Sunday, May 12, 2013

"Hell Ain't Gonna Be Hot Enough"


‎"Human beings are a tension filled unity capable of infinite good and infinite evil."
                                                                                              
                                                                                                 ~ William Hendricks



Cleveland, Ohio
photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
It was not an uncommon phrase that I heard from the old folks when I was growing up: “Hell ain’t gonna be hot enough for some folks.” When news comes out like what we have heard this past week  about the three young women who were kidnapped and held captive for almost a decade in a Cleveland neighborhood  that phrase comes quickly back to mind. 

The problem is that long ago I adopted a more hopeful view of humanity. I came to believe that we are becoming more enlightened and are on an upward path. I tossed out any belief that there was a literal hell where people burn for all eternity.  I refused to accept John Calvin’s view of the total depravity of man much less the idea that God could consign people to eternal torment.

Seeing the World with New Eyes

Having grown up in church, and in the middle of "the Bible Belt," I once had this notion that there was something different about those who are "redeemed" vs. those who are "in the world." When I went to seminary, I left the Bible Belt and went to Mill Valley, California. While in school there, I got a job at Mosher's Shoe Store in Mill Valley and immersed myself in the culture. I found that my premise about church people vs. un-churched was not true. My unscientific observation was that the people I met and came to know who were not religious were every bit as good and caring as the church people I grew up with. I also had to acknowledge that some church folk could be just as crooked and self-centered as any image one could muster of an un-redeemed heathen.

My take-away from that experience in Mill Valley was that 1) Human goodness can be celebrated wherever it is to be found. 2) There are good people and bad people, caring people and selfish people in every milieu. 3) It helped to give me a much brighter view of the world and they that dwell therein. 4) I was relieved that I didn't have to worry about converting masses of people to anything. 

The Problem of Evil and the Pain of Suffering

I like to think the best about human endeavors and can readily name scores of things to be thankful for. Yet last week when the details began to emerge about the cruelty and torture of those women in that Cleveland neighborhood, I felt a chill come over me. I was appalled at what I was hearing, and could not help thinking, “If this has been going on for ten years and we knew nothing of it until now, what other evil things are happening in homes in other neighborhoods that we are not even aware of?”

I was hit with a dose of reality. The shock of such depravity reminded me of how John Calvin might have come by his ideas of the total depravity of man. It reminded me of why we have a need for the idea of hell.  When we feel helpless about finding justice in this world, sometimes we can only hope that justice will be met in the next life.

Some would argue that it is not just the concept of Hell, but also the idea of Heaven that helps us to cope.  In The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, a character in the story says, “I will tell you a story that will make you believe in God.” By the time the novel is over, the reader realizes that he may have meant that we have to believe in a loving God or we could not deal with the harsh realities of things we suffer in this life.  In short, it may be that we tell ourselves stories to help us make some sense of the world.

Life is a Sacred Mix

I had a theology professor, William Hendricks, when I was a seminary student in Mill Valley. He had a brilliant and creative mind and was one of those people who could take all factors into account in his over-arching philosophy of life.  I quoted him at the outset because those words drive home the fact that we all have the capacity for good as well as evil.  A blithe view that life is wonderful will not get us through many bumps on life’s journey if we are honest. At the same time, living in fear that humanity is hopelessly depraved will not give us the strength to endure either.  
           
It is times like these when I must accept that all of us are “a tension-filled unity” capable of both good and evil. I remind myself of Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi’s words, "There is more good than evil in the world – but not by much." What then can we do when confronted with evil and when we see such disregard for other people? We continue to show the light that we have. We remember that in addition to the kidnapper Ariel Castro, there was the neighbor, Charles Ramsey who helped rescue the kidnapped women when he heard a cry for help. There are many at work at this moment to try to bring about healing and justice for the three women and the six-year-old daughter who were rescued.     
  
I am also reminded of the words of Mary Anne Evans, the nineteenth century author who wrote under the male pseudonym “George Eliot” in order to be taken more seriously. At the end of her novel Middlemarch she wrote,  "The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

It is indeed the small “unhistoric” acts that we must continue to do if we are to see a better and safer world. Pinning our hopes on political leaders, ecclesiastical hierarchy, or grand social schemes will inevitably lead to disappointment. Looking to our neighbor, the “Charles Ramseys” of the world; being that good neighbor in our small daily acts; trusting that our small lives can contribute to the balance of good over evil – these are the things that can give us hope from day to day. These are the things that will contribute to “the growing good of the world.”



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