Friday, May 8, 2015

Hell Is Relational

Detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgement
I have written previously that salvation is societal.  Turns out that damnation is relational as well.

In the West, Christians of both Protestant and Catholic persuasion have long understood salvation as juridical at core, namely, that Jesus stands in for us guilty, law-breaking sinners, bears the just punishment that is ours on the cross and gives us His own righteousness, so that we stand before the Father not sinners with a rap sheet a mile long, but as if we had never sinned, just as His own Son.  Salvation thus is popularly preached and popularly understood as a change of status, from hell-bound to now having Jesus-bought tickets to heaven.


But for the Orthodox, salvation is not understood in primarily legal terms.  Brokenness is not something experienced in abstract legal categories.  But just as our relationships are the primary field where our sin plays havoc, so our relationships become the context for our salvation.  The Eastern story of salvation starts with the Trinity.  Again, unlike in the West where the Trinity is often reduced to a debating point among theologians and philosophers, the Trinity is understood in the East in predominantly relational terms.  St. John the Apostle says that ‘God is love’ which is born out as the Three are One and themselves define love in their mutual self-giving.  The Trinity is in fact the model for humanity, as we are created ‘in the image of God’, and not as a individualistic monad but as a couple, and by extension, a family, male and female together reflecting relationally what it means to be created in the image of God.  And we reflect that image as we human beings choose to love the other.  Just as the choice not to love mars the image and turns us away from what God intended for us and bears fruit in all sorts of collateral damage done to our hearts and minds and bodies, as well as our other relationships.


Salvation reconnects us with God the Trinity who loves us and reorients our hearts aright so that one by one we can bring love back into each one of our relationships.  Salvation also brings healing to bear on all of that damage that our choices not to love (and the choices of all those other people around us not to love) have done in our hearts and minds.  From the beginning and the very first choices not to love made by our first parents, the result has ultimately and always been death.  So it should not surprise anyone that salvation should involve God breaking the power of death, specifically as Jesus experiences death and burial as both a human person and as God the Son, and then breaks death’s power by rising again from the dead – ‘trampling down death by death’ as the Orthodox Easter hymn proclaims – so that all of the consequences of sin might be undone and all of those who respond to God’s call in the gospel might be freed from sin and death and restored to a life defined by loving God and loving neighbor and all creation.

'Ipswich [MA] Cemetery' by Calvin Steward

But hell is just as relational.   Just as our salvation is experienced in the context of our relationships, so is our damnation.  I’ve already mentioned that the heart of human rebellion is the choice not to love.  People may come up with a thousand reasons why they chose to behave this way or that way, but ultimately a choice was made not to listen, not to give, not to forgive, not to love, as well as a whole boatload of choices made to harm another in thought, word and or deed.  When we choose not to love, we turn our back on God just as we turn our back on one another.  Distance between us and God grows.  Not that God goes anywhere.  The distance is our doing, our perception, our desire.  God remains ready to hear us, ready to receive us, ready to love us, and in fact has not stopped doing so.  It’s just with our backs turned we no longer see, nor do we hear very well, nor can we embrace and be embraced in love.  We go our separate way, alone.  And we experience the damage that occurs when other people’s choices not to love score a direct hit on our hearts.  So we live our lives navigating a relational battlefield, and often we find ourselves caught up in the carnage, either inflicting it or being struck down ourselves or both.


Hell is that estrangement, from each other, from God.  Our choices not to love dig a hole which turns out to be the abyss into which we fall.  We try to cope by saying to ourselves, ‘This is the best I can expect, so make the most of it.’  Or we deny that anything is wrong and become like Monty Python’s Black Knight who impedes the White Knight in the quest for the Holy Grail, and when they engage, he promptly has his arm cut off.  To which  he bravely asserts, ‘It’s just a flesh wound.’  Or we blame our problems on the other.  Or we cover up our reality by becoming a somebody or buying more stuff or choosing narcotics or alcohol or sex to deaden the gnawing emptiness.  Hell is not something that God does to us.  We are not sent to hell.  Rather we do hell to ourselves.  Like our first parents, like every person who has gone before us, we choose not to love, and are left with the consequences.


Hell is popularly imagined as a dark cave with flaming brimstone populated by sadistic devils poking unfortunate sinners with their pitch forks.  Or their equivalent...


Gary Larson's 'Aerobics in Hell' (The Far Side)

But the Bible uses only metaphor to describe hell.  The reality is evidently beyond description.  As far as Scripture goes, hell is not so much a place as it is an absence.  Or a direction, a persistence in the wrong direction.  Hell is the absence of love.  Hell is our facing away from God.  Hell is embroidered into all of our relationships when we choose not to love.  It is what we are left with when we are allowed to have it our way.  It may seem attractive to some to end up as number one, to have it all and push everyone else aside.  But since we were created by love, created for love, we become less than human when we are not defined by love. The image of God all but disappears.

The tree is known by its fruit.
Hell will not be a surprise to anyone, nor will heaven, for that matter.  The goats are already behaving like goats, just as the sheep are already behaving like sheep.  Our choices today are already defining our reality.  And were it up to us, there would be no way out, so strong is the maelstrom pull in our hearts not to love.  Which is why the gospel is such good news.  The incarnation is God's intervention into our story, His invitation for us to become His story.  Once we see Jesus, once we listen to what he says, once we put our lives up to His life and begin to fathom what’s gone wrong and understand what His solution, His salvation is all about, it’s simply incredible.  Because I think we all know that we don’t just need forgiveness.  We don’t just need a change in status.  We need new hearts, hearts that respond to God’s love, hearts that forgive just as I’ve been forgiven, hearts that reach out to the other with compassion, hearts that choose to love.


Even so, even in hell itself we will be surrounded by the love of God.  Hell is not the absence of God's love, but, rather the absence of our love.  There will be no one in hell who was sent there.  All were on their way long before they died.  All entered by their own free will.  All stay because they refuse to turn and be transformed by the love of God. (Whether they would cannot be answered, by us at least.  The demons seem confirmed in the choices they’ve made.)

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son

There are mysteries aplenty in Christianity.  But for me perhaps the biggest is not how God could be Trinity or how Jesus could be man and God.  But the biggest mystery to me, as I survey the current human scene and think over our long sad history (and mine, too), is why would anyone ever want more of the same when one can have love, and forgiveness, and reconciliation, and healing, and a second chance?


Now I do know that I’m prone to tunnel vision when I write some of these posts. So if you have caught me out or have a better angle on this, I’m happy to hear from you!