Hell and Suffering
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Psalm 22:1-2
The contemporary image of Hell is of a destination where “bad” people go to be punished for eternity for their unforgiven sins. In past weeks, I have suggested that hell can perhaps be more reasonably seen, both biblically and logically, as a present state of consciousness than an after-death destination. There is a very real sense that any given moment, when entered into with our entire being, is an eternity in and of itself. If we are overwhelmed by sadness or misery in one of our moments, we will feel as if we have been condemned to hell, at least for as long as we are focused on a painful, but limited portion of that particular moment.
Hell, when seen as a present state, is a shared experience for everyone because we all suffer at some time in our lives. Pain and suffering take many forms, from the skinned knees and fears of abandonment of childhood to the broken hearts and emotional roller-coasters of adolescence to the aches and pains in our bodies as we grow older. At any age we can suffer from various illnesses, loneliness, betrayal, loss, and fear. Whether it is physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual in nature, all our suffering has at least a couple of things in common: (1) it hurts, and (2) it feels as if it may never end. Of course, earthly suffering does not fit into the contemporary vision of hell, and so it is often mistakenly discounted as of less consequence.
Pain and suffering can be divided into two categories. The first is pain we have brought upon ourselves. We may not enjoy self-inflicted suffering, as in the sore muscles from too aggressive of a workout, but we do not see that sort of suffering as unfair or unjust. A lifelong smoker who gets a lung cancer diagnosis may not like the diagnosis, but he or she cannot reasonably claim to have not been aware of the strong link between smoking and serious health issues. A person suffering from a self-inflicted hellish state may be miserable, but he or she is not likely to believe that an unjust or randomly punishing God has sentenced him or her to hell. Even if the self-inflicted issue leads to physical death, he or she will be released from that hell as soon as the soul is released from its wounded body.
Pain and suffering that occur from no apparent fault of a person’s own, however, are different. The person driving home that is hit and seriously injured by a drunk driver, for example. A lung cancer diagnosis for someone who has never smoked or spent significant time around smokers is another. This type of suffering can feel like divine punishment, which adds an element of perplexity to the already rampant anxiety. The Bible does reference future generations being punished for the sins of past generations. Could I be paying the price for the sins of my ancestors? This type of suffering sparks many unanswerable questions about justice and fairness. It may feel like a banishment to hell for no apparent reason. Like the self-inflicted types of hell, however, this no-fault hell will end as soon as our soul is released from its wounded body.
Whenever we feel we have lost control, when our life is not at all what we think we want or deserve, we have entered hell on earth – and we suffer. It is reminiscent of the 22nd Psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is the verse Jesus quoted in his agony on the cross. No doubt, Jesus was experiencing hell on earth, and knowing Jesus went through that degree of suffering should bring us some measure of comfort. The good news is that earthly suffering does not last. True, it may not end until our physical death, but it does end, and life goes on – just as Jesus demonstrated for us.
Although there are times when we suffer, there is always reason for hope. Hell on earth is not a permanent state. To the extent there may be hellish experiences in the next life, those, too, will not be eternal. God is always reaching out to rescue anyone who will reach back. The only way to perpetuate our hellish states is to perpetually refuse God’s on-going offer to pull us back into a more unitive state of being.
This is the 15th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.
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