A few weeks back, a COVID denying right-wing Fauci bashing radio host died from the very virus he claimed was a hoax. Of course, the Twitterverse took no time in expressing its glee.
“Thinning the herd!”
“Get Wrecked. Good riddance.”
“One down, many more Darwin award contenders to go.”
“Read this yesterday & I still don’t care……Anti vaxxers get exactly what they deserve.”
“Thank you COVID for finally getting the right people!”
“I’ve come to a point where I’m okay with that.”
“God punished him.”
As I read these snippets, I began to wonder where I’d heard similar sentiments before. Oh yes, from good God-fearing Christian folk. Turns out many of them think the Lord’s plan for salvation involves casting atheists, sodomites and various other reprobates into the fires of Hell where they will be tortured for all eternity. And boy, do they love glorying from the pulpits about some poor slob getting spit roasted on Satan’s never-ending rotisserie. I’m sure they love spewing that stuff on Twitter too. Strange though, because eternal punishment doesn’t jibe with the good and merciful schtick the Almighty’s PR machine’s been cranking out for millennia. In fact, the concept of endless perdition is chock full logical and theological holes you could drive a truck through. And, since I like playing advocatus diaboli, let’s examine a few of them, shall we?
First off, let’s say you get into heaven, but your child ends up in hell. At some point, after you’ve had enough of drinking from chocolate rivers, dancing on rainbows, playing with unicorns and rapping with Einstein, you’re going to notice Junior didn’t make it up there with you. He’s down there. And he’s screaming like he’s on fire! That kind of shit could seriously pop your eternal bliss bubble. I mean, this is the little boy you once held in your arms, the tyke whose delightful smile once filled you with joy. Okay, so he turned out to be a serial killer – but how can you possibly be cool with listening to his screams while waiting in the queue for the All You Can Eat Epicurean Buffet? That’d ruin my appetite. Luckily, theologians have devised creative solutions over the centuries to allow the blessed to keep enjoying Paradise while their babies burn.
The first is the Divine Lobotomy. In order to spare you bemoaning your child’s suffering in Hades, God will make you forget you ever had a child. Out of sight out of mind, right? Small problem with that, though. If you’re a parent like me, you know how intertwined your child’s existence is with your own. Therefore, removing all memory of them would diminish you – making you less of a person in heaven than you were on earth. And no matter how merciful His intentions, if God needs to hide, fudge or obfuscate reality in order to allow you to enjoy heavenly bliss then He is lying. And if God lies then He cannot be- as the world’s major faiths define him – Goodness and Truth Itself and therefore cannot be God. He’d be somebody else. Maybe a super powerful but nonetheless created being like Q from Star Trek. And he was an asshole.
Another harebrained scheme to keep you tripping the light fantastic in Heaven is to have God take your horror over Junior’s tortures and turn it into joy. One example of this nifty bit of psycho-theological legerdemain can be found in writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor” of the Catholic Church. “The blessed,” in Heaven, Aquinas wrote, “Will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked.” You, however, are probably more familiar with its popularized rendering, “The blessed shall delight at the sight of the damned.” That’s right. You’ll celebrate your kid getting microwaved in hell! Of course, there’s more to Aquinas’s thought than that, but ask yourself – if it was your child getting flambeed tableside for Satan’s dessert, then rejoicing in his pain, for any reason, would be the very definition of sadism. I don’t know about you, but most people aren’t comfortable comparing Yahweh to the Marquis De Sade.
Besides, are the blessed in heaven really going to act like a bunch of tourists visiting a hellish version of the Grand Canyon? Peering over the edge and cheering while watching people they might have known and loved scream in perpetual agony? I mean, will they be selling refreshments? Helicopter tours? Souvenirs? “I SAW HELL AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT?” That doesn’t sound like heaven at all – more like a gladiator pit if you ask me. And besides, we’ve got enough people on earth delighting in people’s misfortune as it is. Just look at Twitter. Then again, God could just hide Hell from our view. You know, tuck Hades out of sight like a run-down housing project in order to allow The Elect to keep sipping their margaritas in blissful ignorance while lounging at the Pearly Gated Community pool. (I hear the cabanas there are to die for!) But now were back to the whole God is a liar thing again. And some angelic wag would probably make an argument that the damned are an oppressed class anyway. Who knew God wasn’t Woke?
Yes, I know I’m being a tad provocative here, but in all seriousness, the concept of a good and loving God allowing souls to suffer eternal torture for their sins creates such a mass of contractions that theologians have spent centuries trying to quell the cognitive dissonance it creates. It’s like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. it cannot be done. No matter what answer they come up with it’s always, at least or me, intellectually and logically unsatisfying. Of course, this is when somebody starts yelling, “The Bible says this! Holy Tradition says that!” Since I’m not a Scripture scholar, I’ll leave what Jesus said about Hell (Who never used the word once by the way) to the New Testament academics. And Holy Tradition? I’m all for tradition, but not when it asks me to believe in something morally repugnant. I mean, there are parts of the Bible that’s says it’s okay to own slaves. Hopefully that “tradition” won’t be making a comeback soon. And let’s face it, the idea of eternal hell is barbaric.
The author who best showed the moral repugnance of never ending hell was Fyodor Dostoevsky in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the book, the troubled character of Ivan asks his friend Aloysha a penetrating question: “Let’s assume,” he said. ‘That you were called upon to build the edifice of human destiny so that men would finally be happy and would find peace and tranquility. If you knew that, in order to attain this, you would have to torture just one single creature, let’s say (an innocent) little girl…would you agree to do it? Tell me and don’t lie!”
“No, I would not,” Alyosha said softly.
“And do you find acceptable the idea that those for whom you are building that edifice should gratefully receive a happiness that rests on the blood of a tortured child and, having received it, should continue to enjoy it eternally?”
“No, I do not find that acceptable,” Alyosha said
In his book, That All Shall Be Saved, the theologian David Bentley Hart really ups Dostoevsky’s ante. Instead of having Ivan’s innocent little girl suffer to bring about eternal bliss, Hart replaces her with Adolf Hitler, who, to be sure, was a mendacious, twisted and evil asshole. Sounds better, right? If anyone deserves to be chewed in Satan’s fiery mouth like an eternal Gobstopper, it’s the Führer. Screw him! Okay, Hart says, not unsympathetic to the moral revulsion Adolph engenders. But think about it. Even if Hitler is the only person in Hell – no matter how much we think he deserves it – and he’s paying the price for everybody else’s sins, that would make him humanity’s redeemer, its savior – our Christ. And Hart says he’s sure no one is comfortable with that idea. But the logic works whether there’s only one person in Hell or billions. So, ask yourself, will heaven be worth it if the whole salvific shebang requires some people to suffer for all eternity?
Or, maybe, like that those Twitterers above, you’re “okay with that.” Could be you delight in the dammed – or antivaxxers’ – suffering because you think they’re “getting what deserve.” God punished him. Or maybe you’ve self-lobotomized yourself to forgot all about them lest they burst your socially media cocooned bliss bubble. Who knows? And if you believe sinners will burn unmourned and forgotten in an eternal lake of fire, then that spiritual brutality just makes it easier for you to write off a whole bunch of people you don’t like, agree with or who make you uncomfortable here on earth: antivaxers, gun nuts, LGBTQ persons, blacks, Muslims, immigrants, Maga-hat wearing Trumpers, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Communists, Democrats, Millennial hipsters, Republicans, Asians, Latinos, guys who hang plastic ball sacks on their pick-up trucks, vegans, hunters, people with tattoos, evangelicals and – gasp – bad tippers. All this divisiveness and hatred creates a real hell on Twitter – and on earth. So, it’s no wonder flawed and bickering humans project their grievances, self-righteousness, sadism and neuroses onto what they think should be God’s will.
Lest you think I occupy some exalted perch of sanctity, trust me, I’m no better than those snarky Twitterati types who delighted in that man’s death. When I heard the tyrannical owner at my first restaurant job had died, I joyfully quipped that I wanted to know where he was buried so I could piss on his grave. Considering how this minor league megalomaniac used to routinely vilify Jews, gays, people of color, mentally torture waiters, threaten undocumented workers with deportation, and insist on us calling him Padrón, I didn’t give my callousness a second thought. That his youngest son was only a teen when he died was beside the point. That bastard deserved to go unmourned. Then something happened to change my mind.
Several months ago, I was diagnosed with a potentially lethal medical problem. (Remember that “complicated reason” I referred to in my last post?) I prefer to keep the particulars of my illness private but, suffice to say, it was something that could prematurely hasten my exit from this plane of existence. Very scary. So, after a battery of tests, scans and consultations, I underwent major surgery to fix the problem. And, as I was taking my mandated post-surgical walks through the wards, I saw people in much worse shape than me who were suffering immensely. But I didn’t see people who deserved it because they smoked, drank, did drugs, overate or failed to take care of themselves in general. All I saw was scared people wondering what would become of them. Hobbling with my IV past the young and old struggling to survive – some delirious with pain and despair – I realized something. None of us deserve this. While I’m sure some of them did dumb things to put themselves in danger, any desire I had to judge faded away. As a good friend told me during the worst of my post diagnosis anxiety, “We all end up in the same place eventually.” And, in my solidarity with those patients’ fear and pain, I realized deep in my bones that I was one of them – just another sinner floundering around this vale of tears.
But long before my diagnosis, as you can read in this blog, I was coming around to an idea that’s not exactly orthodox church thinking, even though it can be found in the writings of some of the most influential writers of Christen antiquity – there is no such thing as eternal hell. Because as Bentley Hart wrote, “If God is the good creator of all, he must also be the savior of all, without fail.” Why create everything from nothing if He, being omniscient, knew some of those souls he’d summoned into existence would never have a chance? Cruel, no? Therefore, the only way the “Good God” thing works is if He saves everyone. There are numerous examples in New Testament which back up this idea– the parable of the Prodigal Son being the most famous – but biblical hermeneutics aside – it was my illness that truly made me abandon eternal hell.
We live on this earth for what, eighty years if we’re lucky? When you compare that short span to the infinite vastness of eternity, getting punished in perpetuity for something you did in the briefest flicker of earthly time would be like sentencing a child to death for stealing a candy bar. The punishment does not fit the crime. You see, throughout history, hellfire hasn’t just been reserved for über wicked people like Stalin, Pol Pot and Hitler but, as Hart writes, “[For] all sorts of lesser miscreants: the profligate, the wanton, the unbaptized, the unbelieving, the unelect . . . the unlucky.” If this is true, then salvation is all about the survival of the fittest – or holiest. I refuse to believe that not only on theological grounds, but aesthetic ones as well. As Hart bellicosely opined, believing in eternal hell is just in bad taste.
Of course, the most common argument against this idea of “universal salvation” is, if everyone is going to receive a get out of jail free card, then why should anyone try being good on earth? You could rape, murder and steal to your heart’s content without ever having to fear Divine Wrath. Shouldn’t a bad person get what they deserve? But how do you define “person?” There is no such thing as being a person in isolation. “We are as others have made us.” Beyond the formative sphere of family, friends and immediate relations, all human beings are molded by society, culture and language – all human constructs – which, when you examine history, are interrelated on countless levels.
Every human being who has ever lived has, in ways great and small, been affected their relationship with every other human bring. At the risk of sounding cliché, we are all connected. And if we are all responsible for how each of us has turned out, God cannot save some and not others. For God, to quote Michael Connelly’s detective Harry Bosch, “Everybody counts or nobody counts.” And if God is going to save everyone, then one good turn deserves another – something Jesus’s enjoined in his Great Commandment – “Love one another as I have loved you.” It works both ways. We must take care of each other because we are all in this together. That’s why you can’t do whatever you want.
Of course, people do what they want all the time with scant regard for others. Where is divine justice if God’s going to forgive everyone? Good question, but I never said I didn’t believe in Hell, did I? Hell is very, very real.It is a place of profound selfishness, ignorance, and disconnection which, if you’re honest with yourself, you know you’ve glimpsed occasionally in your heart; that piece of you that feels cut off from the rest of the human race. It is a place of immense suffering and pain. And, yes, if you’ve been a real shit on earth, that may be where you end up – but not forever.
I’m quite sure my reservation in hell has already been made and, when I get off the Stygian elevator, I’ll have to see all the shitty things I’ve done, not because God’s punishing me, but because I will be forced to examine my life in the light of God’s perfect and unchanging Goodness. I’m sure it’ll smart a bit but, after some crying and gnashing of teeth, I’ll finally realize that my greatest desire is for what is truly “Good” and then, and only then, will I become the person I was always meant to be. But what about Adolph? Him too? Yep. It might take eons of time, but luckily for him, God is infinite. He can wait until the last black hole evaporates -and beyond- until Hitler gets with the program and can order that margarita in Elysium. Perhaps God’s infinitude is also His mercy and his justice.
Rest assured; I know that many people will be offended by the idea of Hitler in heaven and in no way should my bit of theological exposition be seen as excusing the monstrous evils of the Third Reich – but I think the idea of eternal hell is fatally flawed. Be that as it may, people are very attached to the idea of sinners getting torched and are loathe to give it up – probably because it’s been such a useful cudgel for keeping the faithful scared shitless and paying up. But there’s another reason why we like hell so much – something Madison Avenue knows all too well – the cachet of exclusivity. Just look at hot nightclubs where only select and beautiful people are allowed in. If you started letting fat dads like me under the velvet ropes, then the place would lose its aura of desirability and turn into a Chucky Cheese. And human beings love being in the “in” crowd because, as Oscar Levant once quipped, “It’s not enough to succeed – others must fail.” Remember how those inoculated Twitter folks gloried in the “big fail” of the unvaccinated? All that polarization, intolerance, ignorance, and cruelty you see on social media are Satan’s little trolls. (Along with the Russians and the Chinese.) But when it comes to salvation, thinking you must succeed where others fail turns the soteriological drama into a cosmic version of The Apprentice (You’re fired, loser!) – with lovely prizes for the winners and dreadful consequences for the losers. That turns Heaven into a place where every soul is just out for itself, which, as Bentley Hart devastatingly points out, “Is the precisely the ethos of Hell.”
Yes, you should get vaccinated, wear masks and follow social distancing rules because we’re all in this pandemic together. And I also get angry that vaccine resisters, mask protestors and crazy politicians and preachers are helping spread the virus. I don’t want my kid going back to virtual learning because some people can’t get with the program. I don’t want people to perish when they didn’t have to. But snickering at anti-vaxxers when they croak from COVID, saying they deserved it, accomplishes nothing. If anything, it makes them more entrenched in their delusional thinking. They may be laboring under bad misinformation, defective thinking, willful ignorance, political or ideological tribalism and pride, but can you really say they deserve death? Would you be willing to tell them that as they lay terrified on their deathbeds? Would you tell their children, “When you don’t believe in science this is the result?” Probably not. When you’re face to face with true suffering, that’s just in bad taste. We might be among the inoculated virtuous but, whether we like to admit it or not, we’ve all been guilty of doing other stupid, selfish and hurtful things. We all labor under delusions and illogical passions – what used to quaintly be called sin. You’d like your failings forgiven, wouldn’t you? Then why are we so loathe to forgive others – even to the point of rejoicing in their misfortune?
I don’t think God is interested in people getting their just desserts. In Buddhism, there’s a wonderful story of bodhavistas refusing to enter Nirvana until they can help every last bit of creation across the finish line. In the Quran, God, says, “My mercy embraces everything.” And when you read the New Testament, it becomes apparent that God doesn’t want to punish mankind – He wants to rescue it. By believing in Eternal Hell, however, we are placing limits on God’s love – and I’m quite sure that’s a contest we’ll lose. That’s because God’s nightclub is always open, transcending the velvet ropes we place around it. Infinite Goodness is His biggest draw, trumping trendy fads – whether they be cultural or theological – every time. He’s simply irresistible. We are doomed to be happy. So, when we’re tempted to “delight in the suffering of the damned,” whether it’s in church or on Twitter, it might be good to remember that we’re all just clueless sinners hurtling towards the same place.
Save me a margarita.
I do recall that some christians were saying HIV was God’s punishment for homosexuality.
But also I think “Covid doesn’t care what you think. It relies on you to spread it.”
A man is living during COVID times.
Dr. Fauci says to stay home and socially distance.
The man says “ God will protect me.”
The Governor says to wear a mask.
The man says “God will protect me.”
The President says to get a vaccine .
The man says “God will protect me.”
The man gets COVID and dies.
He gets to heaven and says to God “ Why didn’t you protect me?”
God says “ I sent you info about staying home, masks and vaccines, what else do you want!”
What you’re saying is actually spot fucking on.
As for a kid in hell, true story: My parents joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as the current prophet demands that it be called instead of the Mormons or LDS church) when I was six. I spurred my Dad on because I had started on my own hunt for God at six. When I was eight, my parents were “married” in the temple. My Dad had me bound to them for “time and all eternity.” So wherever my Dad went, I’m stuck going with him. Fortunately, I have an entourage now so this will be fun.
I’m dealing with long Covid. Every day is a fucking struggle. Every day I read about some Covid denier seeing the ceiling of an ICU ward as they breathe their last through a tube and think, couldn’t happen to a nicer person. I’ve had friends die. I have had friends who may spend the rest of their lives hooked up to a dialysis machine two or three days a week. I’ve got people I know who are sure that the push for vaccination is a Nazi level plot. And as much as it really goes against my “Love one another” basic value, I really want them to get Covid. It hurts my soul knowing that I’m that cold.
Hitler Painted Roses. Harlan Ellison wrote it. He either wrote it, or just read it, on Hour 25, a radio program of many decades ago. Made quite an impression on my teenaged mind.
As an atheist Jew I always believed that hell was meant to a temporary after-death “time out” for people to reflect until they genuinely repented and “learned their lesson”, as it were. As you say, eternal suffering just doesn’t make sense. Then again, the idea that everyone who isn’t the right kind of christian and perfectly perfect going to hell doesn’t make sense either. Like, you could be Mother freaking Theresa (who I know wasn’t actually all that great), but depending on your particular brand of christianity she’d be going to hell because she was protestant and not methodist. Personally, I’ll stick with be a good person because it’s the right thing to do, try and make the world a bit better than you found it, and have empathy for people, because they are all doing the best they can, even if that “best” is objectively terrible. We’re all made of meat, and in the end meat rots.
One of your best pieces, Steve! A lot to process, but you’ve given me a lot of food for thought!
Steve, what a wonderful post. You have given me, at least, a great deal to unpack.
I would begin by saying that it is not God who condemns us; we do it to ourselves by either rejecting Grace, or by refusing to acknowledge God’s existence in the first place. I was taught that we need to ask for God’s Grace (salvation through Christ’s sacrifice) in order to receive it. From that point on, we are expected to strive to live by Christ’s example, which as you so rightly point out, was love of all things and above all things.
You also very correctly point out that Jesus never talks about “Hell”. In one of his parables about the rich and the poor, a beggar and a rich man die and the rich man sees the beggar reclining the bosom of Abraham while he himself is tormented by thirst, but that’s about as close as He came to pontificating on damnation (and that wasn’t even the real point of the parable to begin with!).
I have spent a lot of time (probably too much of it) thinking about the nature of Grace and of our relationship with God. I am by no means any kind of scholar, and can only draw conclusions to help me buttress my own moral framework. However, one of the conclusions that I have drawn over the years is that God wants us to love him out of free will. God does not COMMAND us to worship Him, he INVITES us to do so. In order for our worship to be genuine, it must be freely given, not pre-programmed. Otherwise, we would have been created as autonotoms, which means we would have been programmed to perfect obedience from the start, would never have sinned, and salvation would therefore have not been necessary.
On another note, the Apostle’s Creed includes the statement of belief that Christ descended into hell. Why this this a part of the Creed? It is at all possible that He went there between His death and resurrection in order to save those already there? Just food for thought!
I am currently struggling personally with my sister’s choice to remain unvaccinated. I do not agree at all with her reasoning (based on her interpretation of her faith), but I will respect her decision. She knows that it is incumber on her to take any necessary measures to protect those around her (masking, testing, etc.), but remains adamant in her decision. I have made the (painful for me) decision not to debate with her over this. My relationship with her is much too precious to me to destroy over the issue. But that does not stop me from worrying about her.
Finally, a word to Atheist Jew. Your moral framework as defined the last few sentences of your post are what Christ modeled for us. It seems to me that you are naturally drawn to God, whether you acknowledge in Him or not. We can, all of us, only live by our own moral code. We have no right to force our personal beliefs on others, just as they do not have the right to force us to believe as they do, but I will say that I admire you for living your best life while having regard for those around you.
Well done, Steve. Well done.
Thanks for the kind words, Deborah. And best of luck to your sister. If you want to read a very good book what I wrote about, I’d suggest That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart. What wisdom there was in my post came, in large part, from him. Regards.
I don’t get the idea of it lasting forever either, especially when Revelation 20:14 explicitly states that both death and hell will be destroyed in a lake of fire — not that hell is a lake of fire as is so commonly portrayed, but that it will be destroyed in the fire instead.
I was raised Mormon, though I’ve very “lapsed” now, so I know how they explain it all and it always seemed better to me. 1st off, they rename hell to “spirit prison” and don’t portray it as a place of suffering so much as a place of “stopped progression” where those who are there are given the opportunity to learn of “god’s plan of happiness.” They are free to accept or reject what they learn there.
Eventually comes the final judgment and there are differing “degrees of glory” that follow from there, and the “lowest of the low” of that is apocryphally said to be so wonderful that if people got the barest glimmer of an idea of how great it is, then they’d commit suicide to go there now instead of waiting out their life.
The only place truly said to be “suffering” is called “outer darkness” and that’s reserved for the devil and his followers plus the very very few human souls that placed themselves beyond the pale and thus can’t abide to be in the presence of God, even at the farthest remove of the “lowest degree of glory.” and even this isn’t said to really be suffering, but simply “the absence of God” so.. figure that for what you will.
They reconcile calling “endless” and/or “eternal” punishment by having Endless and Eternal simply be names of God, so calling for Endless Punishment is just a way of saying “God’s Punishment” with no effort made to explain what that is, just “leaving it up to God” and assuming that a kind, loving, and merciful father-in-heaven will punish as minimally as the rules He lives by allow.
It’s not strictly Biblical, but comes from an amalgam of the Bible, their own scriptures they’ve added, and apocryphal statements and teaching of early leaders in their church, and overall it at least feels satisfying to me, even if I don’t hold to their teachings anymore.
Thank you for sharing this….I needed to know there is another person who’s views reflect mine. My husband and I share a very similar perspective in our own spirituality.
So much noise concerning who is right and who is wrong these days I find myself wanting to defend my beliefs while at the same time questioning “why”.
I have an opinion that words demean a person’s spiritual connections and fail to do justice to the reality of deep spiritual understanding. Yet we have a need to feel connected to others and words bridge the gap. You have bridged the gap for me with your writing today and again I thank you.
Thank you. Deciding anyone ‘deserves’ something bad to happen is one of the steps on the raod to de-humanizing others. We are all on this ship together… all people trying to do our best.
Steve, I read your book and found that in you, a portion of my voice can be found. I truly am sorry we never worked together because you would’ve been one of the better reasons to come to work(aside from getting paid to pay my bills, and also a girl I was extremely attracted to…).
Like you, I had put a tremendous amount of time into thinking and trying to wrap my mind around God. I’ve gone the distance and for time sake, I’ll spare you the history of my journey. Except for one.
I was waiting at a hotel restaurant and it was during the bloodbath that was happening in Rwanda. Murder, displacement, starvation of mammoth proportions. Every day I’d go home after work and/or school and flick on the news and there it was right in front of me: video images of the living that were dying.
Then I’d go into work the next day and serve breakfast to business travelers and tourists. In our restaurant, we had these beautiful breakfast buffets, and for $8, you could gorge yourself until your arteries reached max load capacity on eggs, bacon, sausage, fried potatoes, french toast, cereal, fresh fruit(and I mean REALLY fresh), coffee, juices(including the best tasting orange juice anyone would ever have). I’ve yet to see anything compare to what we had offered back in the day.
During the change over from breakfast to lunch, we had to throw out everything that wasn’t eaten. So into these industrial sized trash cans we dumped the warming tins that were almost full of the above mentioned. We would take the serving utensils and just feed the cans till the tins were empty.
Then we prepared for the lunch buffet. I found it to be utterly amazing what some skilled chefs/sous chefs/line cooks and even this waiter could do with a kitchen that didn’t really care about budgets. (I gotta tell you: it was truly a great place to work as a student living on limited funds as servers and kitchen staff could partake in the buffets at any time and at no cost to us whatsoever. I seldom bought groceries for home because I worked almost everyday and would take full advantage of ‘zero cost’ feasting every time I could…).
After the lunch rush was over, we’d do the same thing that we did after breakfast: feed the cans.
Then I’d go home, watch a little news then get into my studies or go to classes.
It was some unremarkable day after the breakfast hour while shoveling steaming piles of freshly made scrambled eggs into a can that it hit me: these dark gray, gross and wreaking trash cans with mouths wide open are being fed better than the starving. A lightening bolt hit me and it was here that I had decided to put God on trial.
My statement of charges was long, an avalanche of other and all things that I was trying to reconcile about a suffering world and an apparent absentee parent. “WHY would you let/allow…”(just fill in the blank with whatever questions/concerns/objections you’ve ever had because I’m confident I’ve included them somewhere in my exhaustive list of grievances)…if you are who you say you are and you REALLY loved us?”.
While I’d like to think and say it was my heart that was going on about all the injustices happening in the world around me, I have to admit something far less noble. I’ve come to realize that if God was going absentee on everyone else around me in the world, I had ZERO assurances that He’d be there for me. After all, what or who am I in the grand scheme of this universe if God was going to be so ‘hands off’ with what He created, especially bearing full witness to what was happening to His children?
I went round after round with this in my mind and in shear mental exhaustion and frustration, I’ve reached a conclusion that while God exists(I had accepted that part), I wasn’t satisfied with what was written about Him in the Bible. After all, if He could be so interactive with those in what I called the ‘Bible Hall of Fame’ back in the day of ancient yore, why has He stopped with all talking to and other interactions with anyone today? Have we gotten so decadent that we don’t deserve a one-to-one with Him any longer? Did we really reach the point of somehow making Sodom and Gomorrah look holy, or at the very least, worthy of not being totally destroyed?
It was when I finally rested my case that it seemed to me that God took the 5th. God said nothing to me. Nothing. Maybe if He did, I didn’t have the ears to hear it or the mind or heart to accept whatever He said.
And that’s how I decided to go with it. I was going to look for God but for me, the one in the Bible was simply not the one.
I then read into Buddhism, which to me, was far more appealing than anything else I’ve read into at that time. I touched ever so lightly into Islam: really not so much there for me. Hinduism: for me it was where do I even start? Way too many gods and while the artistic impressions of each was incredibly fascinating, I simply didn’t have the time. Besides, I really liked meat, especially that of the beef persuasion. The idea of having to answer for eating a god in the afterlife was something I knew I could never, ever deny. The A1 sauce on my chin would be the give-away.
So for years after I had this God in my mind that I would every once in while I’d talk to, for reasons mostly unremembered.
Then, on one day while driving to work, I asked God for a favor. I was a sales manager and my team was the very best in the entire country, out of over 400 locations. I would often drive into work with the radio off to do my mental prep of going into sales mode and on that particular morning, I just asked God if He could just help make my team make even more sales. I wasn’t being as much greedy as I wanted to put even more distance between my team and the next. But to be candid: the money from all that happening would be pretty cool, too.
Now, even when I asked for anything, I was never sure He was ever listening to me, because after all, He appeared to not be listening to the dying and starving around me and elsewhere in the world. Why was I so special?
So it was there I decided to really up-sell my name, my game and my position with Him. Maybe, in the back of my mind, all those who are suffering really didn’t say or offer what I was about to. Maybe I’ll just tell Him what I thought He’d really appreciate to hear:
‘I’ll owe you one’.
Yup. I kind of figured that just acknowledging His presence somewhere out there in the wide big universe would be enough to separate and elevate my requests from those who don’t even try and imagine Him. And besides: I’D owe HIM. Kinda like asking dad for the car keys and/or the credit card: you do this favor for me and I’ll take out the trash.
We call that the ol’ ‘attitude of gratitude’ in the sales world. It’s no big secret that reciprocity is the gold standard in the art of convincing and persuading. It’s the principle reason why you get all the free sample offerings at the big box places and the food courts. So basically, I placed God in the aisle between frozen foods and the produce: if He would just do that little teeny tiny sample of a favor for me and my team, then by golly, I’d sure be indebted to Him.
I really didn’t think about what I’d have to do but I most likely had in mind something akin to helping little old lady’s walking across the street, holding open doors for anyone behind me, letting in that driver who wants to get in front me. You know: all the little tidbits of kindness and courtesy that gives us that spiritual shot of dopamine that we cherish for the next few moments/minutes, right before the harsh reality of our existence sweeps all that out of our hearts and into the dustbin of our memory.
Thinking about that I had finally pinned Him down to a sure fire ‘why not?’, I began to bask in the soft sobering cloud of confident expectations. While doing so, I began to relax and thought aloud to myself and then to Him:
‘God, if You really exist, and I believe You do, then there is no possible way for me or anyone to really figure You out. All the smartest and brightest minds to have or will ever exist cannot even begin to come close to figuring you out because You are the Creator and we’re just the created. Like a ceramic mug placed on the shelf to be kiln dried: it can’t define the creator. It will bear witness of a creator and some sort of expression of the potter, but it can’t possibly know everything about him or her. You exist and You’re way too big for our puny minds to ever deal with or even begin to try and figure out. You’re simply not for me to even attempt it. I can’t’.
It was right here at this exact moment that I felt an incredible wave of immense peace sweep over me, like a huge burden was lifted from my chest, my shoulders, my heart and my mind. I had just finally relented and shut down all operations of my lifelong search of the ‘God Initiative’ and I was perfectly and blissfully wonderfully A-OK with that. I was possibly the deepest breaths and most relaxed I’ve ever come to know at that point in my life.
And it was at the very next moment that I experienced one of the two most terrifying things in my existence had ever happened, the first being almost driving my car over the edge of a 600 foot cliff.
This time is was incredibly different. It wasn’t about me driving into my horrific and imminent death.
This time God showed up.
That is one moment that will never fade. I was still driving to work that early afternoon, and I can still see the gray steering wheel as I looked through the windshield, bursting into tears and my hands were white-knuckled on the wheel. This wasn’t the ‘cliff drop’ moment. This was when God spoke to me as audibly as the person you’ve had your last conversation with.
Now, before I go any further, I can tell you for fact I know what people think whenever I bring this up. It’s because it’s the exact same thing I would think at that time, and maybe even sometimes now. This happened in 2003, and I didn’t tell anyone: my wife, family, closest/no-so-close friends, anyone until 2009. Nobody. My greatest fear after that happening was what in the heck would they think of me if I told them: ‘Hey, God spoke to me on my way into work’? Seriously, I get it. I didn’t go to church and even if I had known anyone I was close with who really went to church, I wouldn’t know how to even begin to talk about it. I just imagined the faces and all the ‘change of perceptions’ I’d have to contend with afterwards so my mouth stayed tightly shut about this for five and half years.
What He said isn’t what terrified me. He could have told me to stop getting the freeze dried onions on my McDonald’s cheeseburgers, and it would’ve had the same affect. It’s the fact that God suddenly became directly interactive with someone so confident, so full of himself, so incredibly…FULL of his own brand, that was totally out of line with Him, and yet everything all at once just fell right into place.
God interacts with His creation, and certainly not because of their ‘high status’. Sometimes He just goes through incredibly miraculous means to get to those who are just too hard-headed/confused/misguided to see what His Truth is really all about.
That meant He interacted with Adam, Eve, Noah, Moses and the list goes on and on in the Bible. And He’s interacted with a lot of people ever since who’s name won’t ever see print. And that means that whatever was written about Him is true, all true and nothing but truth, and there is no other book of any other faith that I’ve ever read talks about a God who breaks through whatever barriers to reach us.
That means that Jesus Christ existed and still does, and hell is for real, and I’m going there because what I read from the Bible is that you don’t get to the Father without Jesus.
God was no longer on trial now. I was, and nobody was going to get me off the guilty conviction.
So that’s how I ended my experience at the time: almost six years of deafening silence. I didn’t fall to my knees and have that life altering moment some others may have spoken about. I went silent. And so did God.
Then, one day in November 2009, I called out for Him in deep desperation, severely demanding Him to just give me one more sign because I was at the end of what we call ‘our rope’. I mean, I was done. My finances, my marriage, my job, my family: everything. And I wasn’t asking, I wasn’t being nice. I was just full of anger and told Him that I knew it was Him that day He spoke to me and I just needed one little sign, even a leaf drop, rain drop, bird dropping, ANYTHING that He can show me He’s still listening.
And I waited.
About ten to fifteen minutes later, my sister, who I would often refer to others as my ‘Bible Thumping Sister’ showed up at my front door, uninvited, unannounced, and most often times in the past, unwelcomed. Even as I let her in, it did not even dawn on me what was unfolding, happening right before my very eyes. My gaskets were blown, and I was just not in a place to even make sense of my very next moment. I just let her in, and she asked what in the heck is going on. I must’ve looked like I felt.
I’ll spare the long discussion that followed, but will tell you that she kept listening as I kept talking/ranting, and she would end up telling me:“It’s time”. I’d blow up at her, pushing it off with all my objections, and she’d just sit there, taking it all in, and just kept telling me: “John, it’s time”.
I can tell you that I pushed back so much that I started this all off sitting on couch and found myself sitting on the floor. And after all the back and forth, I was exhausted, just blown away. I just looked around my darkened living room at all the stuff that may or may not be here too much longer and thought:
“Is what I have going on all around me so damn terrific that I CAN’T invite Him in to be a part of this? Seriously, is having Jesus in my life going to make any of this WORSE???”
And that’s when I relented. I surrendered.
Not just then, but almost daily. I’ve had to surrender far more than I ever thought I’d ever have or initially wanted to. The foremost being that whatever my preconceived notions and/or conclusions about God, Jesus, Heaven, satan, hell and a whole lot more.
We all rely on our limited frames of references and those are like everyone elses: it’s predicated on and limited to our experiences, thoughts and feelings, and that’s simply not what God is based on. He’s outside all that. He’s reminded us often in the Bible that we are the ones who turned it upside down and we can’t turn it right side up again no matter how hard we try. We have to get ourselves out of the way and let God do what He does best: He loves, heals, comforts, and yes chastises too. And He judges as well. Otherwise He wouldn’t be just.
The surrendering was just the first part. I had to accept Him and that meant taking Him into my life.
I heard it that best represented in a show that it’s like being in a desert and walking for a very long time. Then you see a stand in an oasis, and it is giving away free, chilled water. And you reach to take the bottle water. It does us no good if we just accept the water, say our thanks and that’s that. We have to drink it to quench our thirst, otherwise we will die.
It may not be the perfect explanation about universal salvation, but it’s a very good analogy about Jesus dying on the cross for our salvation. It’s a sacrifice that’s far more than enough for everyone to partake, but not everyone will accept Him and take Him in.
And that means surrender. Unconditionally. On His terms, not ours. Again, it’s not what we think, feel, want or wish. It’s all on His.
I can tell you that since then, it’s been good, sometimes a bit painful, other times more than discomforting and at other times, quite unsettling. But He’s been the only constant in my life that I know I can rely and rest on. And even though I’ve come up short countless of times since, He’s yet to fail me at all.
Steve, this response was way longer than I thought but it really was laid on my heart to tell you this about me. I’ve been a practitioner of mental gymnastics for most of my life and I can see from what I’ve read from you could have been a team mate of mine if our paths had ever crossed!
Lord bless you and your loved ones, and whoever read this!
Thank you for tuning,John. I appreciated you comment! Where did you work by the way? Still in the biz?
Reminds me of Those Who Walk Away From Omelas. The quote from the Brothers Karamazov, anyway, does. Great post. Gets a person to thinking. I am also a lapsed Catholic, by the way. Thank you for your blog.