If hell exists only in our minds (as I argued in the last post), then it would seem like it should be easy to get out of hell. All we have to do is think differently, and hell will simply vanish from our consciousness.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that. Beliefs and concepts have a way of lodging themselves in our subconscious minds; and once they get stuck there, it can be very hard to get them out. (Ironically, this means that those who have “warned” others of eternal conscious torment may have created the very thing they’re warning against!)
Nevertheless, I’m convinced that escaping from hell, while difficult, is possible. But how do we get out of hell? Or more accurately, how do we get the hell out of ourselves and others?
As I argued earlier, hell is the “place” where the ego is destroyed; and for some, this may not leave much in the way of individual awareness once all is said and done. But we can speed this process up if we can recognize the ego and resist it.
The ego has many forms. For some it takes the form of pride. These people think they are somehow better than others, and won’t be happy until everyone agrees.
But the ego can also work in the opposite way, teaching us to hate ourselves. Either way the effect is the same – we’re unable to think of anything but ourselves, and get trapped in our own thoughts – which is the essence of hell.
One way the ego often shows up among religious people is in what’s called “works righteousness” – the idea that we aren’t worthy of God’s love unless we have done something to “earn” it – either through good deeds, spiritual practices, or having the right beliefs.
In truth, God’s love is unconditional – more so than any other love we could know. God accepts us just as we are – even if we don’t do the right things or “know” Jesus in a personal way! We are truly saved by grace, as Saint Paul so clearly teaches (Eph 2:8-10, etc).
Unfortunately, not many people really believe this. Most people, including most Christians, think that God’s grace has some sort of condition attached to it. We are saved by grace, it is said, as long as we believe the right things, or promise to behave in a certain way, or make a certain type of commitment to Jesus or the church.
The idea that we could be saved simply because God loves us seems too easy – and too good to be true! And so we try to prove ourselves worthy of God’s love – and the ego remains in control.
I know this from experience. For much of my life, I have tried to be a “good” Christian – by having the right beliefs, or studying the Bible and praying, or living a “holy” lifestyle, or doing works of justice or charity (all of which are indeed important parts of the Christian life).
What I never realized, until recently, is the extent to which I was doing these things by my own power – which is why I never seemed to make much progress in my spiritual walk!
It wasn’t until I lost someone very precious to me (my girlfriend Christina, who passed away in 2014) that I really came to see the futility of “trying” to have faith.
In despair over Christina’s death, I gave up trying to be a spiritual person. In fact, I gave up on almost everything – including the idea that I could make myself happy.
Strangely enough, it was precisely then that my life started to change, and God became real to me for the first time – not just as a belief, but as a living Spirit whose presence has always been with me. My encounters with the spirit of Christina led me into a deeper relationship with the Holy Spirit – whose presence I now feel on a daily basis.
Since then, I have made tremendous strides in my faith, in a very short time. I think this is because I stopped thinking about myself.
The ego, you see, wants us to think of ourselves as separate individuals with no necessary connection to God or one another.
But as long as we think of ourselves as “self-made,” and rely on our own strength or initiative to save us, we remain trapped in our own ego – that is, in hell.
For in truth we are all really one – not just with one another, but also with God and the entire creation. We have never really been separated from God – we just think that we have been.
When we come to see this unity, the ego immediately begins to dissolve – and hell along with it! We realize, perhaps for the first time, that we were never alone – that God has been with us all along, and that He/She has been using everything in our lives for a purpose; we just couldn’t see it because we were too caught up in the idea of ourselves as separate beings.
In the words of Thomas Merton, “We are already one. But we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are” (Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, 48).
It’s not enough, however, simply to believe this on an intellectual level. We have to experience this oneness for ourselves, to a certain degree, before we can really believe it.
And it’s precisely here that the Christian “love ethic” is the most important; for when we are truly loved by others, we begin to see God.
For me, this meant being loved by a woman in a romantic way. I had a deep emotional wound over my perceived lack in this part of my life. Though I have always had a very loving family and a few close friends, it never seemed to be enough.
Without the romantic love of a woman I felt incomplete, and on some level doubted that God really loved me in the way that I needed. It wasn’t until I met Christina (both in her earthly and spiritual forms) that I came to know how much God loves me – and to truly appreciate the love of my family and friends as well.
Love can take many forms, of course. For some, parental love may be the key to knowing God. For others, it might be the love of friends or a spouse. For many it’s probably a combination of many different kinds of human love.
In any case, I have finally come to know, on a very deep level, that God loves me – and that God’s love for me is more intense and personal than I ever could have imagined! This, and this alone, is giving me the strength to become a better person.
So my final word on the topic of hell is love. Let us love the hell out of one another; and I mean that quite literally!
For when we experience love, we experience God; and when we experience God, we experience oneness; and when we are one, there is no longer any place for duality or division. We then see Reality as it actually is – and hell is emptied once and for all.
(This concludes the “Jesus and Hell” series. Coming Soon: Mark of the Beast? Idolatry and Global Economics)