Admittedly, a comic book isn’t the first place to go looking for spiritual truth, but truth can jump out at us from anywhere. In the 1986 “Saga of The Swamp Thing” Annual, the muck-encrusted monster and a demon named Etrigan descend into Hell to rescue the soul of a woman unjustly cast there. Troubled by the existence of this awful place, Swamp Thing asks Etrigan how God can allow it. The rhyming demon replies,
“Think you God built this place, wishing men ill,
And not lusts uncontrolled or swords unsheathed?
Not God, my friend; the truth’s more hideous still:
These walls were carved by men while yet they breathed.”
We’ll return to Etrigan’s statement before we’re through. Right now, however, let’s take the question of Hell’s existence. Is there such a place? Jesus said there was – more than once. We find, for example, His words on the subject in
Notice how Jesus contrasts living with condemnation, and that He places both squarely after what we call death. Again Jesus speaks: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell” (
We’re all afraid of death; it’s our King of Terrors. But Jesus has demoted that king: “Do you think dying is the worst that can happen to you? Think again.” We want nothing to do with suffering. Again, Jesus forces us to consider alternatives; earthly suffering is not the worst that can happen: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two hands and be thrown into hell” (
Jesus uses language so stark and spare that some have taken him literally, going so far as to hack off their own body parts in a misguided attempt to be holy. This was never His intent. Jesus is stating the principle of “spiritual surgery.” That is, there may be people we’d be better off avoiding, activities we’d be better off without, places we ought not to go, etc. If they hinder our discipleship, we must peel them from our lives. A painful prospect? Certainly. But the alternative is even more so.
That alternative is suffering beyond suffering, a death beneath the grave. The apostle John called it “the second death” (
Jesus paints a different picture in
Is there a Hell? Do we believe Jesus?
What, then, is Hell? In the passages quoted above, the English word “Hell” is used to translate the Greek word “Gehenna.” It was a highly graphic term for Jesus to use, and it would have made an impact upon the people to whom He spoke. If any of His listeners cared to, they could have gone and seen the place for themselves! Outside Jerusalem lay what had once been called the Valley of Hinnom. It was a garbage dump. Fires burned there continually. It was a foul, stinking place, always smoking and smoldering, crawling with loathsome worms. What is Hell? To Jesus, it was the place where wasted humanity lay in a smoking heap of blackened desires — the supreme tragedy.
I walk behind my house across a dry creek to a rusty barrel with holes drilled through it. The holes are to let the smoke out. This is the barrel we burn our trash in. I look down inside and see things down at the bottom, things that used to be new and bright and full of potential. Now, however, in that black, acrid mass I can’t tell what was what. Something remains, but that’s all it is now – remains. This is the result of destruction.
“Destruction” is among the words used to describe Hell (e.g.,
I wouldn’t wish such a fate on my worst enemy. It is a prospect too terrible to consider. But we must consider it, as we consider the question of why such a gruesome fate should befall anyone. The truth is, we can catch glimpses of it even now. Here’s an addict living only for his next fix. See how his craving supersedes everything else. He can’t think about anything else. He’s willing to degrade himself more and more to slake that awful thirst. As we watch him crawling and squirming in his filthy prison, eventually we must ask, “Am I looking at a person, or a mere craving?”
Let’s not make the mistake of believing, however, that only addicts can lose their humanity. I was told of a woman – a regular churchgoer – who could not let go of her son. Even though he had married and had children of his own, his mother still considered him hers. She strove to drive a wedge between her son and the woman who had had the gall to take “her boy” away from her. She went to ridiculous lengths to keep her son by her side. Once again we ask, “Am I looking at a person – or a piece of a person – a grasping, pulling hand.
“Things fall apart,” wrote Yeats. “The center does not hold.” The poet could have been writing about the disintegration of human personality, which is the essence of Hell. Without a solid center to my life – the meaning, purpose, and hope Jesus gives – what will keep me from flaking apart? Those who resist the doctrine of Hell might ponder this question: Can God embrace a soul bent on its own destruction – a soul breaking down, hollowing out – without crushing that soul to bits?
Some people declare that the only Hell is on earth. Unfortunately, there’s more truth in that statement than they realize: Hell does start here on earth. Isn’t this the warning of the third chapter of John’s Gospel? ” . . . whoever does not believe stands condemned already . . . ” (
Before it is good news, the Gospel is bad news: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” (
We flinch from the notion of Hell. We salve the burning truth with talk of “love” (that may never be returned) and “forgiveness” (that may never be accepted). We try to create in our minds a kind of humanity God never conceived: Made for infinite happiness, rejecting infinite happiness, yet somehow turning out OK. It won’t work.
C.S. Lewis explained it, if not in the nicest words, certainly the words that make the most sense: “What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.”
Gary Robinson is Preaching Minister at Conneautville Church of Christ in Conneautville, PA.