So I watched this classic Sylvester and Tweety cartoon this afternoon with Rachel, without much regard going in for its soteriology, because I crack up every time I see Sylvester starts running through his lives at the shooting gallery.
Woodenjaknowit, we're barely a minute into the cartoon when Rachel asks why heaven looks so scary. And once I explain that Sylvester didn't go to heaven, she wants to know why not, and then I have to explain that he went to hell because "he was a bad old puddy tat." Too late I'm remembering that this cartoon gave me nightmares the first time I saw it, nearly 30 years ago, and that it called into question a lot of the Pleasant Old Guy associations I had picked up from God in Sunday school.
But I'm already in too deep, and it's getting deeper by the moment, because her next question is the one that I think every parent with faith secretly dreads: Is there really a hell?
I hate the very notion of hell. Too much, I want to scream. It serves no purpose, provides no balance, comes too late to make a difference or matter. I can trot out a thousand justifications for its existence, drilled into my head so I could parrot them back so I could bypass the discomfort the doctrine always causes me. I can even provide arguments to mitigate the sheer awfulness of a world where the sun never sets and rest never comes to the weary. It's not a Dantesque place of unspeakable torments that go on day and night without stop for all eternity; it's not a place that has fired the imaginations of poets and fundamentalists, with Sisyphus pushing a rock endlessly uphill, Tantalos trying to satisfy hunger and thirst with food and drink that remain just-so-barely out of reach, or where false priests wear robes of gold to punish them for their simony.
I want to tell her that hell, if it exists, is a garbage dump where the fire never ceases to smolder, and worms never cease to chew, and that nothing in gehenna is really what it once was, but it's no use. The more fantastic images remained indelibly ingrained in our culture, and all my protestations to the contrary sound empty and trite before they clear my throat, and so they die there, unvoiced and unheard.
I hate the very notion of hell. I wish I had never heard of it.