Belief in Hell comes with no shortage of images and means to describe it. From Gary Larson “Far Side” cartoons, to movies, to Dante’s Inferno, to Saint Teresa of Avila’s vision of her own seat in Hell…. it comes in many shapes and sizes.
The best theological description of Hell that I’ve encountered would be this: crushing isolation. It is a mode of existence where a person is left only with their own company, and without any hope. In such a condition, all that we have are the voices in our heads running rampage.
What is worse, in that place God’s voice (and the voice of our conscience) that we grow so used to in this life that sometimes we don’t even realize it’s there anymore, is also silenced. We are truly alone, and in such a state, we are overtaken by our illusion of self-reliance, and therefore we keep casting about for an end to our state, but we continually come up short because we are powerless to stop it.
We cannot ask him anymore because he is dead, but from the descriptions I have read, the Oregon shooter, Chris Harper-Mercer, was definitely living in a foretaste of this existence while here on earth. This is the work of a man in radical isolation.
As usual, the instant these awful things occur, the cultural and political debate immediately moves to the topic of gun control, as though that is any solution to this problem. But all of this really has very little to do with guns. A gun is merely an instrument.
It has everything to do with a culture that fosters isolation and fragmentation. Very little has been said about the fact that this young man came from a divorced family. It is mentioned without commentary that he was radically opposed to faith and religion. We are simply told that he was a hateful and miserable person who felt he was dealt a bad hand, and no one laments the fact that a person should have to live like that.
And from there we go on to banning guns. Really? It should strike everyone as a curious fact that we have spent many decades banning a lot of things, but no one seems much happier or feels a whole lot safer.
Legislation does not prevent things like this from happening because the government does not have nearly the power that it presently thinks it has. On the contrary, things like this are only stopped by fostering the bonds of authentic human community, the kind of which require face-to-face contact and, dare I say, stable homes. It requires a cultural fabric that embraces virtues and embraces faith. It requires a neighborhood mentality that reaches out to help rather than retreating behind closed doors when they notice a mother and a son are obviously troubled.
But in our day when no one stays put for more than a few years in one city, and when our social networks are established across the internet rather than across the hallway, this is what we are going get more and more of as isolation and anger continues to spread.
And even then, bad things are still going to happen, and the word the Christian community has always had for that is evil, which is the product of sin.
But we do not speak of evil and sin anymore. We speak only of tolerance (based on what exactly?) and of behavioral psychoses to the point where few things are anyone’s free choices anymore, rather all is explained by compulsions. We are not free to sin because all of our actions are products of clinical behavioral deficits.
We lack the cultural vocabulary these days to speak of these kinds of events in a manner that is accurate and helpful. They are sinful and they are evil, and they are the product of a self-absorbed cultural mindset. If only it were as easy a banning guns.
But we need to recapture the necessary vocabulary because with it also comes a whole other set of words that are indispensable: grace, mercy, charity, the resurrection, the cross, life, joy, peace, and in this case most importantly: hope.
Chris Harper-Mercer was a man without hope, in a culture that has replaced hope with optimism (they are not the same) and has replaced charity with bureaucracy. Therefore he was living in his own foretaste of Hell, in a culture that is living in its own version of it, because it has lost sight of Heaven.
All of this is a summons to action for us who are believers in the one who conquers all evil, Christ the Lord. It is a summons to reach out, to love, to sacrifice, and to serve without fear. That is a much better, grander, and loftier vision of who and what we can all become than the secular one we are going to be sold by our warring political interest groups.
May God grant him mercy. And may God grant healing to all those he tried to pull into his own private hell. The Lord is stronger than death, and in all this, he is trying to summon us all to a new pathway, one that leads upwards. One that leads to life.