The day after Thanksgiving, I was walking around a track, listening to an episode of This American Life. It was broadcast a couple of weeks ago and one of the stories considered a “haunted house” put on by a Texas church called “Hellhouse.” The house features real-life horrors, including abortion, suicide, and, in possibly its most famous set, a version of the Columbine massacre. Over the course of that scene, a teenage girl confesses her newfound Christian faith, then two kids with guns run in, terrorize everyone, grab her, ask her if she believes in God, kill her when she answers affirmitively, and then kill themselves, egged on by the demons that walk around whispering to them. At that point, an angel shows up to take the girl to heaven and the two boys are dragged kicking and screaming off to hell.
When the story reached that point, I was stunned. The whole concept is strange enough, but I had a particularly strong reaction to those boys being dragged off to hell. I don’t have a particular interest in Columbine or its perpetrators; nor do I think that Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris are innocents in any form. But, for some reason, I had a strong visceral reaction to their being dragged off to hell. It made me very angry (angrier, I admit, than I’ve ever been about the actual events of the Columbine massacre). How dare these folks presume to judge those boys!
Of course, it’s easy to judge them. They killed a lot of people for no discernible reason. These aren’t acts to be lauded. They callously took lives, apparently for their own amusement, and the only reason that they didn’t kill more was poor explosives design. Like Hitler, we can feel comfortable and confident that they are, in the eternal sense, getting what is coming to them. And yet, I was (and am) clearly uncomfortable with their getting what is coming to them in hell.
I can’t say that I’ve always been this way. Just after 9/11, I read this famous Onion article well great relish (warning: could be very, very offensive). Clearly, I wasn’t filled with compassion then. So what is the deal, now? Why did their being dragged off hit me like a punch in the gut? This post is me trying to figure it out.
While I am not always convinced that human justice is efficacious, it, at least, always has an end. Evangelical notions of hell do not. Lacking D&C 19, eternal and endless mean only that it goes on and on and on ad infinitum. However, our notion of hell is equally unending. Whether you put the Columbine shooters into Outer Darkness or the Telestial Kingdom, they are both functionally cut off from God and, if it is correct to believe that there is no movement between the kingdoms, that is how they will remain. It just seems like such a waste.
In any case, what really offended me about Hellhouse was the presumption, obvious as it was, that these killers deserved eternal punishment (in the non-D&C 19 sense). While we are often justified in the punishments we meet out on earth, who are we to declare what God will do with a soul after this life? We are often told that God’s mercy will surprise us; will that be a disappointment? If God did find it in his heart to forgive the Columbine Shooters after some post-mortality repentance, would our response be to follow his lead or point out the injustice of it all to those who were hurt? Would those hurt even care after their death?
At the same time, for God to simply ignore or forgive human suffering seems arbitrary and sadistic. Dostoevsky considers the inhumanity of man in The Brothers Karamazov. He tells the story of a cruel lord who sics his fierce dogs on a naked young boy because of a minor trespass. The lord forces the mother to watch her own son be torn apart by dogs. Ivan, the teller of this tale, then moves forward to the judgment, where, some may argue, the love of God will fill all and we will embrace even those who persecuted and spitefully used us. Ivan suggests that for the mother to embrace her son’s killer in love is to render the pain and suffering of the son meaningless. Why allow human cruelty and frailty if God really is going to make it all better in the end? What lesson would be learned?
I suppose, in the end, I respect God’s ability to make these decisions. I suspect that he is just and that he is merciful and that if I don’t see it, it’s my fault (or my inadequacies). However, the cause of my reaction seems simply to be that I don’t trust the pastors at Hellhouse to make that decision. Luckily enough, I doubt that they will.