The prospect of damnation captured my attention early on, and I still can't quite exorcise my fear of hell. Not completely. I worry that, however unable I am to worship a tyrant, the tyrant really will turn out to be the one in charge, and he will torment me--along with everyone else who pencils in the wrong bubbles on this high-stakes multiple-choice test we call existence--for ages and ages and forevermore.
When I was six or seven, our Reformed Presbyterian church in Selma hosted a free-and-open-to-the-public outdoor screening of a film where teenagers die suddenly in a car crash and are transported (down a dark elevator shaft, if I'm recalling correctly) to final judgment and on to hell, except one or two in the group who had become Christians before the deadline. The cinematography and plot details have long since faded from my memory, but I can't forget the overwhelming darkness of the screen and the despair of the characters. That sort of thing has a way of settling down deep in your belly.
Depart from me. Depart from me, Jesus says to those on his left. You should have known better. You have the prophets. You have the scriptures. You are stubborn, stiff-necked, hearing but not understanding. You belong where there is only pain, regret, and eternal gnashing of teeth. I never knew you.
A book with a rose the color of brimstone on the cover appears in my mailbox. Biblical Teaching on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell. Love from a relative, no note. There are no streets of gold in this account, nor any seething volcanoes. But the RP author's hell is very real and very full of fellow human beings, nonetheless, and the reader is roundly forbidden from questioning the ethics of this: "We must grieve intensely over the damnation of even a single individual," the author writes. "Yet our natural compassion can very easily slip over into a dislike of the doctrine of hell itself." God is good. He knows best, and eternal torment of his unrepentant creatures is just and even glorifying to him. His thoughts are far above ours, his ways different than ours. Have a loved one, long gone, whom you're pretty sure didn't enter through the narrow gate? This author admits he is powerless to offer you any comfort but suggests you run to God who can comfort you upon the news of your loved one's eternal punishment. His is a peace that passes understanding, after all.
A couple years ago, a visiting poet at Wyoming read aloud from a piece titled "Torture." That word echoed over and over in the poem, for a number of minutes, bringing the audience a little closer to Abu Ghraib, to Gitmo, making us a little less able to ignore those abuses. That's not unlike my experience reading scripture more closely, more repetitively, in the last five or six years--certain words, certain phrases, certain stories begin to stick in new, troubling ways, until you can't patch over them like you used to. Paradox degrades to contradiction, mystery to madness, until finally you realize that if hell exists, everything else--every endeavor, every good meal, every smile, every breath, every breakthrough, every book, every new life--is rendered utterly meaningless.