I, eventually, grew up attending a Southern Baptist church. And, I always believed that nobody does the threat of going to Hell and facing eternal damnation, not to mention the pain of being constantly on fire, any better than the Southern Baptist. They can do it in the most pleasant manner too, often with a warm Southern accent.
Now, however, I am reading the highly respected, by many but not all, and consequential autobiography by Thomas Merton – The Seven Storey Mountain. (The last time a pope visited the USA he cited Thomas Merton as one of the 4 great Americans, right up there with Abraham Lincoln.) Let me tell you, the Southern Baptists have nothing on the Catholics when it comes to scaring the hell of ya. I am at the point in his story when he is about to convert to Catholicism. His beliefs about Hell, during the time he wrote the book, rank right up there with the scariest sermons I ever heard as a kid.
Ok, so here is my problem. I really don’t want to go to Hell when I die, yet many people I love and respect probably think that is my ultimate destination unless I repent from my backsliding ways and man,oh, man have I backslid.
I do believe in God. I do believe in God’s Holy Spirit. The story of Jesus has me completely baffled. When it comes to all the stories about him, well I ain’t sayin’ yes and I ain’t sayin’ no. I do believe in the possibilities. The problem is that there seems to be some basic exam of one’s beliefs that must be passed in order to get into the pearly gates. The Virgin birth? Uh, can I have another test question? The Perfect, sin-less life? Oh oh, got any easier test questions? The Bible is God’s holy and exact words. Ah shit, I am going to Hell.
I don’t want to go to Hell. I have been told a few times by strangers and friends to ‘go to Hell,’ but I never wanted to take them up on it. When I used to drink beyond moderation, I used to ‘feel like Hell,’ the next morning. I have been ‘mad as Hell.’ I have done things just for the ‘hell of it.’ I have answered difficult questions with ‘Hell if I know.’ When I say difficult, I mean like “What is the cube root of 9?” I have been told that something might happen when ‘Hell freezes over,’ which is often complimented with ‘ a snow ball’s chance in Hell.’ When something had gone mildly wrong, my grandmother used to say, “Oh Hells bells.” I have had people in my life who were “helluva good friends.” I have had summer days that were ‘hot as hell.’ I have found objects that I didn’t recognize and I asked, “What the hell is that?” It seems that I have been squirming around the edges of Hell my whole life but I just don’t want spend eternity there.
On the other hand, what the hell do the Hell Exam proctors know? Two verses in the Bible stand out to me. Well actually three do because I just remembered the one where the patriarch’s daughters were going to seduce him, but he tricked them by “spilling his seed” outside the tent. I always wondered what the ladies inside the tent thought about that? “Is he actually jacking off out there?” Obviously this was way before Viagra. (Man, I digress easily.) The two I had in mind were, “Jesus wept,” and the verse where Jesus tells the man being crucified with him – the one that says something like, “Can’t you see we are guilty but he is innocent,” – he tells that thief that he will spend eternity with Jesus. I love that verse because it takes away all the detours that will only lead to Hell. All the thief had to do was acknowledge the truth. I find myself deeply attracted to that Jesus. That Jesus is someone I want to be with, ‘come Hell or high water,” forever. Hell, yes, I say.
O.K., now I feel strong enough to continue reading Morton’s book!