Reframing the Devil and Hell

The follow is the abbreviated version of my sermon from yesterday. This blog is predicated on my belief that the devil and hell are mythological, but have metaphorical meaning for us today. If you would like to still take them literally, that’s fine. Each person needs to come to their own understanding of how the world, and the supernatural world, works.

When things got very difficult at the church I was at before this, I had one woman who kept telling me that all the bad things were happening to me because the closer I got to God, the more “the devil’s little imps” were out to get me. Then she’d say, “I know you don’t believe that, but that’s how I see it.” And I’d chuckle and say, “I know, that’s fine.”

The devil is a great way to personify evil, and a great way to explain why people do hurtful things to others. “The devil made me do it.”  Really? My biggest problem with this is that it removes responsibility from the person. It makes it sound like whatever they were doing was beyond their control. How convenient for them.

The way I reframe this is to understand that when we do things that are wrong, immoral, or hurtful, we are truly acting out of our lower ego selves. We are acting out of the side of ourselves that has been hurt before, that is broken, that is fearful. Sometimes we call this our shadow side. All of those things are “the devil in us,” if you will. To use the Old Testament understanding of “satan” they are the things that obstruct us in our thinking, are our obstacles to acting as Love would have us act. And sometimes it may almost feel like we’ve got the proverbial devil and angel on our shoulders as we debate how we will respond to something.  Perhaps someone hurts us and there is a little part of us that really want to go slash their tires, which argues with the side of ourselves that says “love your enemies… do not return hurt for hurt.” I’d love to be able to blame the tire-slashing side of myself on someone else, or something else, but I know it is really just me acting out of my own hurt and fear.

The spiritual path is an interior journey to our highest self. That requires that we come to terms with our lower self and do not allow that part of ourselves to act in harmful ways toward others. I don’t care if someone calls you names, or lashes out with hurtful, angry words, the higher spiritual path makes us stop and see that what they are doing comes from their lower, hurt ego self and we do not have to go to that place in ourselves. We can resist the devil in us, to use the metaphor, and respond with calm and love and understanding.

So, what about hell? The original concepts of heaven and hell necessitate that we have a God of rewards and punishments. This God rains down judgment, keeps track of our actions, waits to see if the good side or the bad side of the list is longer when we die, and then sends us to the appropriate place. This God reminds me more of people (or the Santa Claus God – making a list and checking it twice) than a Supreme Being , or Divine Energy that is LOVE. People say, what about “tough love.” Tough love does not ever condemn anyone to eternal punishment. That in and of itself is evil.

Perhaps heaven and hell made sense in the ancient world where heaven was literally in the clouds and hell was literally in the center of the earth, and all things – good and bad – happened because you were either being rewarded or punished by God.  But, I believe we’ve evolved beyond those concepts. Today, I see the system of Divine rewards and punishments as an extremely convenient way for the churches and religious authorities to keep people in line and keep them attending and giving to the church. Fear has always been one of the greatest motivators.

There are folks who have said, what’s the point in going to church if you aren’t going to be punished for not going. To which I want to ask, “What exactly is our spiritual journey about?” Is it about checking off the right boxes on a list that men created? Or is it about searching inside to find our intimate connection with “Something More?” To go beyond the illusion that we are all separated from each other and from our Source, to knowing, deeply, that we are all ONE?

So what does it look like to use hell as a metaphor?  If heaven, metaphorically, is being where God lives, being close to God, then perhaps hell is that place where we feel the farthest from God (my belief structure says that we are never actually separated from God because God is everywhere, including within us, but we FEEL separated). Perhaps hell is the chaos that happens in our lives which throws us so far off balance that we are no longer centered in God, who is the ground of our being. In those times we experience loneliness, fear, pain, sorrow, despair, and hurt to such a degree that we feel abandoned by God. Or our lives get filled with so much distraction from problems at work, or home, or family that, again, we feel completely separated from God. With these metaphorical understandings, both heaven and hell are possible now, today.

And, while I don’t see heaven as a lavish reward for what we do on earth, I do believe in an afterlife. I do believe our souls are infinite. Bishop Joh Shelby Spong, in his book “Why Christianity Must Change or Die,” says that our only mission is “to make it possible for everyone else to live, to love, and to be… our task is not to convert, but to call people into the depths of their own capacity to BE”(emphasis, mine). This is why we gather… to learn, to grow, to support and be supported in BEING… to live, to love, to sing, to pray, to seek justice… that is what community is for. It is not an insurance policy for the life to come, but a place to seek healing, wholeness and companionship on the spiritual journey.