In the Christian calendar, it is Holy Week. Today, Maundy Thursday, is the beginning of the end of Jesus’ life on earth. Which has got me thinking about Lent and repentance, sacrifice and redemption—and Hell.
I grew up a Southern Baptist. The churches I attended didn’t pay much attention to Lent, the 40 days of preparation for Easter observed by other denominations. We observed Palm Sunday, but it was all about the palms and the hosannas, nothing about the coming Passion. In fact, our sole preparation for Easter consisted of shopping for a brand new Easter outfit, complete with hat and shoes and gloves. (One particularly memorable Easter for me was the year that I was first allowed to wear a garter belt and stockings.)
Was there a Good Friday service? I don’t remember any. Other than the movies that were broadcast the week before Easter—movies like Christ the King and The Robe (featuring the ruggedly handsome Richard Burton and a young and radiant Jean Simmons)—I don’t recall paying close attention at all to the crucifixion, except as a gruesome and necessary step toward resurrection. In effect, we celebrated Easter all week, which my father later called “bootlegging in the Resurrection.”
Easter Sunday began bright and early with a sunrise service, after which my family went home, and we children searched for our Easter baskets. Then we put on our brand new outfits, took photos in the front yard next to the azaleas bursting out in shades of fuchsia and pink, white and lavender, and piled into the car to go to the 11 o’clock service. Dozens of Easter lilies filled the sanctuary with an overwhelming fragrance, which caused some people to cough and sneeze through the triumphant Easter hymns. Afterwards, we ate lunch with the church crowd, before going home and taking a nap or tearing through our Easter baskets.
My first exposure to Lent was as an adolescent at the Wake Forest Baptist Church, on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Wake Forest, NC. There we meditated on Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. We were encouraged to search our hearts and give something up in symbolic penitence.
As a seriously religious child, I was moved by the church’s Maundy Thursday service, which was held in the dark and mostly in silence. A hymn was sung, some words of instruction given; a passage of scripture was read. Then we entered a long time of silence. In the front of the sanctuary, lit only by candles and one spotlight on the cross, were several long tables covered with white table cloths, and around each table were 12 chairs. The pastor and deacons stood behind the tables, waiting to administer communion, while those of us in attendance sat in silence and prayer until we felt ready to come forward and partake of the cubes of white bread and small glasses of grape juice. The service moved me so deeply that I later asked my Dad to recreate it in the churches he pastored in Kentucky and New Jersey.
Recently I have returned to Wake Forest, and it just so happens that I find myself here during Holy Week this year. I am revisiting the scenes of violent events that separated me from both my white innocence and the church in the late 1960s: my family’s home blasted with buckshot; the failure of a church to live out the gospel of Christ, instead putting it to a vote in order to pacify racist anger in the community; and the loss of my friends, who turned their backs on me and my family. I am here to begin writing the story, which I hope will be part of a larger reckoning with racism and white supremacy, both historical and on-going. You could say that it is my own personal Way of the Cross.
As part of my visit, about ten days ago, I attended worship at Ridgecrest Baptist Church. I wanted to sit inside the church that fired my father for allowing his children to invite their Black and white friends to a party in the parsonage. The theology preached from the pulpit on the Sunday before Palm Sunday was the traditional theology of atonement: how Christ came to earth to bear the weight of the guilt of sin and the terror of God’s wrath, and to save us from the power of Hell.
Which set me to thinking about sin and guilt and redemption. And asking myself, what do I believe about Hell? What do I believe Hell is?
One of my father’s favorite stories in the Bible, the topic of many of his sermons, is the story told in the Gospels about a lawyer who asks Jesus—either to test him or out of a genuine desire to hear what he would say, depending on which Gospel you read—, “What is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus answers, “‘You shall love the Most High your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.” He volunteers, even though no one has asked, “A second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” And going even further, again without being asked: “On these two commandments hang all the Law and all the Prophets.”
What if Hell is nothing more or less than the failure to love?
Here’s Jesus, saying that the most important commandments in the Law are to love God and to love your neighbor as you love yourself, and that everything else in the Law and the Prophets depends upon these two commandments. (When my father preached on this passage, he would break it down into three commandments, to love God, to love neighbor, and to love self; because, he argued, how can you love your neighbor as yourself, if you do not love yourself?) In Paul’s letter to the Romans, the apostle writes that Love is the fulfillment of the Law (Romans 12). In his first letter to the Corinthians, he goes even further: “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and…have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2, NRSV; italics mine) And in the first letter of John, we find these words: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars.” (1 John 4:20a, NRSV; italics mine).
The failure to love as Jesus taught us to love is Hell. And we create it here and now, within ourselves and in the world around us. Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is within us. In other words, heaven is not some place outside, separate from us, a place we enter after death–that is, if we’ve checked off all the right theological boxes. No, the kingdom of heaven is here, right now. In our lives and in our hearts.
Hell is also here and right now. I know, because I have experienced it. For decades, the violence committed against my family and friends in 1969, and even more the compliance of those in the church who effectively condoned it, both by silence and by their actions, filled me with bitterness and rage. I hated those who had been my friends, who suddenly turned their backs on our friendship. I hated the classmates who called me racist names I will not repeat. And most of all, I hated the church for putting Christ’s gospel of love to a vote, rather than having the courage to stand up to racist terrorism.
We are the ones who create hell. When we fail to love God, when we fail to love others as we love ourselves, we create hell in the world around us, as well as within us. And that hell will exist for all time—for eternity!—until we surrender to Divine Love. God’s Love doesn’t let us off the hook. It calls us to account for all that is unloving in us, for all that is unloving and unjust in the world we are making. Until we surrender everything in us that stands in the way of that Love.
Something to remember and ponder, as we journey with Jesus through the next three days, through betrayal and execution. And yes, ultimately, to resurrection. Because Divine Love is a power that will not be denied. A power stronger than hatred and Hell. Stronger than death.