I used to live in Ohio. I would travel from Cincinnati to Columbus for work on the heavily trafficked Interstate 71 quite a bit. Every time I made that drive I passed a billboard that read, “Hell Is Real.” It is situated opposite a billboard of the 10 Commandments. Located south of Columbus, the billboard sits prominently amidst red barns, grain silos, and beautiful houses with wrap around porches. It is hard to estimate the number of people who see this billboard on a regular basis. Its importance as a public religious statement is not lost on me.
The billboard makes me think.
It sets up an interesting proposition. If Hell Is Real than what? If Hell Is Real than you better stop cheating on your spouse. If Hell Is Real than you better report all your income on your taxes. If Hell Is Real than you better never get drunk. If Hell is Real than you better get with the program. Or else!
I am curious about the idea of Hell offered in that billboard.
Is it easier for us to conceptualize original sin than original blessing? Is the notion of a capital H Hell meant to scare us into repentance and eventual salvation? What role does an impending rapture play in our daily choices? And, what role does the freely given grace of God play, if living becomes an exercise in sin, repentance, than salvation? What are the true consequences for our actions if all we need to do is to be saved is tell God we are sorry? What is Hell if you don’t believe you need to be saved because you are born into the love of God? Can Hell exist without God? These questions linger.
I also wonder about the God that inspires this billboard. Is this a God of pure judgment, not a God of love? Is this a God of hellfire and brimstone, not a God of compassion? Is this is a God of Revelations and reckoning, not a God of grace? Is this a God of separation and other, rather than community and common ground? Is this is a God that reserves salvation for a few?
Hell means something else to me. God is someone else to me.
I remember learning that Hell is simply separation from God. Hell is not a hot place reserved for sinners who have died. Hell is not where you go if you have not been born again. Hell is not punishment or retribution. Hell is loneliness and isolation. Hell is forgetting we are born into original blessing. Hell is a state of mind and heart in which we are out of touch with the Divine Spark that lives within each of us. Hell is life without faith.
My spirituality has always been about asking questions of my faith. Not questioning my faith, though I sometimes do that, but rather about asking what do I really believe. This billboard made me question what I believe about Hell. “Hell Is Real” is a statement, a declaration, not a question. That reminds me how uncomfortable I am with certainty, especially in matters of faith. The road from certainty to exclusionary, hurtful dogma is not a long one. Maybe that is my biggest takeaway from reading this billboard. I agree with this statement. Hell Is Real. But my belief turns certainty on its ear, or maybe I am fine with the contradiction of disliking certainty but being certain. “Hell Is Real” reminds me of the importance of connection, meaning, and love in my life. Hell is when those things are forgotten or lost. I wonder if other people who read this billboard think about it this much?