by Norma Burns
Some fundamentalist Christians can give you very graphic descriptions of hell and will waste no opportunity to do so. More mainline or progressive Christians are typically embarrassed by “hell talk” and would prefer to background it. These are the truly kind and empathetic folks who cannot reconcile the idea of hell—still lingering in their religious traditions—with the omni-benevolent and all-merciful god they worship. The following meditation is for Christians of the latter variety—those whose theology hasn’t caught up with their progressive views about human worth and dignity.
This meditation invites you to imagine an eternity filled with the most extreme suffering and then to draw your own conclusions about a theology that could comfortably propagate such a concept. We’ll take the temporal concept of eternity and transpose it into the spatial dimension so that you can visualize it. And then we’ll ask you to try filling that space with the memory of the worst pain you ever suffered—a severe burn, a broken bone, an organ failure. WARNING: Do not continue this meditation if you begin to experience genuine psychological discomfort. It is not for the faint of heart.
Ready? Now, imagine you are standing in a desert at the summit of the highest dune around. You can see for miles around you, and all you see is more dunes under a canopy of sunlit sky.
You pick up a grain of sand and look at it closely. This grain of sand represents the span of your life on earth.
Now try to recall the worst pain you ever experienced, and imagine that your entire life, as represented by the grain of sand, was filled with such pain.
Put the grain of sand back. Try to remember where you put it.
To grasp the concept of eternal suffering, you now have to imagine counting all the other grains of sand that exist, everywhere. Each of them is the equivalent of a new lifetime filled with pain.
Look around you and try to estimate the number of grains of sand you see. We’ll call that number “N.” For the moment, try to think of N as eternity, and try to imagine your worst experience of pain lasting that long.
But N isn’t eternity yet. You have to visualize more grains of sand. The ones that you see are only on the surface, and that the little section of desert you’re standing in is only a small part of the entire desert. Do the numbers, and don’t forget to factor in the pain.
And there are even more grains of sand elsewhere, in other deserts, on beaches, on the floor of the oceans, and on other planets in our solar system. Add these to the total. And don’t forget the pain.
But that’s still not all the grains of sand. Scientists estimate there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, each with its suns and its planets. Add in all those grains of sand that are on these planets and do the total. Imagine how many digits your new number N might have. If you wrote them out, do you think they might stretch from here to the Moon?
That’s still not eternity. Square N. The digits in N may now extend beyond the next galaxy. And don’t forget the pain. In fact, magnify the pain. Imagine something more horrific, like burning. Endless burning. End this meditation immediately if your anxiety levels become unbearable.
Now, quickly! Force your attention back to the grain of sand that you held in your hand and that you replaced on the ground. Can you find it? Again, it represents the span of your life, a life in which you did something that displeased…God.
That’s it. Metaforo finito. Grazie, signore e signori. You can do this meditation again at home, on the beach, or in the desert. Always follow the safety precautions as prescribed.
And now, before you leave, consider this: Untold billions of humans throughout history did not fulfil the requirements for admission to heaven. The Bible tells us that the majority of people will go to hell. This suggests three provocative questions:
- Can a deity who punishes so many people so horribly and for so long be benevolent in any sense of the word?
- Why would anyone worship such a petty, unforgiving, and wrathful deity?
- If you were in heaven for eternity, how could you not spend every moment weeping for those spending eternity in hell?
If you’re so inclined, you can have fun drawing out all kinds of other interesting questions and conclusions.
My own conclusion: It’s amazing to me that theologians and preachers speak so glibly of eternal damnation, as if hell were just some cardboard cut-out in a medieval mystery play and the audience were illiterate peasants.