“Hell,” says Pastor Rob Bell, “is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.”[i]
Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story. That is, surely, a different way to think about the concept. As Episcopalians, we usually don’t think about it much at all. Not a lot of hell talk comes from Episcopal pulpits. On the rare occasion that we do consider hell, we think of it as a mythological geographic location—somewhere down there, beneath the floorboards, like the molten river in Tolkien’s Mordor, where a gargoyle-like Satan sits atop a grotesque throne. Or, we apply the name to violent places on this plane of existence: Hell is Somalia in the 1990s, or tsunami-ravaged Thailand.
But Rob Bell says that hell is “our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.” If he’s right, then hell is not somewhere. Or, hell can be anywhere. Hell is wherever we are, on this plane of existence or the next, if we refuse to trust God’s retelling of our story. But what, exactly, does that mean?
Today’s Gospel passage is Jesus most famous parable, known popularly as “The Prodigal Son.” Our lectionary leaves out that Jesus tells this story immediately after offering the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin. That’s important, because it reveals to us that this story is, at its heart, a parable about being lost. Even more specifically, it’s a parable about losing ourselves in our own stories. That’s what happens here, to the parable’s younger son.
At the parable’s outset, the young man, who has just come of age, has obviously been telling his own story for some time. He has an image of himself, of the man he wants to be, of the mark he wants to make in life. It is an inflated and unrealistic image, but when has that ever hindered the young? The son goes to his father and brazenly asks for his inheritance while the father is still alive. Culturally, it’s difficult for us to grasp the radical finality of the son’s request. He is saying to his father, “I am done with you. I cut our lives asunder. I am me, and you are no part of me.”
That is the theme of the young man’s story, the one the young man has been telling himself, and, taking his inheritance—which the father freely gives, we should notice—he runs with it headlong into ways of living that are wild, exposed, and dangerous. To his credit, the young man follows that storyline to its logical conclusion.
By the end, the young man is lost within his own story. As he sits in the sty competing with the swine for peapods, he has become a perverse version of the character he has written for himself. He is spiritually and materially destitute, and virtually hopeless.
Last Sunday Kayleen Asbo was our Lenten speaker, and both on Sunday morning and Sunday evening she presented a truly riveting exposition of Dante’s fourteenth century poem, The Divine Comedy. Dante, Dr. Asbo pointed out to us, wrote The Divine Comedy at a point in his life when he’d become lost within his own story. Numerous events had led him to a place not entirely unlike that of the Prodigal. Indeed, The Divine Comedy begins with Dante saying this: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death.”[ii]
Dante writes seven centuries distant from us, just as Jesus spoke two millennia ago, but they could both just as easily be talking to us today. We are good, postmodern people. We pride ourselves on writing our own stories, on charting our course, on seeking our own destiny on our own terms. Some stories are grand, others more down-to-earth, but eventually any of our stories can write us into a corner, or a dark forest, or the mud and muck of the pig sty. We may find ourselves at the dead end of our mistakes, our grudges, our pride, our sorrows. And our souls, like Dante’s, admit, “It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that forest it. Just thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death.”
But though Dante’s poem begins with a descent into hell, it ends in heaven. And though the Prodigal Son wallows in the mud, the parable ends with a party. How is this? How do those whose souls—whose lives—are in such distress experience such a change? The key is in a phrase that these two stories share, word for word. In that dark wood, Dante says, “I came to myself,” and among the swine, Luke says, the Prodigal, “came to himself.”
In both stories, the same phrase. What happens there? That moment is the pause, the flash of insight in which Dante, the Prodigal, we realize that though the narrative of our lives is well under way, and though we have written into it plot trajectories that sometimes seem set, the ending is yet unwritten. It is the moment that makes all the difference, the shaft of light that splits the difference between heaven or hell. It is the first glimpse of grace.
Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.
The Prodigal’s hell does not quite end even there. Though he picks himself up and makes the long walk home, he does so as a dead man walking. He keeps writing his own story. He will return to his father’s house, he tells himself, not as a son but as a slave, as one deserving of nothing, because of the pain he has willfully caused and the errors he has repeatedly made. But when he approaches the house, he discovers that the father he had written out of the story has been waiting just off stage all along. The father runs to the son headlong in love, and before the Prodigal can speak the next chapter he has drafted, the father retells the story. The father retells the story. He recasts the characters. He alters the plot. He provides a new ending. “My son was dead but is alive again! He was lost but is found.”
The Prodigal is stunned by his father’s embrace. He can scarcely believe it. But he does not refuse the retelling. He trusts the love of the one he’d earlier written off, and the world that had been hell becomes heaven.
Now, we know Jesus’ story, his parable, does not end there. We know that the other, elder son is waiting by the door. We understand his indignation at this, frankly, horrible brother who has returned. We appreciate his work ethic and his sense of duty. We sympathize with him. Indeed, every time I have preached this passage someone in the congregation has reached out to me the following week about the unfairness of the parable, in common cause with the elder son. No doubt, it will happen again this week.
But it is clear that the elder son also lives in hell. There is no way his bristling sense of being wronged, or of entitlement, or his seething anger have only just emerged. He, too, has long been writing the story of his life, and it is one in which he is the good son, but probably never quite good enough; the one always overlooked, the one upon whom never quite enough recognition is showered. Each slight abrades his soul. And each time he tells this narrative to himself is another step into his own darkened forest. The story becomes its own simmering hell in which he is lost. For many of us, if we’re honest, this also sounds familiar.
In the end, the very end, the father also offers to retell the elder son’s story. “Son,” the father says, “You are always with me. All that is mine is yours.” Every grace and every gift the father gives not because of the son’s virtue or duty or right, but because it is grace.
Does the elder son experience Dante’s moment, the Prodigal’s moment? Does he “come to himself”? Does he see that even he is lost in a dark thicket and needs to be found? Does he allow the ending of his story to take a new turn? Jesus doesn’t say. The story is left open-ended, just as are our stories.
Friends, hell is not a place. Or, hell can be any and every place. Because hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.
Rob Bell says, “What the gospel does is confront our version of our story with God’s version of our story. [God’s] is a brutally honest, exuberantly liberating story, and it is good news. It begins with the sure and certain truth that we are loved. That in spite of whatever has gone horribly wrong deep in our hearts and has spread to every corner of the world, in spite of our sins, failures, rebellion, and hard hearts, in spite of what’s been done to us or what we’ve done,” we are loved.[iii]
For the remainder of this Lent, review the story of your life that you have so far written. Are you the younger son? The elder son? Is the story you are writing the one you want to live? Is it heaven or hell? And if the latter, what if—what if—we paused to look for the shaft of light in the dark forest? What if we came to ourselves with the realization that the ending is not predetermined. No matter what we are or what we’ve done; no matter what we’ve neglected or failed to do; God runs headlong toward us in unmerited and inescapable love. When we allow that to be the storyline, hell becomes heaven. The feast begins, and we discover that we are God’s guests of honor.
[i] Bell, Rob. Loves Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, 170.
[iii] Bell, 171-172.