I have a very strong memory from childhood of another child making an obscene hand gesture at me. I must have been quite young, because I ran weeping to my mother. Hearing me and seeing my tear-streaked face, she stopped whatever she was doing. “What’s wrong? What happened?” she asked. I explained and showed her “the gesture.” She was the essence of maternal compassion as she comforted me. After some calming words and maybe a hot chocolate, she asked“Do you know what that gesture means?” I nodded, hurt, frightened, sophisticated, thinking myself a world-wise little boy. “It means…I said, as serious as can be, go to hell.” I don’t remember a laugh or even a smile on her face. How relieved she must have been to find that my corruption was not yet complete.
Go to hell! At the time, it hit me with the force of a sledge-hammer. I don’t know if I believed literally in hell, but I certainly didn’t like the idea of going there.
Well, I can relax now. Like the vast majority of Unitarians – I do not believe in that place of fire and brimstone – of eternal torment and punishment – that is called Hell.
In what seem like a very fitting turn today, in a world awash with the waste of our civilization’s colossal “progress” – the Judaeo-Christian concept of Hell had its origins in a great garbage dump. Gai ben-Hinnom, it was called. The valley of the son of Hinnom. It was Jerusalem’s municipal dump – a revolting place of death, decay and frequent fires. It is said the stench could be detected for miles around. When Greek speakers got hold of it, Gai ben-Hinnom became Gehenna and it morphed just a bit more to be Jahannam, Islam’s hell.
It was Christianity, particularly in the Middle Ages, that turned Judaism’s toxic landfill into the place of endless torture and suffering that the young me so was so eager to avoid. Hell became the oft threatened place of demons and flames that awaited sinners and all those who do not accept Christ as their saviour.
But Christianity was not the only religion to emphasize the concept of Hell. Some schools of Buddhism have their own versions of Hell. Hinduism, Chinese folk religion, and the ancient Mayans also developed notions of a place of punishment for wrongdoing in the afterlife.
I said earlier that Unitarians generally don’t believe in the existence of Hell. Ours has been a more forgiving religion that rejected visions like that of Jonathan Edwards, who saw God holding us “over the pit of hell much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire” and prepared to plunge us in for our misdeeds or lack of faith. To us, any God worth worshipping is too forgiving – cares too much about us – loves us too well – to mete out an eternal punishment.
Of course, we could be wrong. Perhaps you have heard about the Unitarian who died and found himself – to his great surprise and consternation – at the entrance to hell. The demon who ushered him in thundered at him “because you were a sceptic and a non-believer, you have been condemned to suffer in Hell for all eternity, which in your case consists of a place where no one will disagree with you ever again!”
Recently, the Pope all but abolished Limbo – the home of un-baptized babies and righteous non-Christians. I imagine millions of winged infants receiving their eviction notices and packing their bags for the journey to heaven after centuries of waiting.
So, no Limbo. Why hasn’t hell gone away? In modern times, people have much more freedom to believe what they want. Why would a belief in hell have stuck around?
It’s easy to understand at least one reason for hell. It gives us a way to deal with that handsome bloke driving the brand new shiny Jaguar [Jag-you-are] convertible with a gorgeous woman at his side who nearly ran you over and then screamed at you for getting in his way – probably with some of the same hand gestures we talked about earlier… Why is it that this guy seems to have all the breaks when he is obviously a right nasty git!
And then – sweet revenge – we begin to imagine him and his Jag spending a few millennia in one of the more torturous rings of hell… “He’ll get his!” we are inclined to mutter. We want to believe in a just universe. When our goodness is rewarded with yet another ample helping of grief, how can it be that evil seem to prosper? How can the world be so unfair?
A traditional Japanese story tells of a man who dies and finds himself in a shimmering realm. He is approached by a glistening being who ushers him into a regal banquet hall. There he finds an immense table laid out with unimaginable delicacies. He is seated at the banquet table with many others, and a choice selection of food is served to him. Just as he picks up his fork to eat, someone approaches from behind and straps a thin board to the back of his arms so he cannot bend his elbows. Picking up a tantalizing morsel of food, he realizes that he can't get it to his mouth because he cannot manoeuvre his stiff arms to feed himself.
Looking about, he notices that all the other people around the table also have their arms bound straight so they cannot bend them. All are grunting and groaning as they try to stuff the food into their mouths but they cannot reach and there is great wailing and moaning at their predicament.
Going to the being who had shown him to this place, he says, "This must be hell. But then, what is heaven?"
The glistening being shows him through the archway into another huge banquet hall in which there sits another great table, filled with the same array of foods. "Ah, this is more like it." he thinks. And sitting down at the dinner table he is about to dig in when someone comes and ties a board to the back of his arms so, once again, he cannot bend his elbows to feed himself. Lamenting that this is the same unworkable situation as hell, he looks about in dismay to notice that, at this table, there is something different occurring. Instead of people trying to force the food into their mouths, straining against the rigidity of their arms, each being is holding his arm out straight to feed the person on either side of him.
We can not know for certain whether, upon dying, we will find ourselves in some other place. We can not know whether there is some eternal reward or punishment in store for us. We know only that we are here now and that we have choices to make.
We were not born into a flawless paradise. The banquet tables of this world are piled high with beauty and joy, yet we all face the daunting challenges of this life. “Hell,” said Richard Bach, “is a place, a time, a consciousness, in which there is no love.” Without cooperation and caring, without kindness and respect, without love, Eden itself would be a flaming pit of endless suffering.
There are torments in this world, no doubt. If we care to see it this way, there are demons ready to harass us at every turn. And yet, so much is within our power. ‘Hell is paved with great granite blocks hewn from the hearts of those who said, "I can do no other”’ As Heywood Broun suggests, it is not demons alone who build for us a place of suffering and anguish. In our inaction – in our apathy – we build hell. A stone of inattention here. A boulder of apathy there.
It is often quipped that a Unitarian is one who will gladly pass up the opportunity to abide in heaven for all eternity in favour of a discussion group on the same subject. This is wrong, but I can see where the confusion arises though. A Unitarian will pass up the fantastic promise of heavenly delight, but it is only because he is too busy dismantling the walls of hell and creating heaven right here among us.
To serve the angels
establish your Eden
in the crux of the world
So may it be with you.