I don’t believe much in hell anymore. Rather, I should say that I don’t believe in the hell of my youth. That hell terrified me for years such that, whenever I sinned, I would be in a huge hurry to get to confession and clean the slate. Hell was used by many teachers to frighten us into behaving. The alternative to good behavior would be a place of eternal fire. As such, I once held my hand over an open flame to get an idea of what hell was like. Needless to say, this experiment lasted only a second or two and terrified me all the more.
To make matters worse, I was a bit of a behavior problem in school. It got so bad that at one point I told the nun to go to hell. Not a smart move! Amazingly I was not punished; however, some weeks later Sister was talking about hell and looked directly at me as she said “Some people need to worry about their own soul going to hell rather than telling others that.”
Over time, I came to see that I did not want to walk a spiritual path that was based on fear. What I wanted was to base my ethics on something other than fear. Two sentences have become the benchmarks of that path: 1.”Love your neighbor as yourself” and 2. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
I do believe that there is accountability in the hereafter. As one man who committed suicide told me in a dream “I’m supposed to wander for a while”. Presumably he had to come to terms with the impact of his actions.
My thoughts on hell have also been shaped by C.S. Lewis who suggested in his book The Great Divorce that even after we die we have the opportunity to be forgiven. Some souls, suggested Lewis, are so tied up in themselves that they reject that opportunity. Similarly, a saintly priest named John Long once suggested a vivid image. In hell, we are in a vacuum completely alone, revolving around ourselves.
Taoism would suggest that, if I have some believe in a glorious hereafter, I must also believe in its opposite. If there is a place of light, there must also be a place of darkness. I’m still working on that one. What I do know, however, is that I do not want to walk a path of fear. I want love to be the center of my spiritual world.
But as one friend challenged “Suppose you are wrong?” If so, there are likely to be some angry souls waiting for me with tire irons as I board the bus to Hell!
Reflections: Do your spiritual beliefs include anything about Hell?