Tag: Hell

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Over the course of Halloween, we treated ourselves to a binge viewing of the Netflix miniseries “Stranger Things”. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll offer that it was entertaining–an endearing homage to the nineteen-eighties, Steven King stories, and Sci-FI movies like “ET” and “Close Encounters”. And–full disclosure here–this is largely being lauded as a “period piece”, and the “period” in question is my own, particularly the time of my own childhood. Stepping back into a warm cocoon of memory is part of the enjoyment. Wall mounted rotary phones, old “Coke is it” commercials, Atari, 80s cars, shag carpeting, and brown upholstered furniture are evident everywhere.

I enjoyed also the assembly of 80’s science fiction and horror motifs: You have a group of nerdy middle school friends from broken or dysfunctional families bicycling all around town with little adult supervision or intervention. You have disappearances and other creepy events occurring to people in a small Midwestern town surrounded by a terrifying forest. You have a secret government lab performing mysterious experiments. You have strong (though flawed) characters trying to rise heroically despite their circumstances (the mildly psychopathic yet truth-seeking Sheriff Hopper is a prime example).

In sum, you could find worse ways to spend 7 hours.

Also, stop reading now, because I want to discuss the ending.

But do come back at some point.

Ok, this is the last warning before I plow into details you might not want to know yet…

One of the standout performances for me is the grimly determined orphan “Eleven”, played by 12 year old actress Millie Bobby Brown. Her young eyes radiate despair and terror and hope so hauntingly that it reminded me a bit of Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense”. She surfaces mysteriously into the lives of three friends, who soon learn that she has extraordinary gifts. They also soon find themselves on the run from shadowy government agents, while also hoping to figure out a way to find their missing friend Will.

Since this is a religion-focused blog, I would be remiss to avoid discussing how Eleven (“El” to her friends) is almost a Christ figure. She is of mysterious birth. She possesses an almost unimaginable power–she can levitate objects, kill with a thought, and create portals between parallel worlds. Her life is one of near constant suffering. She reaches out in friendship to the youngsters and loves them. In the end, she sacrifices herself to save the others. Her story is a picture of sacrifice and salvation–one innocent sufferer giving her all so that the others may live. As Jesus stated ages ago, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

The story involving the missing boy Will Byers, can also be seen as a parable of redemption. Early in the series, he disappears into the grim, toxic, and deadly “Upside Down”–a kind of hell existing in parallel to our universe. His mother, portrayed by Winona Ryder as a petite nervous wreck who never gives up hope, is a spot of emotional warmth. She believes she can communicate with her son and will go to any and all crazy lengths in order to do so; for example, when the now invisible young Will somehow makes some lights blink, she responds and by the end of that day she has every inch of her little house plastered with Christmas lights. When she figures out that he is trapped in a parallel universe, she finds a way to the portal in the basement of the heavily guarded government lab, braving the risk of arrest or murder at the hands of the government men. She enters the “upside down”, braving the toxins and monsters, in a quest to retrieve her lost son. Against all odds, she finds him and takes him out of there. He is redeemed, taken back from the shadow of death, retrieved from the grip of Hell and its monster.

The “Upside Down” is also thought provoking in a theological way. In this story, the “upside down” is a parallel universe, one of many possible alternate realities, like ours but inverted. It has the same geography and even the same buildings–houses, schools, and tree forts–but everything is dark, gloomy, and cold. The air is toxic. A terrifying monster inhabits this land. It is hellish.

What if the Christian “Heaven” and “Hell” are in fact alternate dimensions, peopled by versions of ourselves that are better or worse. Hell might be the “upside down”, and Heaven is an alternate reality that is better.

Along these lines, what if our world is actually the “upside down”, a sick and perverted alternate universe to some other better one. That would fit our appalling history of mass murder and other atrocities, both horrific and banal, that are etched upon history. What if we are the demonic versions of our better selves? By no means am I going to claim this as the real truth, or ignore that it wouldn’t quite fit the biblical narratives, but it can be fun to speculate.

A CNN news report caught my eye. “Wells Fargo’s September from Hell”. The article lays out an overview–a sketch, really– of the scandal involving bogus bank accounts.

On Sept 8, it was announced that 5300 employees of Wells Fargo were fired for fraudulently opening accounts in their customers’ names. Subsequently,

Dozens of fuming former Wells Fargo workers reached out to CNNMoney to share horror stories of the pressure-cooker environment that led to this sordid behavior. Some said they had been fired for refusing to engage in these illegal practices, while others said they were fired for blowing the whistle.

You can read more at CNN.com.

Sept 21, the CEO of Wells Fargo, John Stumpf, was called to testify before Congress. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s tongue-lashing became the the buzz of social media. In addition to calling him “gutless” and telling him he should resign, she said this to Mr. Stumpf:

She said Stumpf’s personal holdings of Wells Fargo stock increased by more than $200 million while the fake accounts “scam” was going on, thanks in part to the bank’s success in selling tons of products to customers that they didn’t need.

“You squeezed your employees to the breaking point so they would cheat customers and you could drive up the value of your stock and put hundreds of millions of dollars in your own pocket,” Warren said. (Also from CNN.com).

In timing that couldn’t be more ironic, the executive Carrie Tolstedt, who oversaw those fired employees, will herself get to retire peacefully. Although she has been asked to forfeit severance pay and performance bonus, she will leave with shares and stock options worth $77 million. This, I am sure, is is a much more generous outcome than is experienced by any of the lowlier employees summarily dismissed from her “pressure cooker.”

To my mind, something deeper is going on. This company had a “month from Hell” in more than one sense. It could be said that all of their months are from hell. And they aren’t likely much different from any of the other giant banks–or, for that matter, from corporations in general. Wells Fargo and most of the rest of the corporate world can be seen as a manifestation or reflection of Hell on earth. They are bloated monsters sucking the lifeblood out of their workers while relentlessly pursuing “Mammon” unmoored from any of the ethical restraints that in past generations might have been provided by Christian teachings (or at least the public shame that could be leveled by gross violations of the same).

My point is not to wax nostalgic for the bankers of old–their yachts were just as surely fueled by greed and ruthlessness. But, by and large, a social compact existed that has since been eroded and killed by a banally evil corporate culture that now pervades all of our economy. Little concern remains for quality in craftsmanship of products, or honesty and integrity in delivering of services–These seem to be given no more than lip service. There is no reputation worth preserving if trashing it will eke out a slightly higher profit margin in the short run.

Smaller firms have been merged and swallowed into an oligarchy of megacorporations. The average worker has seen stagnating wages for much of the last decades, while executive pay has skyrocketed into the stratosphere. For the masses, this means ruin. The noble idea of “the career” has been supplanted by menial and dreadful jobs serving the whims of corporate empires. Surveys indicate that 70 percent of people dislike their jobs. Most of those not fortunate enough to be independently wealthy will have to spend the majority of waking life in the “pressure cooker”–subjected to perverse incentives and demeaning treatment. (The main alternative, I should hasten to add, is the equally demeaning manifestation of hell on earth known as “government bureaucracy”–a worthy topic in its own right).

Carmine Gallo in Forbes magazine opines that people would be happier at work if they were treated better and had a sense that what they are doing is meaningful: The trouble is nobody is inspired to get up Monday morning because their job offers free soda in the vending machine. People want to be inspired. They want to work toward a higher purpose and feel good about themselves and their leader. It requires better communication, not more perks.

We agree. It would be naive to expect a company to provide Heaven on earth, but there could be some steps taken in a better direction.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) has been described as “the last station on the train to hell” (Payson, The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family, (2002)). Some would go further: It is hell. Anyone who has dealt with a relative or friend afflicted with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is aware of the damage done by these malignant people upon those around them. Very rarely do they have insight or any willingness to change.

The features of narcissistic Personality Disorder, according to the most recent
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) include the following:

Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:
Impairments in self functioning (a or b):

Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.

Self-direction: Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high in order to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement; often unaware of own motivations.

AND

Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):

Empathy: Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the

feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over- or underestimate of own effect on others.

Intimacy: Relationships largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality constrained by little genuine interest in others‟ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain

Pathological personality traits in the following domain: 1. Antagonism, characterized by:

a. Grandiosity: Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert;

self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is better than others; condescending toward others.

b. Attention seeking: Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking.

C. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.

The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual‟s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.

The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).

The central defect of narcissism is not putting oneself first, though this is a prominent feature of the disorder. The central defect is rather the wholesale embrace of a lie–the embrace and promotion of the “false self”, a distorted image which is protected ruthlessly. It should be noted, that the lie is first and foremost directed to oneself. The embrace of the lie is also at the root of the ill promulgated by narcissists.

A view from the inside can be found in this “letter from a narcissist’s true self” (available from an online forum at Psych Forums):

You can never get through to my true self because the lies I tell are nearly impenetrable. I have lied so often and for so long that I myself have come to believe my own lies. I am a walking lie. That is the truth.

Psychiatrist and famed author M. Scott Peck shocked many when he wrote, “I now know that Satan is real. I have met it.” He dealt with a subset of people with NPD in his book People of the Lie, in which he proposed that a certain subcategory of them be termed “evil”. He has related that one can define “evil” as “live” spelled backwards–“evil” is the opposite of “live”, or it is that which kills life.

Among the many tales in this book he recounted how a set of parents gave the grieving brother of a suicide victim a grisly present one Christmas–the very gun used in the suicide. They either didn’t care how this would affect him, or wanted to send him a message. For the most part in Peck’s encounters, evil people are of the banal sort, harming only those around them. They may appear normal, often even poised and highly successful. They go to church (and are often leaders there). But they can devastate the lives of those who are around them.

Whereas “God is love”, the malignant narcissist offers only a pretense of love. As Peck says:

Those who are evil are masters of disguise; they are not apt to wittingly disclose their true colors–either to others or to themselves. (p 104)
Because they are such experts at disguise, it is seldom possible to pinpoint the maliciousness of the evil. The disguise is usually impenetrable. (p 76).
Naturally, since it is designed to hide its opposite, the pretense chosen by the evil is most commonly the pretense of love. (p 106)

Victims of narcissism aren’t the only ones to taste Hell. The pain comes around to the person with NPD as well. Narcissism is a double edged sword. The lie is first directed at oneself. It is rare to hear a narcissist complain, but I did run across this post, from a self aware person with NPD:

Here is a comment from the other side. I have narcissistic personality disorder and have lost just about everything important. My adult children have distanced themselves. My wife has filed for divorce. Yes, I have screwed up just about everything. Fortunately, only 1% of the population has NPD. I wish I didn’t.
(From “Lament of a Lonely Narcissist” in a Psychology Today blog by Randi Kruger).

Among the pictures of Hell that have been proffered, one that intrigues me comes from Tim Keller:
We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them. Now ask the question” “What if when we die we don’t end, but spiritually our life extends on into eternity?”
Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever
. (Keller, Reason to Believe p.79)

May God free us from such a trajectory. Let us shun evil and embrace life. As Jesus taught: “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly”.

Valentine’s Day brings the annual punctuation of Winter’s cold by the arrows of Cupid. We are put in mind of romance and love, as we wander the rows of pink and red cards, and navigate the bewildering assortments of chocolate and flowers. We may find ourselves reading delightful poems by Donne or Byron, or perhaps thinking of tragic love stories from ages past.

Since we are observing the holiday this year on a Sunday, this is a good time to recall the deepest and oldest, and perhaps most tragic love story of all time. This story eats Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” for breakfast. It is more intriguing than the pathos conjured by Tolkien’s “Lay of Beren and Luthien”. The story in view here, of course, is the tragic tale of God’s deep love for humanity, for his created beings whom he made in his image, and endowed with the gift of life. He has loved us despite our rebellion and waywardness. God has endeavored to woo us back. The shocking finale is that God wrote himself into our story, taking our humanity and all its joys and sorrows upon himself.

As in the words of an old Lutheran hymn (Adapted from Thomas A Kempis)

“Oh, love, how deep, how broad, how high,
Beyond all thought and fantasy,
That God, the son of God, should take
Our mortal form for mortal’s sake!”

Sadly, that love often has gone unrequited. In the end, a soul that says, “leave me alone” gets its wish. In the title above, I invoked the idea of Hell, which I won’t try to fully define here. An important aspect of the definition is that the ultimate curse is the precise opposite of the ultimate blessing, as expressed in the famous “Aaronic benediction”. Instead of God’s presence, there is absence. Instead the light of God’s countenance shining upon his beloved, there is only darkness and loneliness.

Some might ask us how we square the idea of a loving God with a concept like Hell. I was recently listening to an old message by Tim Keller, of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and was struck by a statement, that we will never really understand the depth of God’s love for us without believing in Hell. What did it cost God to love us? Was it nothing? What did Jesus actually endure on our behalf?

It turns out that what really makes Jesus the “man of sorrows” arises from much more than the mere physical tortures inflicted upon him. It wasn’t just the weight of the cross that bore him down. Christian theology teaches that Jesus had to endure abandonment and forsakenness, the sudden disintegration of his relationship with the Heavenly Father. In other words, Hell.

I recall wasting a couple hours in 1997 watching “Event Horizon,” a science fiction horror film that is almost exactly like “2010” crossed with “Friday the 13th”. It begins creepily enough with a ghost spaceship returned after disappearing into a black hole, and a team of astronauts and scientists travel to investigate. From this promising start, the movie degenerates quickly into a fairly brainless gore fest. The spacecraft is orbiting what turns out to be a portal to Hell, and one of the characters gets possessed by a demonic entity. But there is an interesting point: At the end of the movie, one of the remaining crew members willingly enters the portal to Hell, in order to save the others.

That’s exactly what Jesus did. He took on Hell so that we might escape it. That’s a love that is astounding and unfathomable. However, if we try our best to understand it and embrace it–to take it into our hearts–it will be life transforming.

So, reflect on that, and happy Valentine’s Day.

(Administrator’s note: Today we welcome a new author/contributor, Sister Marie.  We appreciate this insightful posting, and look forward to future work from her).

Supermax_prison,_Florence_Colorado

“A cleaner version of Hell” is the phrase used by Robert Hood, to describe the place where he was warden during the years 2002-2005.  This “hell” is the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colo, or “ADX” for short, also known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies”.  Some of the worst Federal offenders are living out their remaining days here, including 9-11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, the spy Robert Hanssen, Oklahoma City Bomber Terry Nichols, and the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, to name just a few. ADX has gotten a rare detailed airing in the New York Times; You can find the full article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/magazine/inside-americas-toughest-federal-prison.html?_r=1

I was struck by two things when I read this article.  First, I find remarkable the appropriateness of the term “hell” as a description.  It is said that inmates spend 23 hours of their days in solitary confinement, isolated from any human contact.  Their only glimpse outside of their cell is of a bit of sky through a 4 inch wide slit-shaped window.  Inmates in solitary confinement generally do not cope well, as this article states: Whatever the reasons, such extreme isolation and sensory deprivation can take a severe, sometimes permanent, toll on emotional and mental health. Researchers have found that prisoners in solitary quickly become withdrawn, hypersensitive to sights and sounds, paranoid, and more prone to violence and hallucinations. Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has documented several cases of individuals with no prior history of mental illness who nonetheless developed paranoid psychosis requiring medical treatment after prolonged solitary confinement.   The aforementioned Mr. Hood sums it up: “this place is not designed for humanity.”

Isolation is also a hallmark of the Biblical Hell, described by Jesus as “outer darkness” (For example, see the fate of the unprofitable servant in Matthew 25:30).  It is the loneliness of being shut out from God’s presence.  In Matthew 7, Jesus states that some will be told “away from me” and “I never knew you.”  The Greek word that is commonly translated as “Hell” in the New Testament is “gehenna”, which referred to the valley of Hinnom, which at the time was a desolate place outside the city of Jerusalem that was being used as a kind of garbage dump into which all kinds of excrement (including corpses) might be cast (See, for example, this entry from The New World Encyclopedia).

The second thing in this article that has struck me is how our far our earthly justice is from divine justice.  Despite our best efforts, human justice is tainted and corrupt.  The mental illness found at the Supermax is not merely due to the deleterious effects of isolation.   The reason that the NY Times article has emerged is that the U.S. has been incarcerating those who are mentally challenged, in contravention of our own statutes:

The story of the largest lawsuit ever filed against the United States Bureau of Prisons begins, improbably enough, with this letter. Deborah Golden, the director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project, fields approximately 2,000 requests each year, but Bacote’s, which she received in October 2009, caught her eye. “I thought I might be missing something, because it was inconceivable to me that the Bureau of Prisons could be operating in such a blatantly illegal and unconstitutional manner,” she said. Golden was referring to B.O.P. regulations that forbid the placement of inmates who “show evidence of significant mental disorder” in prisons like the ADX.

I’m filing this one under “Reflections of the Fall.”

Photo above: “Supermax prison, Florence Colorado” by US Bureau of Prisons – http://www.miamiherald.com/graphics/rich_media/1027903.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.