by Woody Forrieter
To Hell with Hell, I say. And what do I mean?
Well, I was raised in the Christian church as were so many other people in this culture. I left at the age of 20, having rejected the idea of Hell. The concept of a God so cruel that he would throw his own children into a everlasting fire that would torture them forever just because they made a few mistakes, did not seem to make a lot of intellectual sense to me.
I've had discussions with some of my Baptist brethren who have told me that, yes, a one month old un-baptized baby who happens to meet with some fatal misfortune, goes straight to Hell, to be in pain forever. After all, rules are rules. To which I would reply, “Doesn't that seem, I don't know, a tad fiendish?”
"Oh, no, no, no,” came the response. “Everything happens for the glory of God, and just because our mortal minds can't comprehend the divine purpose, does not mean it's wrong."
“Well, crap,” I use to say. “That's just a cop out. The concept of Hell is illogical and intellectually unsupportable.”
But, at some level, deep beneath my conscious awareness, I was still afraid of going to Hell because I knew that's really what I deserved. I couldn't picture the one month old baby going to Hell, but I could picture myself there.
Is it possible those feelings are not completely devoid of truth? That there is a Hell that really does exist in some dimension we can't detect? A lot of people all over the world have thought so for thousands of years. I'm not sure why they would feel they had to make up images of Hell. Some have suggested it was to control the masses, but a lot of these ideas originated back when people were living in small groups. If you wanted to control someone you just hit him on the head. I'm sure you wives know what I'm talking about. So maybe these people had somehow tapped into some kind of truth. All the different beliefs about Hell have certain similarities.
According to West African belief, Hell is ruled by a ferocious seven headed monster who breathes fire, smoke and blood. He likes to eat people, or more accurately, their souls.
In the Aztec world, the ruler of Hell is depicted as an open mouthed monster waiting to devour souls or, as an owl, clutching a skull and crossbones. Generally speaking, Aztec Hell, however, is not a place of terror, but a place of malaise. It is an arid desert in which spirits shift aimlessly about in eternal tedium. They are not tortured, but must endure unending monotony.
In Egypt, your vital life force, along with your soul, is escorted to the Hall of Justice and given the chance to plead your case. The God of Wisdom serves as a prosecutor. Eventually your heart is placed on the Scales of Justice. If your heart sinks too low on the scale due to the burden of sin it carries, the underworld judge will eat it and you are history!
According to the Japanese Shinto faith, the way a man behaved during his lifetime determined whether he would go to Hell or the 'Pure Land'. Those driven to the nether-world found Hell to be a very vile place indeed.
In Greek Hell, the dead soul is guided to the river Styx where it finds the god of woe, the god of burning, the god of wailing and the god of forgetfulness, along with a multi-headed guard dog. One of the more famous residents is pegged to the ground while vultures eat his liver. Another unfortunate soul is forever pushing a heavy boulder up a hill. The rock always rolls back down the hill so the task is never complete. (If you’ve ever done yard work you’ll know the feeling) And yet another hangs from a tree over a lake, tormented by hunger and thirst. Every time he reaches down for the water it shrinks away and every time he reaches up for fruit, it raises up out of his reach.
Of course, early Europeans also developed versions of Hell. Most Europeans agree that the difference between Heaven and Hell is this: In Heaven, the Germans are the engineers, the French are the cooks and the English are the police. In Hell, the English are the cooks, the French are the engineers and the Germans are the police.
In Irish folklore, Hell is inhabited by a monstrous, horribly misshapen and deformed race of creatures who dwell far below the sea in a gloomy underworld. Legends say that their misdeeds caused their deformities. Their ruler has a terrible tempter, and often strikes out against his subjects without provocation. His wrath is considered punishment for the sins of their past.
In Welsh mythology the kingdom of the dead is filled with failed heroes who must spend eternity in angst and regret.
According to an ancient Gaelic myth, souls are not tortured in Hell. Instead, Hell is a place of tedium and sorrow rather than physical pain.
In France, images of a dark sorcerer, said to be the god of the underworld and ruler of the dead, were etched into cave walls dating back to 9000 BC. Hell was a dark and foul underworld, the dwelling place of evil spirits and souls of the damned.
In Northern Europe Hell is ruled by an evil and vicious god who requires human sacrifices to appease his violent nature. His kingdom is a vast wasteland of crushed spirits and broken bodies who must pay the deity eternal homage.
The Germanic underworld is described as a cold realm of icy suffering ruled by the goddess, Hel, a hideous creature who is half human and half green rotting corpse. (I think I dated her) Souls of those who die by any means other than battle are sent to this underworld. It is surrounded by steep walls that are impassable to the living and lies on the other side of the Echoing Bridge, a treacherous passageway to the land of spirits. Souls are challenged and assaulted as they try to cross. Hell is a dreary, dark place of everlasting winter where a poisonous fountain spews rivers of ice. The entrance is a dark, foul smelling opening that is guarded by a fierce dog who prevents the spirits from escaping.
Are you starting to see a trend?
Most of us, I imagine, learned about Hell in the Christian church.
A Christian poet named Pollok described Hell as a place where the
"most miserable beings walk,
Burning continually, yet unconsumed;
Forever wasting, yet enduring still;
Dying perpetually, yet never dead.”
Calvin said that people in Hell "shall feel themselves torn asunder by an angry God, and transfixed and penetrated by mortal stings, terrified by the thunderbolts of God, and broken by the weight of His hand, so that to sink into any gulf would be more tolerable than to stand for a moment in these terrors."
Jeremy Taylor, of the English Church, wrote, "The bodies of the damned shall be crowded together in hell, like grapes in a wine-press, which press one another till they burst; every distinct sense and organ shall be assailed with its own appropriate and most exquisite sufferings."
By the way, the problem with those Christian viewpoints is that they're not mentioned in the Bible. They've been lifted straight out of pagan beliefs.
In fact, the entire Old Testament is completely silent on the subject of Hell. The word in the old testament that has been translated into English to mean Hell, actually just means grave in Hebrew. No underworld connotations at all. And the New Testament just has a few very cryptic references that could be interpreted a number of ways. You would think if we should be afraid of going to Hell, Jesus would have made it a focal point of his ministry. He would have at least given it passing mention in the sermon on the mount.
Well he didn't. But even so, I personally don't think the beliefs of all those other people, from all over the world, were completely bogus. I think a great truth was revealed to them.
Because I believe in a literal Hell.
And guess what?
We're living in it right now. This is it. You never have to worry about whether or not you're going to Hell. You've made it!
I knew this was Hell when a friend of mine complained about long distance rates when he was in Europe. A French operator quoted him the rate to call Italy, and he told her, "Ma'am, back in Texas I could call all the way to Hell for that kind of money." She said, "Perhaps, Messieur, but in Texas, that would be considered a local call."
When I say we're living in Hell, I don't mean it figuratively. I mean: This. Is. Hell.
Listen to these headlines….
Aids threatens 40 million
About 800 World Trade Center Victims May Go Unidentified
Twenty-five Hindus Die In Kashmir Attack
Mexican Farmers Take More Hostages
FBI Scours Oregon Apartment In Search For Missing Girls
U.S. May Reduce Oversight Of Polluted Water Cleanup
Second Cop Admits Role In Beating
Dog Attacks Owners On Home Sofa
Those are just from last night. And that's just a sample. Our experience of life really can be every bit as horrific as anybody's vision of Hell. You don't even have to leave your sofa to experience the kind of suffering ascribed to Hell. We've got it all right here.
But the real clincher for me is that pain and suffering are universal here. Talk to any psychiatrist. There's nobody without problems and many are very severe. I believe there isn't anybody on the planet who is not experiencing some kind of emotional or physical pain. With most of us it's pretty much constant, although we get good at suppressing it and pretending it isn't there.
To me, it doesn't make logical sense that everybody would be suffering. The odds are astronomical. But that seems to be the case. Is there anybody here without a single worry or fear?
I rest my case. We're in Hell.
That brings up some questions. What exactly is Hell? And what is a nice guy like me doing here?
Well, I don't think we're being punished. I used to think bad things happened to me because I didn't deserve good things, and there's still a diminishing part of me that believes that.
But I don't think that's why we're in Hell.
And, of course, I would expect most people to reject the idea that we are in Hell.
My wife was not happy to hear this theory. I believe her exact words were, "Are you saying that living with me is the same as living in Hell?"
The notion that we're living in Hell implies all sorts of terrible things about us. It also implies alternate theories of our own existence, and most of us reject anything we can't detect with our senses and our instruments.
And yet, are the things we can detect with our senses and instruments actually real?
Do you know that science is now about 100 years ahead of popular belief? And even ahead of most scientists. The idea that reality exists separate from our perception of it, and that it is possible to detect reality in an objective fashion, if not with our senses, than at least with our instruments, started to unravel about a hundred years ago. We just haven't accepted it yet.
In the year 1900, science was able to explain pretty much everything. William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, declared in a speech to the Royal Institution in 1900, that there were only two mysteries left to physics, and they would soon be solved. Max Planck was working on one of them that year, and discovered, to everyone's horror, that heated materials do not gradually radiate increasing amounts of energy, the way Newtonian physics said they should, but in fact give off specific and precise amounts of energy, which he called "quanta," in specific spurts. That screwed everything up. Five years later, Einstein demonstrated conclusively that light was a particle. Of course, it had already been proven beyond doubt a hundred years before that light was a wave. And everybody knew that light couldn't be both a wave and a particle, but they also couldn't dispute the evidence. Within two or three decades, physicists issued a statement saying they don't have a clue what reality actually is.
Today, physicists know that nothing exists in the way we think it does. Sub-atomic particles only display tendencies to exist and what they appear to exist as depends on how the observer chooses to observe them. Sub-atomic particles are not even particles, they're probably more accurately described as relationships, and ultimately they are manifestations of something physicists have called, "that-which-is," but scientists don't even know what "that-which-is," is. They just know that what shows up depends entirely on what we're looking for. In short, what you are experiencing at this moment in this room is a construct of your mind. Not just your interpretation of reality, but the very stuff of reality itself. There is no objective reality. Your world does not exist without you.
So this is all a grand illusion. We're making this up. Just like the Buddhists and others have told us for the last two millennia.
Which begs the question, since we're making this up, why bother adding pain to the mix? Why would we want to construct a world in which we can suffer? In short, why would we want to give ourselves Hell?
Physicists talk about the unified wholeness of "that-which-is." They say that reality has no separate parts. But my experience of my own identity depends on seeing myself as separate from the rest of reality. In reality, we're one entity. But for some reason, we don't want to be. We want to be you and I.
I'm not a meditation expert, but I've reached a deep enough level during meditation that I've been able to experience a bit of what it might be like to give up this illusion. To give up the world. And it feels like pure bliss.
Based on that and the writings of many others, I believe that reality, or "that-which-is," feels profoundly peaceful, intensely joyful and abundantly loving. But there's a catch. Direct experience of reality means a loss of the illusion of separateness and the end of my identity as an individual.
Pain is the ego's way of keeping me distracted so I don't experience reality; so I don't experience "that-which-is." I focus on the pain, instead of reality. I stay away from bliss and don't get sucked into reality and I can keep my separate identity.
When I experience happiness, I get closer to direct experience of "that-which-is," and therefore closer to losing my separate identity. I believe that to lose my separate identity means that I will cease to exist. And I'm afraid of that.
Intellectually, I know that this separate identity is not the real me. The real me is "that-which-is." I'm not a part of "that-which-is," because "that-which-is" consists of unbroken wholeness, and something that consists of unbroken wholeness has no separate parts. We are all, in fact, one and the same entity.
At the same time that I'm afraid to lose my separate identity, I also feel a pervasive sense of guilt, like I've really screwed up somehow and I deserve punishment. I think at some level I believe that I have actually created a separate world full of separate things, and in so doing I have ruined reality.
So this separate identity that seems to be guilty of ruining reality, living in this illusion of pain, is, I believe, analogous to the soul of someone who has died and gone to Hell.
And I think that's the great truth that all the people describing Hell in all the various cultures were subconsciously articulating. They just didn't realize that they were already in the middle of the experience.
Despite the fear of losing my separate identity, and the feeling that I deserve to suffer, some years ago I also started getting very tired of the pain, and started looking for a way out.
And in theory, the way out is very simple. 1) Give up pretending I'm separate from you, and 2) Realize I haven't really screwed anything up, and that I deserve to be "that-which-is" along with you and everything else.
Unfortunately, the only way I can experience the illusion of being a separate identity is to believe that separation is reality. That "that-which-is" is composed of 'parts.' Since I do believe that, I'm kind of trapped. I can't change my beliefs without help.
I feel that help has been coming to me from God. I think God is "that-which-is" and since "that-which-is" has no separate parts, by extension we are all God. And we are constantly being called back to awareness of that.
That's very important. I believe there is no vengeful God waiting to strike down and punish sinners. God, or "that-which-is" is infinitely powerful. You know from basic psychology that anger is self destructive. An angry God would implode in a heart beat.
Plus anger is always a response to fear. What does "that-which-is" have to be afraid of? Nothing. Fear is just the absence of love, the way cold is just the absence of heat. Last time I stood up here I told you I was afraid of you. That really meant that I was choosing not to love you. Because my ego wants to remain separate from you. I can't feel love for you and be afraid of you at the same time. They're mutually exclusive. Make no mistake. My love for you is constant, but in order to remain separate from you and maintain my own little personal identity, my ego needs to block that love. I experience that block as fear.
Fear and anger are actually attributes or results of the ego. When people talk about an angry God, you can be sure they have set their ego up as God. "That-which-is" appears to be pure love, pure joy, pure peace. I've confirmed that to my satisfaction feels to me, in the deepest meditation I can do right now. Anything short of pure peace, love and joy is not God, and is not even reality.
So God, "that-which-is" is constantly calling to us. We can feel that call whenever we relax. Because when we relax, we let go of some of the distractions that keep our mind focused on illusions and away from "that-which-is."
We can feel that call whenever we feel unconditional love for someone. Because when we feel unconditional love for someone, we let go of some of our guilt, which we project on to other people. When we love someone we feel like we deserve to be happy, and do we let ourselves become more aware of the happiness that is constantly within us, that is constantly calling to us.
So, as part of this whole process, I am becoming aware that there is no happiness outside of me. That is to say, since my universe is a construct of my mind, it is also a reflection of how I feel.
You actually caught me at a pretty good time. The last couple of weeks have been great. I have been conscious of the concept that there is no happiness "out there." My only source of happiness appears to be "inside" of me, although in reality, there is no inside or outside. But even when something appears to happen outside of me that I think is a good thing, the event itself is not producing my happiness. All that's happening is that I'm giving myself permission to experience more of the happiness that is always present at my center.
This last week I noticed that the more I concentrated on the happiness within me, the better things progressed on what I perceive as the outside of me.
We all live in separate Hells. And in a real sense, I am the savior of my little Hell, because I'm the only one who can perceive it, and that perception is based on what I want to see. If I want to experience the happiness that is at my center, I will see that happiness reflected in my world. You can do the same thing in your own separate world.
For most of my life I've felt ugly. Not just physically, but also socially, intellectually, and almost every other way. My wife was looking after a three year old boy, and I started thinking recently about myself as a child of that age. I realized that I would have been just as beautiful as that little boy. That beauty is not a physical thing. It flows from a source inside of him and manifests as a thoroughly delightful creature; it transcends and even transforms his physical self. It has to do with transparency; I feel I can see his soul. He's not so hidden. I've begun to think that I must have been like that, and that in fact that beautiful soul at my center is still there. I trained myself to think of it as a liability; as a weakness. And in fact, if you're trying to build a separate identity, it is a liability. But now I wish I could go back and see myself as a small child, and give myself a hug and tell myself not to hide my soul. The more I see the beauty at my center, the more I am letting it shine out, and that will shorten the time it will take for me to once again unite with you in the unbroken wholeness which is reality.
Forgiveness plays a big part in this process, too. Guilt makes me think I don't deserve to be whole again. The guilt hurts so much that I try to project it on to you as a way of trying to get rid of it. When I see you as guilty, it's because you've done something that I believe I am guilty of doing in some way at some time. Not necessarily in the exact form, but with the same perceived intentions. Forgiving you allows me to forgive myself, and that lets me feel I deserve to be happy. It frees me to access the happiness at my center, and ultimately abandon the illusion of Hell and become "that-which-is."
I said that I was getting help from God. A lot of that help has come through this church community. I believe that love is the glue that holds "that-which-is" together, and so an experience of genuine love is an experience of wholeness and a letting go of separation. I have experienced genuine love here, and I am very grateful for that. I can hardly wait until we're all back together again and fully aware of who we are.
In the words of Victor Hugo, To love another person is to see the face of God. May you see the face of God today.