An Apocryphal Theory of Hell

The one thing that survived the fire in my daughter’s bedroom was a wall hanging my friend Shirley made. At the center of the quilted fabric, a lamb stands in a house-shaped field of yellow, surrounded by hearts and eight hovering angels. She told me that she saw this once in a vision.

It doesn’t make sense that the hanging survived when everything around it burned – the wall right next to it and right above it burned clear through. The heat was so intense that the computer on the shelf beneath it melted. But the lamb is untouched.

I haven’t found a fire theory that explains this. But I have my own.

The fire burns the chaff but leaves the lamb intact.

I’ve struggled all my life to understand how a benevolent God could create hell and assign souls He created to eternal damnation and torture. It occurs to me now that maybe it’s not eternal, that hell is a process, not a place.

The fire is whatever it takes to strip us of our illusions, our pretensions, our defenses, our excuses, our rationalizations, our facades, our possessions. Our comfort zone.

My fire was literal. It literally destroyed my walls and my stuff. It also metaphorically destroyed my false image, my lies, my denials. The whole world, or at least everyone who knew me, saw me stripped and exposed.

We live in a culture predicated on the denial of suffering and the denial of death. We are entitled, we believe, to live in a comfort zone in which we are never hot or cold, hungry or thirsty, ill or in pain, sad or lonely, aging or ugly. We wear make-up even when we are dead, to make us look like we are still alive. We are pickled and buried in an impenetrable metal container.

We believe that nothing should be difficult or painful, and when things get tough we just take a drug so we don’t have to feel it. Meth is fake power and opioids are fake pleasure.

At 14, my daughter personally knows three people who have died of overdoses in the past year. I live in fear that she will know one more.

Addicts and their codependents are just the most overt examples of the pathology of denying suffering. They are the ones whose fires are written all over their faces.

But I’d like to think that fire is God’s tough love. That sooner or later, it burns away the chaff, burns us down to the soul that lasts when all other things fall away. I’d like to think there is a lamb in everyone, a God seed at the core, the sweet child we always were, reborn.

Every spiritual tradition talks about the illusions of this world. Hindus call it maya, Plato called it the shadows on the cave wall, Shelley called it the painted veil, Jesus called it the whitewashed sepulcher.

It’s the things we think we have to have, the image we think we have to maintain. It’s status, power, wealth and pleasure. It’s our need to be liked and loved and admired, without ever really being known.

It’s the persona, the false self.

A camel is more likely to fit through the eye of a needle than the bloated false self to pass through heaven’s narrow gate. All of these layers, accretions, they don’t fit.

On my better days, I think that the fire is a gift. That it frees us from the baggage, the boxes we lug around everywhere we go, so heavy. That maybe the fire of hell is the liberation that only pain can bring about. The liberation we have run from and run from, wrapped in the bulky blanket of our comfort zone.

Am I free now? I’m more honest than I was. I am less entitled and arrogant. I see more clearly and realistically. I accept pain and imperfection more, my own limitations and other people’s. I love anyway, which is pretty much what love is.

But fire is not done with me, will never be done with me. It lives in me now, a fierce Pentecost. Some days it is agony to burn. I grieve the things I’ve lost. Other days I know that I am light. I am the lamb’s yellow house, a manger for what is deathless in us all.




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