Seemingly never do people ask whether or not hell exists. Existing in philosophical wonderings and musings and moments of introspection is the question of whether or not heaven is a reality, a sort curiosity speculating if a type of perennially immaculate afterlife is real. But no one seems to wonder if hell exists.
Maybe this derives from the ever-presence of hell around us all the time. We don’t need to know whether or not hell is a tangible location to identify those things around us that mimic its qualities. When a parent dies leaving three kids, when divorce happens, when war breaks out, when an eight-year-old girl is raped by her uncle or older brother’s friends—these are moments when (without consciously thinking it) our belief in hell is emboldened.
Those are all things of this world. Here and now. Tactile. C. S. Lewis, in his preface to The Great Divorce, his allegorical take on heaven and hell, was very quick to shirk off the notion that he was saying, “This is how it really is.” But even so, you have to wonder if he was very far off in creating and fashioning his “hell” as being really nothing more than a manufactured likeness of life on earth.
Not to be completely despondent, though. Some people would respond, “Come on. There are glimpses of heaven on earth. Life is good.” Two things to that. First, those who say that may very well have a better quality of life than most people (little suffering, 401(k), two or three cars, education—in a word, security; doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but still . . . consider who’s saying it before making it fact). But second, even though there are little vignettes of heaven here now (yes, I agree), the snippets of hell oscillating throughout the temporal fold of this life are far more numerous.
I’ve always wondered if restoration is something that you should find at the very center (or close to it) of Christians and what they’re passionate about, and this isn’t a restoration in terms of remodeling the kitchen or hiring a construction team to add on to the back of the house a breakfast nook complete with bay windows. Centered in service, this is a renewal free of wealth gospel.
We’re all—Christians included—very adept at picking out parts of our culture that irritate us like a backscratcher covered in sandpaper. But if people of faith kick this into overdrive, they end up doing a rousing impersonation of an ancient Israelite’s ability to complain. And this is unimpressive. Because anybody can do this—point out what is wrong, abysmal, or infuriating. Sometimes we—Christians included—get mad at the wrong things (non-issues and the like), but overall everyone is probably right most of the time when they see something and label it as being in a state of brokenness (i.e., life) and, thus, bemoan its conked out nature. But that’s just a start.
Ultimately, we have the ability to bring about amelioration. No, most of us don’t have unlimited resources at our fingertips. I will never be able to do what Bono does. Most of us lack infinite funds to pull off whatever grand scheme for humanity’s benefit we have in our heads. But even so, restoration is so crucial to the Christ follower’s life. If it’s not, then (with time) you start to question how much Christ matters to him or her because people can see that lack of concern for humanity and easily connect it to a lack of interest in God. That, or they’ll pick out religion as the whipping boy and say the person’s faith is a sham and ask why should they ever consider following what he so shakily claims he “pursues.” It’s a domino effect. People leave the Church in droves. Why attach yourself to something no one else is passionate about? People don’t move towards that. Apathy is repulsive. People may not know a thing about Christ, but they can still identify a life lived in apathy and decide such a thing isn’t what they want their own life to look like. Restoration, though, is contagious. This is because it is dripping in passion. People see it, want to be part of it, and latch onto it.
This happens by example. Restoration can never begin to proliferate out of an individual until it is seen first and foremost in his life. For example, if a man grouches endlessly about how the marriage situation in America is in shambles, but isn’t even attempting to live at home in peace with his spouse, then he is a whiner and should save his would-be verbal comments for the arena of empty space in his own head. On the other hand, if he tries to energize people around him about building better homes for kids with stronger families and his life is a testimony to such a possibility, odds are people will be a tad more eager to give him a listening ear and learn from him.
Because deep down we all know things are not the way they should be, so when people complain it’s not a newsflash. To live is to suffer, so simply breathing communicates to us the existence of a broken nature in the fabric of everything. Perhaps this is the whole “eternity set in the hearts of men” concept played out in everyday life. We’re ravenous to see if anybody has found “a better way.” This is what simultaneously drives people to the Church and then away from it. We value the search.
For the Christian, he readily admits life isn’t the way it should be. The back of his mind is supposed to be acutely alert to how perfection is not the norm, but was at one time. Whether you believe the Garden of Eden tale is literal or an allegory tying a line from Creation to the eternity of heaven is of little importance since both approaches and beliefs arrive at the same conclusion: perfection used to be/should be the norm. Obviously, though, it isn’t right now. The resulting question, then, is to ask, “So what?”
That may seem cold in the face of believing utopia (or the concept, if you will) existed at one time. Asking “So what?” may also seem rather stupid because if the possibility of perfection was there once, few nudges should be needed to try and get us excited about restoration. But figuring out one’s motives is always needed, especially when so many in the Church seem to believe that restoration isn’t that important. They would never admit that, but their dogmatic belief in little else besides Sunday/Wednesday church attendance, personal accumulation of wealth, and propagation of Western ideals weaves a different tale. If perfection awaits at the end of time and it’s impossible to bring it about again here on earth, why try? In actuality, that’s a good question.
Why try? For one, because people need a point of reference. I can try and emphasize to people how once long ago things were all bliss and sunshine, but all they have to do is tear themselves away from the story I’m telling and see no such thing around them exists. (Side note: this is why people would grow sick of only watching Disney movies all the time; we need realistic dramas every now and then to encourage us by reminding and reassuring ourselves we’re not the only ones who can see the broken nature of this environment—in effect, to feel we’re not alone.) Nothing, in fact, resembles this highfalutin fairy tale I just told. And that’s all it would be to them: a fairy tale. They won’t believe a thing I say. You can read Hebrews all day and talk about how living by faith is not living by sight, but to get people to even listen to you, it’d help to initially give them something tangible.
And so for many people listening to Christians, this is unfortunately when pessimism has set in. If they see everything is so far gone and only hear the religious crowd talking about how it used to be so great, they’re essentially wasting their time listening to old guys on porches pining for the good ol’ days, and nobody has time for that. They don’t want to hear someone gripe about it. They don’t want to hear what they already know because they’re already fully cognizant of such truths abiding in the dust of existence. If everything is so far gone, hearing about it won’t make them want to take part in restoration. Something can, though.
Give them glimpses and a taste of goodness, and something will ignite. Again, it goes back to the guy in a bad marriage complaining about bad marriages. It’s cyclical crap. But invite someone along to help you out with building a community garden or participating in a food drive or a forum where you bring together two groups that normally hate each other to have a calm discussion and listen to one another, and then they start to get the picture: perfection, while unattainable here, can be glimpsed and brought about in small ways through the burdensome, yet glorious, effort to restore. This is why TOMS is so successful. People are starving to take part in something restorative, something bigger than themselves.
But yes, it is unattainable because for the Christian there is a healthy dose of realism thrown in, a good portion of which we probably receive from Christ himself when he said such things as, “You’ll always have the poor with you.” You can take such an acknowledgment as hopelessly draining, or you can let it energize you with the promise that there will always be room to do good. For the Christian, then, the simple question is whether or not his life speaks to a belief in the legitimacy of and urgent need for restoration.
Can I save that homeless man from dying? No. One day he will eventually die. Regardless of whether or not I feed him, house him, and get a whole community helping me give the guy an education, he will still die one day. So was it all for naught? No, because this life touches the eternal in ways we can not even begin to comprehend, so that man’s life here is of great importance, and we must do everything we can to help restore it as close as we can back to a level of dignity and glory that comes with perfection. Why? Because he’s a human being who is, to shamelessly and painfully quote L’Oreal, worth it. Because when you genuinely love a person, you value their life in a way that leaves room for nothing else besides restoration to enter in and start working. And it is only upon doing that that we can give people a glimpse into the eternal, which opens doors more beautiful than any found in this physical realm.