Hells We Create

I talked two weeks ago about the Hell that most Christians used to believe in, a place of torment and punishment in the afterlife. Our Universalist forebears believed that it was impossible that a loving God would design and run an enterprise of such cruelty. So we often say, in shorthand, that Universalists don’t believe in hell, and that is true if hell is defined as that place of punishment in the hereafter.

But in our Saturday workshop we have been talking about the criminal justice system this month, and the criminal justice system is very much concerned with punishment in this lifetime. This is a sort of hell on earth, and it won’t do to say we don’t believe in it. You can go take a drive in the country and find one of these hells soon enough, though you may not be able to get in.

Dostoevsky said “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Prisons are some of the hells we create on this earth, and we do it deliberately. Now if you visited a prison in the state system in Massachusetts, you might find it cleaner and tidier than home, but this is due to rigorous restrictions on what inmates can keep in their cells and the requirement that they do basic sanitation.

I remember the death house in Columbia, SC in 1998 when I went to be with my death row client the day of his execution. It was spotless, sterile and uncomfortably bright. It had all the charm of a doctor’s examining room. It did not speak of civilization, in Dostoevsky’s terms. It spoke of a system which claimed the power to deliberately take someone’s life and put a very bland, corporate, sanitized face on that beastly act.

There was no fire or brimstone and I didn’t see anyone tormenting my client or deliberately inflicting pain. But the system was designed for retribution. And at the end of that terrible day, they did inject him with a poison that stopped his breathing.

Retribution. I said a few weeks ago that there are generally considered four purposes for any criminal punishment. As to the death penalty, retribution is the only one of these purposes which even arguably justifies it. Executing the offender is not going to bring back the victim, it does ensure the offender does not offend again, but life imprisonment would also do that, and it obviously does absolutely nothing to rehabilitate the offender or reconcile offender and those harmed by the offense.

But retribution, the deliberate infliction of pain and suffering in payback for the pain and suffering caused to someone else, is also the central idea of Hell in the orthodox Christian imagination.

It’s an old idea. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is quoted as saying (Matthew 5:38) "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” I rely on the Oxford Annotated Bible, and this passage in that volume has a footnote on the “Eye for an eye” quote which refers to three passages in the Torah, one in Exodus, one in Leviticus and one in Deuteronomy. These are the sources on Jewish law which Jesus is quoting. The footnote then goes on “Though the principle controlled retaliation in primitive society, it did not justify it.”

Indeed, people who say that “eye for an eye” justifies retribution don’t know the history of the passage. It does appear in Jewish Law, but it also appears in the Code of Hammurabi, from ancient Babylon. It is called in Latin lex talionis, the law of the talion. Not “Italian,” Frank, but “talion.” I used to read this as talon, as in the claw of a bird, but that’s not the meaning. The linguistic root of the word is contained in our word retaliation. It was a restriction on retaliation. Specifically, it was a rule of proportionality. If the offender deprived you of one eye in the attack, one eye was the most you could damage in retaliation. If the attack cost you a tooth, you could demand a tooth in return, but not demand that the perpetrator be put to death.

Why is this important? I think it is important to know the meaning of what Jesus was saying about retaliation. What I read him as saying is that the law may allow this limited retaliation, eyes and teeth but you are better off not retaliating at all.

Jesus preached, in other words, an ethic of forgiveness. To some degree, it is a recipe for injustice. The extent of justice is laid out in the ancient law of the talion, eye for eye and tooth for tooth. Jesus says, go beyond what justice allows or requires.

This is what led our Universalist forebears to read Jesus as an advocate for a God whose love and forgiveness was boundless. And if a God so loving is the creator and sustainer of all that happens, it is not conceivable that such a God would create Hell. For the whole purpose of Hell is punishment.

The song I sang a moment ago by Fred Koller assumes this and imagines an afterlife of delicious irony: certain people have made life Hell on earth for other people, and they will be punished in the hereafter by being sent to that specific Hell they created to be tormented for all eternity. Suppose the men who had unprotected sex were the ones who had to raise the babies as single parents. Suppose the white supremacists were suddenly judged on the color of their skin. Suppose the politicians sending young folks to war had to fight those wars themselves.

We laugh at these lines because we recognize that each is a complaint against an instance of injustice, and we find it satisfying to think of them getting payback, their just desserts.

The chorus of the song asserts that the writer has tried to live by the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule, also part of the Sermon on the Mount as well as being found in almost all the other religions of the world, requires every actor to put herself in the shoes of anyone who might be affected by her actions. In the examples cited by the song, this is what each set of actors has failed to do. Politicians can vote for wars because they don’t have to fight them and they are indifferent to the interests of those who do. Men can

have unprotected sex because they don’t have to bear the consequences and they are indifferent to the women who do. Self-centered yuppies are indifferent to the plight of their poor aging parents.

Retribution, hellfire, for these violations of the Golden Rule provide a satisfying payback in the imagination of the songwriter.

So where are we? I started out talking about prisons as places of retribution; they are literally hells we create, and quite deliberately. If you have any doubt about that, trying proposing to spend tax money to upgrade prison facilities. Did you see that a male member of the Maine legislature said the other day that if the prison system gave out tampons for free to female prisoners, it would make the prison too much like a Country Club?

In the nineteenth century, there were efforts to reform prisons, and some Universalists were prominent in those efforts. The most enlightened saw them as places where the offender could reflect on the crime he had committed and maybe come to some regret for it. The name switched from prison to penitentiary, a place to encourage penitence, or reformatory, a place to reform the individual. These are fine ideals, but the public remains ever susceptible to the political claim that any attempt at rehabilitation is “coddling” those who don’t deserve it. Remember the Willie Horton ad? Early in my time in Massachusetts, a young man was horrendously murdered in Boston, and the ensuing hue and cry came within one vote in the legislature of reinstating the death penalty. A significant portion of the population wants for our criminal justice system to be primarily punitive, and even the most liberal of us will feel punitive on some issues or in some circumstances. Those are the concrete and steel hells we create.

Fred Koller’s song takes us to a different kind of hell we create, how we make life hell for others by our own indifferent conduct, and the conceit of the song is that the old-fashioned Hell of the afterlife will exact punishment which fits the crime. “Punishment which fits the crime” – Fred Koller is writing in a well-worn tradition, for that was the Mikado’s aim in the beloved Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera.

Punishment fitting the crime is also a standard feature of the sightseeing tour of Hell provided by epic poetry from the Odyssey to the Aeneid to Dante. Each class of sinner has their own peculiar punishment. Around this time of year, I often preach about decluttering and sometimes cite Dante’s Inferno, which depicts two types of people in the Fourth Circle of Hell: Hoarders and Wasters. These move perpetually around the circle, pushing heavy weights, and when they meet one another going around the circle, they clash their weight and shout at each other,

“why do you hoard?” and “why do you waste?”

Prisons are real; literary hells are figments of the imagination, and that is why the crime and punishment can fit perfectly as it never can in a real justice system.

But now I want to turn us to a different kind of hell we each create: the hell in our own minds. Not a literary hell generated for instructional purposes with a spirit guide, and not the material hells of the prison network. I’m talking about the hells that happen between our ears, and during our lifetimes. The hell that may characterize our own minds or souls.

Our guide though this realm will not be Virgil or Beatrice or even Jesus, but another wise and historical figure, the Buddha. It was the Buddha who came up with Four Noble Truths, and the first of these was that everything is dukkha. Dukkha is a word in Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures, and for a long time it was translated into English as “suffering.” With this translation the first noble truth would be that everything is suffering or that suffering is everywhere.

But more recent scholars have said that the better translation for dukkha is “unsatisfactoriness.” A professor of mine in Divinity School used to say, think of it like a bicycle wheel which is out of true; you can ride the bike, but it’s going to irritate you to do it.

But look at what this new translation does to the first noble truth; if we say that everyone is suffering, we are making a statement about the objective state of humanity. All people are suffering. But if the first noble truth is that everything is unsatisfactory, that is a statement not about objective reality but about our attitude towards whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.

So you could say that all life is hell, everywhere for everyone. Or you could say that almost any situation we find ourselves in could be seen as hell, if we’re looking for something unsatisfactory.

Now we’re still on the first noble truth. The second is that the cause of dukkha is craving and clinging. Everything is actually impermanent, but we desire and try to hold on to it as if it were eternal. You might say that one of the most unsatisfactory aspects of life is death. Or as Woody Allen once said, “life is like airplane food. On the one hand it’s terrible; on the other hand, there’s never enough of it.”

The Third Noble Truth is that the way out of dukkha is to overcome craving and clinging, and the Fourth Noble Truth is that the way to accomplish this overcoming is the spiritual discipline known as the Eightfold Path.

Buddhism, like the other religions which originated on the Indian subcontinent, is based on a belief in rebirth. We have each had past lives as humans or other sentient beings, and we will have future lives unless we can escape the cycle. This cycle of rebirths is called samsara. If you succeed in escaping it, you will not go to heaven and live eternally as yourself, as you might in the Christian cosmology. Success from a Buddhist point of view is not being reborn, a state of nothingness that is called nirvana.

Now certain strains of Buddhism also have a hell, meaning a place of punishment between lives, but I want to suggest here that samsara is also hell in a psychological sense. It is a hell we create.

We do it every day all day by habit. We say, “Ill be happy when I can lose 30 pounds.” We say, “Look at my neighbor’s car. I’ll be happy when I can have a car like that.” We can envy other people’s figures, their educations, their health, their financial stability, the success of their children and grandchildren, their social standing.

We crave to be anything we think we’re not. And we never have enough love. That other person is more beloved than we.

Or we cling to what we have rather than let go and trust the process. We act as if we will live forever, be around forever, when we know that everything changes.

Everything that happens to you is a result of three things. First, the choices you have deliberately and consciously made along the way. Second, the ripple effect of those choices as others react to what you said or did. And third, random circumstances over which you have no choice or control, including your family and social class and nationality, the stuff you are born with.

Suffering is an integral part of all of our lives, but that is not what I am referring to as Hell. Hell is that special suffering which we undergo as punishment for something we did or failed to do. One of the category mistakes that our minds often make is to assume that whatever suffering we are doing is punishment for some past actions. No, there is a lot of suffering which just originates from living as beings in time.

We have a line in one of our hymns, “what we choose is what we are.” But that is only partly true. We don’t have a choice over the whole run of luck that is our lives. But we do have choices as to how to react to what happens to us.

Let’s say we don’t get into that good school we were aiming for, or don’t get that job, or the person we want to marry turns us down. Or later in life, we get bad news from the doctor, or suddenly become disabled.

Now a run of bad fortune can cause suffering, make our life a living Hell. But I believe that the message of the Buddha is that it is your choice whether your luck lands you in Hell.

If I got a diagnosis of Parkinsons or Alzheimers or cancer, that may mean I’m in for some rough times, but it only lands me in Hell if I let it. If I descend into bitterness, cynicism, if I rail against the justice of God, if I turn against people who are trying to support me – then I am creating my own Hell inside my skull.

Universalists may not believe in classic Hell as a place of fire and brimstone in the afterlife presided over by devils, but we have to believe in the hells we create, in three senses. Prisons are concrete and steel hells which we create out of a failure of imagination as to how to deal with those who commit offenses against others, and we use them disproportionately against our fellow citizens of color.

We also create Hells on earth by acting irresponsibly in the world, with the result that our actions cause others to suffer, as Fred Koller’s song details.

But the most common hells we create are those in our own minds when we carry around guilt, malice, blame, judgment. Hell carries the idea that all negative emotions are punishments for something we did or failed to do. The Buddha, the enlightened one, shows us that that is an inadequate account of life unsatisfactoriness. Our dissatisfaction stems from our living as beings in time and wanting all the stuff we love to always be there for us, when the basic nature of life is change and impermanence.

The Buddhist monks illustrate this in a striking way; they will spend days making an intricately detailed work of art with colored sand, and when they have finished, they dump it off.

And as I get to the end of this reflection on Hell, I realize that I have been preaching to myself as well as you. I am trying to address the feelings of sadness that well up in me as I think about parting from this congregation which has brought me so much joy. You have shared with me your sadness and I share it back. Yes, some sadness is inevitable from the impermanence of life and the things we love. But it doesn’t have to be Hell.

A heart that is broken is a heart that is telling you it’s there. The occasion where we feel a great sadness at a parting, still nine months away, is not a consignment to hell, cut off from love. It is love itself.


Reading: The Hell We Created (song) by Fred Koller

If everyone went to the hell they created

What would it be like then

You’d have preachers burning in fire and brimstone

Bartenders drowning in rotgut gin

You’d have two-timing women crying blue and lonesome,

Believing an eternity of lies

And some men would spend forever selling their bodies

To people who they despised,

You’d have bankers losing everything they’d worked for

Pleading for a little more time

If everyone went to the hell they created

I wonder what would be in mine?


I’d like to think I’d get off easy

With time already served,

I’d swear that I’ve already seen

More hell than I deserve

I’ve tried and tried to live my life

According to the golden rule,

But we all know rules were made to be broken

By us ordinary fools.


If everyone went to the hell they created

What would it be like then?

All the folks who thought they were

better than their neighbors

Now they’d be punished for the color of their skin

You’d have the guys who thought

they didn’t have to take precautions,

Bringin’ up their babies on their own,

And those rich young yuppies who didn’t owe their parents

Would die neglected in an old folks’ home,

The politicians playin’ God with young folks’ lives

Would wake up in a desert fighting wars

And if we had to live in the hell we created,

Can you tell me what you’d find in yours?


I bet you’d like to think you’d get off easy

With time already served

You’d swear that you’ve already seen

More hell than you deserve,

You’ve tried and tried to live your life

According to the golden rule,

But we all know rules were made to be broken

By us ordinary fools.


Now I’m not saying that I know the answer

Of what’s in the life to come

But I can’t help thinking that where we’re going

Looks a lot like where we’re coming from

And maybe there’s some preachers who’d say I’m crazy

But I’ll bet you anyhow,

If we all went to the hell we created,

It’s look just like where we are right now.

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​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
Sunday Services  10:30 AM

819 Main Street
PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633

(508) 945-2075

Open Minds — Loving Hearts — Helping Hands

819 Main Street
PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633

(508) 945-2075 
Email: karen@chathamuu.org

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