I can’t remember ever doubting the existence of hell. As much as I believe “there is a God,” I believe “there is a hell.” I don’t think I ever had an issue with the idea that “there is a judgment” either and that God decides who goes to hell, no matter how many times we may hear people throughout our lives telling others to “go to” or “burn in,” or see someone wiping the sweat from their brows or the tears from their eyes, struggling to pick themselves back up after, saying “this is.”
No, it’s not.
I don’t really like the idea of hell, but I accept it as part of God’s plan . . . something not so much to be afraid of as to be freed from. It’s not like He disguises it with camouflage bushes so we just skip along happily and suddenly tumble in. No, there are warning signs and a clearly marked exit ramp.
My real father joked about hell. He said he was too mean for hell. I think he believed in and feared it. I wish I could say for certainty he will never be there. I hope that at some point in his up-and-down life he stepped off the roller coaster and met Jesus face to face. Again . . . I wish I knew for sure. I remember that when my dad left my life, when I was just a little boy, I might have thought — but never said — “this is hell.” It wasn’t, and, frankly, as sad as those days were, there would be more much worse. I think, in truth, hell is just hell. It doesn’t get better; it doesn’t get worse. It’s just . . . hell.
My stepfather used to talk of hell too. To him, it was only an obscenity, to be uttered following “Oh,” when he couldn’t get a jar open or someone left a door ajar. If he was mad at something or someone, he would say “d*** it to hell,” like he had some decision-making authority. I think he probably knows by now that he did not. He did make me pretty uptight about the word “hell” though. I put it on the list of things I could not say, along with other choice words from his vocabulary. It took me a long time to say “hell,” and I only do it when talking about the real . . . hell, like I did in a chapter in Surviving Sexual Brokenness, called “If You’re Going through Hell, Don’t Stop at the Gift Shop.”
I remember, about the time I became a teenager, older guys, primarily college-age, were marching and chanting “Hell no, we won’t go!” when President Lyndon Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam. But what I really remember is that my older brother didn’t chant; he went. I think it was pretty close to hell for Mike, but it was the right thing for him to have gone . . . so it definitely was not hell, even if it felt like it.
My oldest son, Zach, participated in a bike race called Hotter’N Hell 100 in Wichita Falls. He endured rattlesnakes, dusty dry earth, perilous rocks and scorching sun and a really nasty injury in a wreck. It was hot, and I definitely don’t want to go there, but it wasn’t really hell. Or hotter than.
Though I pledged to not use the word, there have been plenty of times in my life when I should have looked around at where my sins had led me and said “Where in the hell am I?” It seems an appropriate question, for is there any place more lost than hell?
Of course, according to Rob Bell, maybe there is no hell at all? Hmmm . . . I know a lot of theologians have taken that claim to the highest levels of refutation already. As for me, I just believe there is a hell because the Bible tells me so. And, I think clearly that if Jesus went to the trouble to tell us there were a lot of rooms in a mansion in heaven, He would have gone on to tell us that the non-mansion in hell was just a myth. He didn’t.
Well . . . that’s probably enough about hell, except to explain why I chose to write about it anyway. Why? Because I know some people who are putting themselves through a personal hell, fenced in by shame and guilt, the breath of living sucked out of them by the weight of self-judgment, magnified by the imposed judgement of others. Their spirits starve in hopelessness and they live in fear of the next fall as they see temptations swarming around them like, well . . . bats out of hell.
Who are they?
Porn addicts drifting further away from reality in darkened rooms behind computer screens, immersed in ever-elusive self-satisfaction. (“I’m not hurting anyone.”)
Christians battling unwanted same-sex attraction while sifting through culture-driven justification as a potential way out of the raging inner storm. (“You were born this way.” “God wants you to be happy.” “Christians are backward and narrow-minded.”)
Men and women giving in to lustful thoughts and slowly drifting into adulterous affairs. (“No one else understands me.” “I’m going to stop this as soon as I can do it without hurting her . . . or him.”)
Maybe what they are going through is not technically hell, but it falls far short of heaven on earth. Maybe it is not real hell, but it feels like pure hell.
The sins are so easy to identify: fantasizing with porn, engaging in homosexuality, committing adultery. Fantasize. Engage. Commit. Not bad words on their own, but suffocating when paired with sexual sin. Nearly as suffocating as the words that often precede the giving in: lonely, rejected, abused, confused, longing, wanting, self-destructive.
These weak and wounded sinners are left by many to die. “We did our best to help. Now God will sort it out.” Impatient at the sexually-broken’s self-satisfying, fun-for-a-season descent into darkness, the also weak-and-wounded-in-other-ways watcher says . . . what? “Go to hell?” Or, maybe not. What if, aware of our own weaknesses, we pause, breathe, and say, with meaning that goes beyond all triteness: “God loves you and so do I,” and extend the hand of grace and the embrace of love that is not like the love that the addicted seeks — not a fantasy love — but the love that heals, that is patient and kind and enduring. Christ-like love. No condoning, just compassion.
Can we love people when they have done wrong?
Can we not?
It takes energy to love someone who is draining all the life out of you through their embracing of sin. An embrace that is, perhaps, in reality, more like an entanglement from which the sexual sinner exhausts himself fighting for freedom and then soothes the exhaustion with further strangling.
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by My Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” — Matthew 16:17-18
I would like to have lived the kind of life where Jesus — or anyone else, for that matter — would refer to me as a rock . . . and not as a wayward pebble rolling down a slimy hill into the murky banks of a stagnant river going no-where.
I myself am not stronger than hell, but Jesus is. He’s been there and done that. And the church is. You and me, if we will just be . . . the church. Jesus said so.
Next time you see a lonely life-lost hitchhiker, perhaps in the pew beside you, or in the room down the hall, or the house down the street, with his thumb out and a life-sign that says “The Gates of Hell,” pick him — or her — up. They may think they know where they’re going because they or someone told them so. Help them toss their burdens in the trunk. Offer them truth to quench the thirst and give plenty of compassion to rest the soul. This truly is the long and winding road which seems to have no end when traveled alone. It’s a no-passing zone and a lot of people are stuck in traffic.
The sexual sinner will suffer consequences . . . as will all who sin . . . you and I and everyone we know, but there is no sin beyond forgiveness. And I don’t recall Jesus ever telling anyone “forget about it,” when they truly sought His healing. The sexual sinner who knows the Lord is no more in danger of hell than the most near-perfect among us, so why not extend grace to each other and be busy at the work of plucking the pebbles from the brink?
What is hell on earth?
It is a place beyond grace.
Don’t go there.