity doesn’t actually teach that God keeps people in Hell against their will, why would we believe that anyone would freely choose it – and remain in it?
I’ll tell you. A few years ago I was going for a long walk with a friend, and it started to rain.
Lucy: Oh, great. Now we’re walking in the rain. I hate walking in the rain! Why did you tell me not to bring an umbrella? I hate this! I hate getting wet! We should have brought an umbrella!
Friend: Here. You can use this.
Friend proffers me a towel.
Lucy: A towel? A towel? A towel? Why do you have a towel?
Friend: I don’t like umbrellas. Here, take it.
Lucy: I’m not wearing your stupid towel! Do you want me to look like an idiot?
Friend: It’ll keep you dry.
Lucy: I’m not wearing a towel in public!
Lucy: I hate this! I hate walking in the rain! I can’t believe I wasn’t allowed to bring an umbrella! I’m so wet! I’m going to get a cold! I hate this!
Friend: You’re complaining about the rain but you’re refusing something that will keep you dry!
Lucy: Because I have my pride! Oh, my goodness!
Lucy: I’m the same as the souls in Hell!
Lucy: Your stupid towel is like repentance. I hate this stupid rain and I’m still complaining about it but I have too much pride to humiliate myself by wearing your stupid towel.
Friend: You are the sort of person who could become either very, very good or very, very evil.
Now, no one has to tell me that that incident makes an imperfect analogy; I know it does. Even so, it was surprising – and not a little disturbing – to feel the strength and intensity within myself of the clash between a hatred of present circumstances and a refusal to change those circumstances because of pride. The discomfort of the rain didn’t weaken my pride, and my commitment to my own pride didn’t lessen the discomfort of the rain. I was just my own worst enemy.
So, don’t worry that Hell is full of people being held captive by a nasty deity. It isn’t. It’s full of people who came face to face with a proffered towel, snatched it from the hands of the One who offered it to them, tore it up with their teeth, threw the remains on the ground, spat on them, stomped on them, stormed off in the other direction, and, despite their hatred of the inevitable consequences, are still screaming, “How dare You ask me to wear that?”