(Eschatology is the study of death, judgment and the end times. Did you know this? I did not.)
I wouldn’t have described the Evangelical church I grew up in as preaching fire and brimstone...except that somewhere along the line, I developed a strong need to tell my friends about Jesus so that they would have the chance to avoid hell. I lost friends when I acted on that need. When I shared an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress that included such an experience, my readers pointed out that I centered the telling on the pain I felt following my friend’s refusal to speak to me ever again. They said that while the rejection must have been painful, they needed to understand my beliefs on hell. At first, I balked at sharing. That wasn’t the point of the story. My point was that we could improve on our willingness to entertain discussions of belief. But then it hit me: Multiple people were giving me space to share what I believe. The friend from my memory might have closed the door on a conversation, but here, on the page of my writing, was another chance to speak.
What an opportunity! And yet, what did I believe? Accepting Jesus as Lord and Way to Heaven is enough most days. Why bother dwelling on hell when you are assured of salvation?
I needed to do some research. I started by asking my Christian girlfriends what they believed about hell. We discussed a variety of views -- drawn on from the Bible and modern Christian thinkers -- but none of us was ready to commit to one. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable about my wishy-washy stance, especially after I read a short anecdote in Carla Power’s memoir in which she describes the Sheikh reprimanding the evangelist at his door for not holding a firmer line on hell:
“What will happen to me if I don’t believe you?” [The Sheikh asked the Christian messenger at this door.]
The man was silent, clearly not wanting to scare off a potential convert. What about hell? Akram asked him. Oh no, the man assured him. There was no mention of any hellfire in the Bible. “I had a Bible in my house,” the Sheikh said. “I’d underlined it, and I went and got it, and showed him.” Here, and here, and here, he’d showed the missionary, the Christian scripture spoke of the flames of hell.
“Never feel shyness to mention the fire of hell,” he assured his listeners. “You either believe, or if you don’t believe, then it’s the fire of hell.” (If The Oceans Were Ink, p. 274-5)
The Sheikh’s response made me want to take a firmer stance on the issue. Perhaps I needed to defend the fire and brimstone perspective? Perhaps I had just become too soft?
The upshot is that there are three basic theories on hell:
Back in junior high, infernalism was right there in the same sentence with the Jesus message, as in “Jesus came to save us from our sins so we wouldn’t go to hell, and if you believe this, you’ll avoid hell too.” I learned that people don’t like it when you tell them this.
Much more recently, when my daughter was five, she asked me what happens to people after they die. I didn’t even want to talk about hell. I told her that those who believe in Jesus and God go to heaven and are with God forever.
“What if you don’t believe in God?”
Seriously, she asked me this, because unbelief is such a common option these days. I fumbled to come up with an explanation on the spot but what I suggested to her was that people who didn’t believe perhaps then just died and stopped existing but that maybe they were okay with that because they didn’t want to be with God anyway. That’s win-win for everyone, right? You don’t even have to force infernalism. You can just choose to cease existing.
A few years later though, I read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders in which ghosts of the graveyard haunt Lincoln on his visit to his recently deceased son. It’s not a book to read at night, and is largely based on Egyptian theories of the afterlife, but still, I took it to heart when the preacher character didn’t pass directly to heaven but rather was judged, and pretty severely at that. I didn’t like this theory of universal refining and the need for further redemption after death. But did that make the theory false?
Near the beginning of the text, Jersak provides a very handy chart of Hebrew and Greek words (and their locations in Scripture) that are traditionally translated into hell or that relate to divine judgment. He points out that today’s “simplistic, selective, and horrifying perception of hell [the fire and brimstone version] is due in large part to nearly 400 years of the King James Version’s monopoly in English-speaking congregations (not to mention centuries of imaginative religious art). Rather than acknowledge the variety of terms, images, and concepts that the Bible uses for divine judgment, the KJV translators opted to combine them all under the single term “hell.” In truth, the array of biblical pictures and meanings that this one word is expected to convey is so vast that they appear contradictory.” (15)
And yet, Jersak suggests that perhaps scripture was actually mean to be this way:
“The stubborn fact is that Scripture is richly polyphonic on the topic of hell and judgment -- as if by design. Thus, if we become dogmatic about any one position, we reduce ourselves to reading selectively or doing interpretive violence to those verses that don’t fit our chosen view...If we can momentarily suspend our penchant for forcing the text to harmonize with our systems or even with itself, we’ll see some magnificent tensions…
“For example, the Bible repeatedly affirms that God has given humanity the real capacity for authentic choice…[implying] the real possibility that some could choose the way that leads to destruction...On the other hand, the Bible just as plainly teaches that God is also free: free to relent, free to forgive, free to restore even when judgment is promised...Thus, before we plant our flag on any one version of hell, we must take all of the biblical text on hell and judgment, mercy and restoration into account.” (6-7)
I love that Jersak points out that our view of hell is influenced by our view of God. Is he loving or someone to fear, for example? A friend shared her father’s testimony recently, that he told her he needed the fear of God in him in order to convict his heart and foster his belief. Others, we have observed need a loving God in order to believe. Sharing his personal perspective, the evangelical author confesses that “since [his] early days as a terrified infernalist, [he has] developed a strong preference for hope.” (9) He also explains that evangelicals are preaching a variety of outcomes now, not just infernalism. As for me, I think my beliefs have followed a similar evolution, though I’m not sure I was ever a “terrified” infernalist. I think “motivated infernalist” might be more accurate. And yet, in my image of God, love and forgiveness win out in all struggles, and I have no reason to dwell on a theory that would force eternal separation from him. Bottom line, it’s not what he wants. Our job is to figure out if it’s what we want.
In the end, I couldn’t follow all of Jersak’s extensive analysis, but I do appreciate the general conclusions he draws for us:
“Will he who refuses it now refuse it to the last? / To this there are two possible answers: the first says simply “Yes”. It is the answer of the infernalists. The second says: I do not know, but I think it permissible to hope (on the basis of the first series of statements from Scripture) that the light of divine love will ultimately be able to penetrate every human darkness and refusal.” (von Balthasar, Dare We Hope?, 178).
Still, Jersak makes it clear that at the end, while there is hope that all will be redeemed and walk through the gates, they will do so only with a specifically Christian redemption. “Anyone can come, but only if they have their robes washed in the blood of the Lamb. Only upon a specifically Christian redemption can one enter the gates… This vision declares the possibility and the hope that even in the next age, there are those whose thirst will finally bring them to say yes to the Lamb, even those who were unable to do so on this side of the grave.” (172)
“Human choice and divine mercy preclude presuming anything, but Christian love obligates me to pray fervently for all.” (151)
Bottom line, I know I got it wrong years ago when I propagated scare tactics. Believing in Jesus in order to avoid hell is bad faith and misses the whole point of Christianity. The main reason we accept Jesus is because he is better than any of our hopes and too good to refuse. If seeing a gorgeously wrapped Christmas gift under the tree brings you joy and gratitude, how much more so the ultimate gift of love and reconciliation? This is what we’ll keep sight of, just in case.
Last winter while at a friend’s wedding, I found myself seated next to a friend who was having a hard time at work. I tried to steer the conversation in other directions a couple of times in an effort to be sociable, but I could see that even though he didn’t want to talk about work, it was all that would occupy his thoughts.
So I did what anyone would do. I offered to get him a drink from the (open) bar.
“No, thanks,” he shook his head. That’s when I noticed he wasn’t drinking at all. He had given it up recently. I was stumped. What could I offer him to help him enjoy his friend’s wedding?
The next thing that popped into my head wasn’t a practical idea. It was just what was on my mind:
“Would you like to pet a bunny?” I asked him.
He burst out laughing. “I can’t believe you just asked me that!”
I felt slightly embarrassed, but what happened next felt like one of those serendipitous moments that strengthens your faith. I didn’t pull a rabbit out of my purse, but he pulled out his phone and leaned in so I could get a good look at the screen.
“Check this out,” he said, using his thumb to reveal the screensaver: a two second clip of a bunny twitching his nose and taking a slow step-hop. He played it twice more, our smiles increasing with each bunny hop, filling us with calm pleasure as we watched this animal’s simple behavior.
After he re-pocketed the phone, looking a little embarrassed himself, he asked why I had asked him such a question. I explained that just hours before friends of ours had asked me to donate to an organization that was close to their hearts.
From the charity’s website:
“The mission of Lucy's Love Bus is to improve quality of life for children with cancer and life-threatening illness, to support their families, and to mobilize the next generation of cancer activists...Lucy’s Love Bus delivers comfort to children with cancer by paying for integrative therapies that help to balance traditional cancer care and improve the quality of life for a child, such as acupuncture, massage, therapeutic horseback riding, nutritional counseling, Reiki, meditation, art and music therapies...Lucy's Love Bus offers children and their families the love, understanding, and comfort that they need while going through cancer treatment and beyond.”
On the day I donated to Lucy's Love Bus for the first time, they were featuring “Barn Babies,” a pet therapy session involving interacting with puppies, kittens, bunnies, chicks, a goat and a piglet.
This organization was originally birthed in the heart of an 11-year-old girl who succumbed to leukemia just six months later. A donation will help fund supplemental services like those listed above to children suffering from life-threatening illnesses. The organization also has a special emergency fund for families connected with the organization who are particularly hurting from circumstances due to the COVID pandemic. Click here to donate to the emergency fund.
You may not be able to pet a bunny today, but you can help a kid with cancer get that much closer to supplemental therapies that can increase the quality of a life under threat of being cut too short. Donate here.
Before coronavirus, I typically spent the morning following a class or writing group session combing through comments and making a list of ideas for revision. I understand I am an anomaly. Many writers choose to let those comments sit for weeks before attempting to incorporate the suggestions into their next drafts. I, on the other hand, like to strike when the iron’s hot, when the ideas are fresh in my mind. Yes, coronavirus derailed all of that.
But by the time summer came around and I found time and space to write, I had a backlog of material to catch up on -- excerpts I had presented to my writing group and to classmates. It was a bit discouraging to review the excerpts months later. I could remember that I had had ideas. I couldn’t remember what those were. Very frustrating, but I dove in anyway, hoping I would be able to jog my memory.
At some point this summer though, I started to wonder whether I was doing it wrong. I mean, having time to write again was supposed to be a gift. Why wasn’t I enjoying it more?
“In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right...The form always has profound psychological consequence on its author.” (xx)
“Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there’s suffering involved.” (xx-xxi)
“However many intellectual pleasures a book may offer up, it’s usually your emotional connection to the memoir’s narrator that hooks you in. And how does she do that? A good writer can conjure a landscape and its people to live inside you, and the best writers make you feel they’ve disclosed their soft underbellies.” (xxiii)
“...this book’s mainly for that person with an inner life big as Lake Superior and a passion for the watery element of memory. Maybe this book will give you scuba fins and a face mask and more oxygen for your travels.” (xxiii)
Based on what my most recent classmates shared, I also learned that I tend to jump in a lot faster when writing about traumatic moments. Whereas some writers will take 80 pages or so to work up to writing about the event that they want to write about, I usually start the action on page 1. I’ve realized that while this makes for a page turner, it leaves the reader panting for breath, in addition to raising a lot of questions about the backstory. Karr suggested interspersing “places of hope” in between the dramatic moments, in order to throw “past pain into stark relief for a reader”...and perhaps give me a chance to take a breath as well. (13)
Perhaps the biggest gift Karr gave me though, was permission to set down my own truth. As she puts it, “you’re seeking the truth of memory -- your memory and character -- not of unbiased history.” (11) I love how she puts her foot down about this:
“However often the airwaves wind up clotted with false memories and misidentified criminal culprits and folks dithering about what they recall, I still think a screw has come loose in our culture around notions of truth, a word you almost can’t set down without quotes around it anymore. Sometimes it strikes me that even when we know something’s true, it’s almost rude to say so, as if claiming a truth at all -- what? Threatens someone else’s experience? Most of all, no one wants to sound like some self-satisfied proselytizer everybody can pounce on and debunk.
“The American religion--so far as there is one anymore--seems to be doubt. Whoever believes the least wins, because he’ll never be found wrong.” (88-89)
More than anything, these last words give me courage -- to set down my truth, even as “doubt and wonder come to stand as part of the story.” (14)
We come to the end of summer now, and while I haven’t made as much progress on my revisions as I would have liked, I have accomplished some things. The voice and backstory are starting to take shape, and I have hope that there is more potential to my stories than I would have guessed back when I had wished a first draft would suffice. Despite the hard (emotional) work involved, I do want to see what comes of these pages.
And so for now, I press on.
Back in June, our book club read and discussed Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce, the fictional story of a female London writer aspiring to be a war correspondent during World War II but inadvertently becoming an advice columnist in a women’s magazine. One of my discussion questions was “how was this book different from what you expected?” I asked this because I was a bit disappointed that the main character, once derailed from her dream, didn’t try to get back on track. For sure, she helped out with the war effort by working the phones at the fire station. She also kept her chin up as she continued to frequent cafes and shows in the midst of the Blitz. Some readers may argue that she served women through her magazine responses by answering their concerns in an emotionally honest and encouraging way, but I wasn’t convinced that this was enough to satisfy the character. I wanted something more for her.
Or perhaps, I was just searching for a different character.
“I could be a war hero, Christophe.”
He laughed. “A girl? A hero? Absurd.”
Isabelle got to her feet quickly, yanking up her hat and white kid gloves.
“Don’t be mad,” he said, grinning up at her. “I’m just tired of the war talk. And it’s a fact that women are useless in war. Your job is to wait for our return.” (34)
But Isabelle refuses to hear that she can’t be useful, even when the love of her life tapes a goodbye note to her chest that reads: “You are not ready.” (79)
Whatever her lover’s intentions with the note, Isabelle pursues resistance with even more resolve, simultaneously upset that she is overlooked as a woman and aware that that oversight works to her advantage to break through checkpoints.
This epic tale takes the reader through the entire war, pausing at each stage to demonstrate the women adjusting to their new realities. For the fighting sister, the reader sees how she bravely helps the underground movement to free France and return fallen English and American pilots to their homelands. For the sister sheltering in place, the reader sees her making incomprehensible decisions -- to comply with orders, including freely offering names of Jewish and Communist neighbors -- all in the name of protecting her own, forcing the reader to question what it means to be complacent and what it means to survive.
As Vianne reflects on her actions, she seeks the advice of her confidant, Mother Superior, who tells her:
“Don’t think about who they are. Think about who you are and what sacrifices you can live with and what will break you...The path of righteousness is often dangerous. Get ready...This is only your first test. Learn from it...You’re not alone, and you’re not the one in charge...Ask for help when you need it, and give help when you can. I think that is how we serve God -- and each other and ourselves -- in times as dark as these.” (165-6)
And indeed, as the story unfolds, Vianne too chooses to risk her dwindling security in order to provide aid and shelter to those persecuted by the Nazis.
Hannah’s tale is centered completely on the women, and I got the sense from page one that these women were especially in the dark about the state of Europe and Hitler’s intentions. Overall, they couldn’t believe something like this would happen again...after they had just lost a generation to the Great War. And they weren’t invited to the discussion where they could act on their views. Women didn’t get the right to vote in France until de Gaulle’s government in exile awarded it to them in July 1944. Perhaps this oversight also allowed Hitler’s soldiers to overlook French women in the ways described in Hannah’s novel as well. Still, the Nazis eventually caught on, imprisoning the female resisters at camps like Romainville and Ravensbruck.
At the end of the book, the narrator’s son asks why he never heard these stories of resistance during the war. The narrator explains,
“Men tell stories...Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.” (561-2)
By the end of the story, the narrator wishes to change all of that: “I always thought it was what I wanted: to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be known.” (5)
That is the point of The Nightingale: to elevate the stories of so many women who served anonymously during the war. In her author’s note, Hannah describes the story of “a young Belgian woman named Andree de Jongh, who had created an escape route for downed airmen out of Nazi-occupied France. Her story -- one of heroism and danger and unbridled courage -- mesmerized [her] and led [her] to other stories about the women of the French Resistance. Women who had saved Jewish children and rescued downed airmen and put themselves in harm’s way to save others. Women who had paid terrible, unimaginable prices for their heroism.” (569)
Hannah wrote The Nightingale so that we would remember these women. And truly, the saga of Isabelle and Vianne is unforgettable. Consider picking up this book, but know that remembering the past requires bravery too. Come prepared. Bring your tissues.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.