As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
Cause I’m in need of some restraint
So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste, um yeah – “Sympathy For The Devil”, lyrics by Mick Jagger
God hates us all – “Disciple”, lyrics by Tom Arraya
You and I are intimately acquainted with hell, with the place where God is not, and no one comes out of that unscathed or unscarred. – Fragment of a private Facebook conversation
Hell. The place where God is not. Yes, I understand that in a visceral way. Despite the promise of Scripture, that even should we make our bed in Sheol, the dwelling place of the dead, the LORD’s presence will be there with us, I also know there are places and circumstances where God just doesn’t visit. The emptiness of the experience, the utter horror of continuing to be even as all around there is no sense, no feeling of love, or protection – it is more horrifying precisely because it is not something we human beings need to die to experience. The idea of eternity as timelessness, as existing equally at all times, as something from which you cannot escape precisely because it is at all times and places . . . and knowing it is your own lot . . . Nothing prepares you for that.
After a discussion this morning, it occurred to me that I was far more acquainted with the reality of spiritual evil, the existence of the devil, and the domain of hell than I cared to admit. The reasons for this are far too personal to discuss. Suffice it to say that, over the years, I’ve pretended to forget my too-intimate experience of this reality. Which, perhaps, is understandable if not excusable, particularly as I’ve pretended to speak with anything like authority and honesty. Particularly egregious, I think, is to insist that our many earthly experiences of hell, from political tyranny through mass murder to confronting the various devils and demons that are so disruptive of our lives are qualitatively distinct from something I’ve been calling “spiritual evil.” To the women raped and tortured by ISIS, such a distinction is the result of privilege rather than true empathy with their horror. Consider a person living their lives under a political tyranny so all-encompassing that any word, or even thought, could cost you your life? To speak of rationality and irrationality without recognizing how meaningless those terms are to millions of people is to deny their lived experience of real hell on earth.
Now I have you with me, under my power
Our love grows stronger now with every hour
Look into my eyes, you will see who I am
My name is Lucifer, please take my hand – “N.I.B.”, lyrics by Terry Butler
More than that, however, I am ashamed that I have pretended ignorance of something with which I’m more familiar than I would admit to anyone, including myself. That photo above? That’s what you see when you’ve lived even a moment outside the circle of God’s Providence. It’s more than terrifying; knowing that it is an image from which you can never – really – escape because hell is eternal can tear hope from your life without any possibility of it returning. That this journey I’m taking has plunged me back to a time and place I’ve preferred to forget, to pretend never existed is both curse and blessing. It’s a curse because who would want to re-enter a place from which there is no exit promised? Who would willingly go to a place without God, without hope, without love? It’s a blessing, however, because living, loving, hoping, all are possible. Hell may well be that place where God is not; it’s eternality, however, is a lie. The claim that there is no exit, that once outside the circle of God’s Love and Providential care you can never go back are tricks to further your stay. They are the dark whispers of hellish mouths.
Hell is real. Not just for me. For all those who believe themselves beyond hope, beyond the place where God either can or will reach them, whose lives have become empty, whose graves go unmarked, whose names are forgotten – these are all the lies of those who pretend to be people, but strive far more to be something both more powerful, yet less than fully human. The promise is true: There is no place from which we can flee God’s presence; that lie, too, is one we come to believe because of the pain and loneliness through which we live. Part of our job as Christians is to go to those places of Godforsakeness and shine our light of love, of light, and best of all – hope.
Of course, this acknowledgment doesn’t absolve me of continuing this journey. It just means I need to stop pretending I’m entering terra incognito. The truth, far more horrifying, is I am going back to places I know too well. Here’s hoping I have the strength to continue.