Of a Bridge and a Bell and Ashes Above Your Eyes
My daughter Else and I have settled in these last several nights to read Bridge to Terabithia.
We’re approaching the end of the tale, and knowing what will happen in just a few page flips, I have my kleenex box at the ready.
Last night, we read the chapter “Easter.” Leslie, the doomed girl who has no church background, was invited to go to church with Jess and his family on Easter.
After the service, while waiting for the rest of his family in the back of the pick-up, Jess, his six-year old sister May Belle, and Leslie debriefed the experience. Leslie begins:
“That whole Jesus thing is really interesting, isn’t it?”
“What d’you mean?”
“All those people wanting to kill him when he hadn’t done anything to hurt them.” She hesitated. “It’s really kind of beautiful story–like Abraham Lincoln or Socrates–or Aslan.”
“It ain’t beautiful,” May Belle broke in. “It’s scary. Nailing holes right through somebody’s hand.”
“May Belle’s right.” Jess reached down into the deepest pit of his mind. “It’s because we’re all vile sinners God made Jesus die.”
“Do you think that’s true?”
He was shocked. “It’s in the Bible, Leslie.”
She looked at him as if she were going to argue, then seemed to change her mind. “It’s crazy, isn’t it?” She shook her head. “You have to believe it, but you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” She shook her head again. “It’s crazy.”
May Belle had her eyes all squinched as though Leslie was some strange creature in a zoo. “You gotta believe the Bible, Leslie.”
“Why?” It was a genuine question. Leslie wasn’t being smarty.
“Cause if you don’t believe the Bible”–May Belle’s eyes were huge–“God’ll damn you to hell when you die.”
“Where’d she ever hear a thing like that?” Leslie turned on Jess as though she were about to accuse him of some wrong he had committed against his sister. He felt hot and caught by her voice and words.
He dropped his gaze to the gunnysack and began to fiddle with the raveled edge.
“That’s right, ain’t it Jess?” May Belle’s shrill voice demanded. “Don’t God damn you to hell if you don’t believe the Bible?”
Jess pushed his hair out of his face. “I reckon,” he muttered.
“I don’t believe it,” Leslie said. “I don’t even think you’ve read the Bible.”
“I read most of it.” Jess said, still fingering the sack. “S’bout the only book we got around our place.” He looked up at Leslie and half-grinned.
She smiled. “OK,” she said. “But I still don’t think God goes around damning people to hell.”
They smiled at each other trying to ignore May Belle’s anxious little voice. “But Leslie,” she insisted. “What if you die? What’s going to happen to you if you die?”
And, of course, she does. And, of course Jess fears that she will go to hell.
Hell has been in the news quite a lot in recent days, what with the conversation drumming around this “gadfly” or “heretic” or “new leader” or “fresh air” (depending on your theological flavor and fervor) Rob Bell.
I confess that hell is a theological hurdle for me, and let me assure you, I have always been terrible at athletics, especially sports that demand coordination, so hurdles are particularly daunting. But I keep backing up and taking another run at it, and last week Bell and Bridge gave me another reason to give it another go.
So May Belle is right–at least in part–that the Bible does speak about hell.
And the next move made by this little six-year-old and her big brother Jess is not a surprise, though at the same time shocking: if you don’t “believe in the Bible” God will damn you there.
Leslie smells something a bit “off” here. “‘I don’t believe it,” Leslie said. “I don’t even think you’ve read the Bible.'”
With this swift rejection, Leslie raises some interesting points:
How many people who say that they believe the Bible have read it? What about the people who haven’t ever or at all? And what to do with a) the parts in the Bible (that they have presumably then read) that suggest universal welcome; b) the parts in the Bible (that they have presumably then read) that speak about such things as concubines and giving away everything and forgiving; c) Easter?
Part of my role as a systematic theologian is help people discern whether what they say about God over here is what they say about God over there and what they believe to be true about God over here is what can be substantiated about God over there.
And I can’t wrap my head around what hell has to say about God, ultimately. What sort of God condemns people to eternal punishment, on what basis, and to what end?
And is hell reconcilable at all with the God revealed on Easter? Are the references to hell congruent with the story of Easter? Is the promise of hell more powerful than the promise of Easter?
See, it is interesting to me that in the story Bridge to Terabithia the conversation about hell takes place on Easter. If one believes in hell, wouldn’t Easter have some effect on it, or on who is slated for arrival there? Does a preacher who believes in hell preach differently on Easter than one who doesn’t? Why did May Belle leave the service terrified? Why did the dialogue have more to do with sinfulness and death (as if they had just left a Good Friday service) than grace and life?
It’s a key question, it seems to me, since we who are Christian call ourselves such precisely because of Easter, because we believe that Jesus is risen from the dead we believe that he was the Christ.
Perhaps there’s more to believe than just the Bible.
At the very least, perhaps there’s more to it than just believing the Bible.
Today is the first day of the season of Lent, Ash Wednesday. I have seen numerous facebook “status” updates with a simple +:-), and saw a man at the store today with a smeared cross between his widow’s peak and his eyes.
Many of us are familiar with the phrase “We are dust, and to dust we shall return,” a phrase echoing about in churches and behind smudged foreheads many times today.
Regardless of whether one is a Christian or not, these words are true.
The question, as it relates to hell, is whether we are burned to ashes into perpetuity.
It is absolutely possible to make such a case.
It is not enough just to state it, though. It is worth raising questions, like, on what basis? for what purpose? and by what sort of God?
The same sort of questions can be asked, of course, of those who hold a more universalistic view.
But depending on how you answer these questions, you will read Bridge differently, you will read Bell differently, and you will look at the ashes on your forehead differently, as either threat or promise; smeared despair or spread hope; cause of condemnation or basis for redemption, separation (even from oneself) or reconciliation (ditto), end of story or beginning of the new beginning.
And so to May Belle’s frightened question, “What if you die?” perhaps Leslie’s onto something.
“But I still don’t think God goes around damning people to hell.”
Because perhaps there’s more to it than just believing the Bible.