So much of Christianity has become about avoiding hell. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a hospital chaplain, it’s that God is sending Christians straight to hell.
Christians need to stop thinking of heaven and hell as primarily places we go after we die. Heaven and hell are primarily realities that we experience here on earth.
Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is among you.” For Jesus, the kingdom of God, also known in the Gospels as the kingdom of Heaven, is a present reality. You don’t have to wait until after death. In fact, you shouldn’t wait because it’s here. It’s now. It’s among you.
Now, if the kingdom of God is a present reality, we can safely assume that hell is also a present reality. In fact, the word Jesus frequently used for “hell” was the term Gehenna. Gehenna was well known in the ancient city of Jerusalem as “the valley of the son of Hinnom.” Within the valley was a place called Topheth, where people would sacrifice their children, thinking that God demanded this sacrificial violence. As the prophet Jeremiah explains, this hell on earth is a purely human creation and God had nothing to do with this hell. Jeremiah said about those who sacrifice their children, “And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come to my mind.”
God doesn’t command the fires of hell; it doesn’t even come to God’s mind! Who, then, does command those fires? We do! René Girard said it succinctly in his book The Scapegoat, “[We] create [our] own hell and help one another descend into it.”
Hell is a place of suffering caused by spiritual, emotional, and physical violence. What does the kingdom of Heaven do when confronted with the violence of hell? The kingdom of Heaven goes straight into it.
Unlike so many Christians today, Jesus didn’t try to avoid hell. When people suffered from physical, social, and spiritual diseases, Jesus entered into their hells and he brought the healing power of Heaven with him. He healed people in mind, body, and soul. He invited them into the kingdom of Heaven, where, as Jesus’ prayer teaches us, people are given daily food to eat, everyone’s debts are forgiven, and we are delivered from the evil of inflicting physical, emotional, and spiritual violence upon our fellow human beings.
Many of my patients suffer in hell. They frequently call it “the pit.” In the pit of hell they often suffer relational torment from alcoholic, drug addicted, and abusive parents. Tragically, they medicate their physical and relational pain with the medication their parents modeled for them – alcohol and drugs. By the time they enter the hospital, many have lived this pattern of behavior for so long that they lack any hope and live in despair.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a hospital chaplain, it’s that God is calling Christians to meet people in the pit of hell and despair. I can tell you that the pit of hell is among us and it is a damn scary place to be.
But the kingdom of Heaven is also among us.
The fourth century saint John Chrysostom, known as the greatest preacher in Christian history, claimed that Jesus “descended into Hades, illumined it, and made Hades Heaven. For where Christ is, there also is Heaven.”
In the same way, God is sending Christians to hell in order to bring the light of heaven. Hell may be scary, but you don’t have to fear it. My mantra before I enter a room is always, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for God with me.” Christ is with us, turning our hells into heaven.
If you are a Christian, don’t avoid hell. Go straight there. Sometimes the pit is so dark, so deep, and so painful that there are no easy answers or quick solution. Sometimes all you can do is be present and listen to the other’s story with an accepting, nonjudgmental spirit.
And if that’s all you’ve done, you’ve done enough. If just for that moment, you’ve followed Christ into hell. If just for that moment, you’ve illuminated the pit of hell and you’ve brought a bit of heaven.