I am the great sun, but you do not see me,
I am your husband, but you turn away…
Last time I was asking how we’d respond if the worst were to happen. Would we hate God forever?
Just before Christmas, I received a blog comment from someone in this very situation. The commenter hates God because someone very dear to them has died young and under tragic circumstances; and furthermore, the commenter believes that this person is now in hell and being tortured endlessly by God for renouncing their faith in Christ.
What can you say to this? I wanted to validate their feelings of anger, even hatred, towards God – as I said last time, I think this is perfectly natural and valid. But at the same time I also wanted to challenge the idea that God was torturing their loved one in hell. I wrote of my utter conviction that this was not the case, based on Jesus, who did not condemn anyone but who laid down his own life for all. I wrote of my understanding of God as a loving Father not a torturer.
I’m not sure what reply I was expecting back; probably I was secretly hoping for something along the lines of ‘Thank you so much, that’s really helped me’. What I certainly wasn’t expecting was the very short and blunt reply I actually received:
‘You either accept the word of God as it is, or you are NOT a christian. You just don’t get it.’
I’ll come onto my reaction in a minute. But first I wanted to note the odd paradox. The wounded person hates God, yet clings ferociously to their theology of biblical inerrancy and divine punishment. I find that hard to understand – and yet it is of course very human.
Why would you hold on to a set of religious doctrines when the object of those doctrines is now your sworn enemy? Perhaps in order that that one – that God – might remain your enemy. By taking away inerrancy and hell, there’s no-one to blame or hate. Yet by clinging to them, there’s also no-one who can help, for the one who can heal is the hated enemy.
I’m not sure that I can fairly lay all the blame for this poor person’s state at the door of a particular set of bad theologies. But nonetheless, I think that the combination of these two ideas, of unquestionable biblical inerrancy and of eternal divine punishment in hell, forms a potent and toxic theological brew which many have imbibed to their own spiritual detriment.
I’m not in favour of bandying labels like ‘heresy’ and ‘blasphemy’ about, but I believe that some theologies are dangerous to our emotional and spiritual health. It seems to me a deeply ironic and tragic possibility that some may actually be ‘damned’ by the idea of damnation. The belief in hell’s torments can itself torment people, as it apparently was doing with my correspondent. In this way, believing in hell can put you in a kind of hell.
So my initial reaction to the correspondence was deep frustration and sorrow. Of course I probably couldn’t really help this suffering person very much just with words, but I’d hoped I might be able to help a little. But it felt as though they could not or would not accept any help; that they preferred to remain stuck.
I couldn’t help wondering if that might not just be a small glimpse of how God feels sometimes… He ceaselessly offers to help us, but all too often we won’t be helped. He longs to heal us and free us, but we cling on to our wounds and our prison bars. He holds out grace and goodness before us, and we react as if we’ve been offered muck.
‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.’
Or as C.S. Lewis has Aslan put it, ‘O sons of Adam, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good.’
Anger at God
I must stress that none of this is to condemn this particular commenter in their terribly difficult situation (nor indeed anyone else). As I said last time, under the same circumstances I’d probably react in a similar way myself.
I do believe that it’s perfectly okay and perhaps even right at times to be furiously angry with God – even to hate him. I think that’s a completely understandable and acceptable response to some of the things life throws at us, or that we see in the world. I don’t think it necessarily displays a lack of faith or love; sometimes quite the contrary. The biblical prophets frequently raged at God for his apparent inaction in the face of evil.
Nonetheless, where I do think it can become a problem is when in our hate we turn inward, shutting others – and God – out. In our rage let us shout at God, even swear at him if necessary. We need to honestly express our hurt and disappointment and frustration and anger. And we may perhaps not be able to help shutting out his grace and love for a while. But let it not be forever.
The hell we make for ourselves
I’ve said before that I find it very hard now to believe in the traditional view of hell – a place of physical and spiritual torment where God sends unrepentant sinners to be punished for all eternity for their wickedness. But I do still believe in a kind of hell – the kind we create for ourselves, and in which the punishments are devised and inflicted by ourselves.
(Lewis again: ‘sleep, and be free for a time from all the torments you have devised for yourself’.)
And if we persist in shutting out all that might help and heal – all possibility of grace and goodness and hope – we are (I think) in danger of shutting ourselves into just such a self-made hell; a lightless and hopeless cage of our own fruitless anger and resentment and despair.
None so blind…
I think of Jesus’ many warnings about spiritual blindness, and about the eye as the lamp of the body. In particular I think of the Pharisees in John 9 who claimed 20/20 vision but were in fact unable to see either their own faults or Jesus’ goodness. And because of this they were putting themselves outside Jesus’ ability to reach and help or heal them.
‘There’s none so blind as them that will not see,’ goes the old saying – i.e. those who refuse to see. Refusal to see – or else refusal to acknowledge that you can’t see – is the most dangerous form of spiritual blindness. If acceptance of having a problem is the first step to overcoming it, then refusal to accept it is the greatest barrier to healing.
This is, I think, part of what Jesus meant when he talked about the unforgivable sin. It’s unforgivable not because it’s more depraved and terrible than other sins; it’s unforgivable simply because it cuts off the means of forgiveness, by shutting out the only one who can fully forgive.
Where God cannot go?
We believe in a God who is everywhere. But perhaps the one place in the entire universe where God is not – where he is not able to be – is the heart or mind of someone who refuses to let him in. Maybe God cannot enter the soul of a person who stubbornly and steadfastly continues to shut out all of his love and light, to reject his ever-offered grace and mercy. I’m beginning to think that hell is the inward condition of such a soul, sealed in on itself, immune against all efforts to reach it.
And even if God is everywhere, including in such a shut-in soul, yet if his love cannot be seen or experienced then it is as effectively as though he is not there.
I’ve referred before to the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, who are ‘so afraid of being taken in that they can’t be taken out’ – out of the self-built prison of their mistrustful minds. Aslan sets them free, places them amidst beauty and offers them rich fare, but they cannot receive or experience any of it because they are so shut up in themselves. They’re in heaven, but to them it is hell.
That’s not to say that hell is necessarily eternal. The person may perhaps choose at any time to open the door, or to open his or her eyes to goodness. Perhaps that choice is not likely or easy, but it may yet be possible.
An alternative response
Much later, after the frustration had subsided, a very different and almost opposite reaction to my correspondent’s words to occurred to me. I’m almost tempted to wonder if it was a response that came from God; a response of unreasonable or beyond-reasonable grace.
This response says ‘I hear you. You’re right; I am wrong, and I have misunderstood. Please talk to me. I’m listening. Tell me what you know, what you see, what you feel. Help me understand; help me see what I’ve missed’.
And I wonder if perhaps, just perhaps, such a response expressed in the right way by the right person might be able to reach even a soul in torment.