Hell is a Time Not a Place

Two New York Times stories brought me to contemplate hell recently.

The first prompt was an op-ed specifically asking “Why Do People Believe in Hell?” The author, David Bentley Hart, wonders what holds so many Christians to think that those who sin will suffer eternal damnation. In the end, he argues it’s not just that hell is “a small, inevitable zone of darkness peripheral to a larger spiritual landscape that — viewed in its totality — they find ravishingly lovely.” Or even that they need to believe that the worst humans will be punished for their atrocities. Instead, Hart argues, it’s that they cannot fathom that heaven is indiscriminately available to all. Christians want to be rewarded and how can they feel rewarded if everyone gets the same prize? Or as the author writes, “How can we be winners, after all, if there are no losers?”

The second was a quick reference to the “biblical tale of Lazarus,” mentioned in an article about bottle and can collectors living in New York City, “where rent is “$13,500” a month.

For those unfamiliar with Luke’s Lazarus story (Luke 16: 19-31)—which is not the Lazarus who Jesus raises from the dead but when another Lazarus visits a rich man’s house—here it is:

Lazarus and Dives [the rich man], illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach
Lazarus and Dives [the rich man], illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach
The beggar, Lazarus, asks for the crumbs from a rich man’s table, but instead the rich man sends his dogs to lick Lazarus’ sores. Lazarus dies and goes to heaven. The rich man dies and goes to hell. The latter asks Father Abraham to send Lazarus with a drop of water to cool his tongue from the fires of hell. And Abraham saith, nope. You don’t deserve mercy and he can’t reach you anyway. So the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers not to end up here with him. And this is where it gets good so I quote:

“29 Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.

30 And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.

31 And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”

While I do not believe in a conscious afterlife of any sort (we, like all animals, return to Gaia), I do believe that the future we’re setting for ourselves is as close to Hell as we could imagine—filled with raging fires, devastating floods, suffering, and lamentations. And yes, our rich feasting on hydrocarbons has brought us to its fiery gates. And few, perhaps none, will fully escape the horrors.

So this Biblical story is especially interesting to me—with some substitutions. The prophets are the scientists. They’ve been warning us since at least 1885. Moses is Gaia—we can hear Her cries and see Her changes. But the rich man’s wealthy kin won’t listen. They’re enjoying themselves too greatly to separate themselves from the fruit of their sin (and I’m talking about the entire consumer class not just the hyperrich).

Of course, Gaia’s hell is a bit more elaborate than the Biblical version. It might not be the sinners who will suffer, but their loved ones. Which you could argue is worse—in action movies, you often see heroes subjected to torture and stoically resisting. But then the villain starts torturing their spouse or child and they melt like butter in the sun on a record-hot summer day.

So when the scientist-prophets cry out, “Repent or your children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren will suffer horrible fates in a burning future, filled with death, disasters, deluges, and decay,” you’d think that would wake us up.
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But Father Abraham makes a really good point (now 1900 years old but as fresh as ever): “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” In the sci-fi-story equivalent of today, it wouldn’t matter if a granddaughter traveled from the future and visited her grandfather, and after proving her kinship and genetic match, throws herself on his feet and begs him to change his ways, to fight for a sustainable future—a livable future for her. Even then few would be persuaded to change (they would argue they’re powerless; they would deny the reality of the encounter once she went back to her time; or they wouldn’t try to rationalize it at all, being too contented, bought-in, or addicted to our current way of living).

Of course, warnings of what’s coming didn’t work two millennia ago (and those were warnings of eternal damnation, not just damnation for a few thousand years!) and they don’t work for the majority of people today. Some, as Hart argues, may even secretly long for the worst sinners to be damned. And that might be the case with some environmentalists and others too—whether as a chance to say ‘I told you so,’ or a naïve dream that in collapse we’ll be able to start anew on a better track. But that’s just as messed up as longing for non-Christians to go to hell, because countless non-human lives will be lost in this particular rapture.

So where does that leave us? Frankly, I don’t know. I spent the past 18 years as a doom-saying prophet (aka a sustainability researcher), hoping that warnings of the coming fire and brimstone would inspire people to take action and change. But for the most part it doesn’t (at least not when billions are being spent telling people everything’s fine). And hence, my humble attempt to cultivate a community connected to the living Earth, with the hopes that together we can support each other in our quests (however humble) to heal society and Gaia, as well as help each other survive as we collectively navigate the impending Inferno.

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