We’ve been to Hell and back. At least some of us.
The rest didn’t make it back.
We paste smiles on our faces, maybe even genuine smiles. Because the pain isn’t constant. It comes and goes.
And for a while, everything seems fine. We seem like normal, healthy people. Fun. Caring. Interesting. Maybe a bit quirky.
But if only we would stop talking about what Hell was like! You don’t like the negative talk. It’s not fun.
You don’t want to hear those things. Also, you want us to feel better. At least, I think you do. Or maybe you just want to save face. It’s hard to tell sometimes. Especially if you were involved somehow.
So you tell us to forgive. To move on.
Listen, we moved on a long time ago.
That’s why we’re not in Hell anymore. Because we moved on out of there.
But the hellfire smoke scent still lingers in the folds of our clothing, the way smoke scent always does. The way you can still smell last weekend’s campfire when you put on your jacket Monday morning.
We look at pictures from our pre-Hell days. We remember what it was like to be unscarred. At least some of us. Some of us can’t even remember a time before Hell. Because we grew up in Hell.
But those pre-Hell memories can be absolutely crushing. We see how free, how beautiful we were before. We compare our perfect pre-Hell skin to the scarred, shriveled covering that we insist on calling skin, even though it looks like a poor imitation. And we weep for what we have lost.
We tell you what happened to us. You listen sympathetically. “You’re not alone,” you say. “I burned my hand on a woodstove when I was five. These things happen to all of us.”
No, they don’t. Don’t pretend you understand completely when you’ve never been to Hell.
Your platitudes don’t help. They are worse than worthless, in fact. They rub salt and sand into still-healing wounds.
“Don’t wallow in your pain,” you say. “Why do you keep changing those dressings and revisiting that burn twice a day? Don’t you know that picking at a wound will keep it from healing?”
Listen, I’m keeping a roof over my head. I pay the bills, cook the food, do the laundry, wash the car, and clean the bathroom. I’m doing my best not to “wallow in the pain”.
But that doesn’t replace my missing hand. Or erase the memories of Hell.
Some of us were thrown directly into the flames. Others of us were slowly seared by the heat, like a hot dog on a stick. Still others of us managed to stay away from the flames most of the time, and were burned less than others.
At least that’s what we think. Sometimes, we discover that we were burned so deeply that the nerves were destroyed, numbing the pain. Only after we begin to heal does the pain hit with all its force.
And then we fall apart. Some of us cut ourselves, trying to release the pain burning within. Some of us fall into addiction, trying to numb the pain. Some of us withdraw, trying to hide from anyone who might send us back to Hell, even for an instant.
“Jesus will heal you,” you say. “You should read the Bible every day. It will help you to know Him.”
But when we read the Bible, we can practically see the flames licking off the pages. Because we had the Bible in Hell. We were tortured and burned by its pages. Some of us had parents who would quote Bible verses to us while they roasted us. Some parents—and other religious people—used Bible verses to justify throwing us into the flames. We were bad, they said. We deserved the pain. We needed to learn the consequences of doing the wrong thing so that we would obey the Bible.
Some of us even believed that the fire was the way to freedom. If we could just get burned enough, we would lose ourselves and be set free.
So now that we’re out of the fire, we can’t stand reading the Bible. At least, certain parts of it. And we question why God didn’t pull us out of Hell sooner, or why He ever let us go there in the first place. Some of us reject God completely.
“Come back!” you yell, waving to those who want nothing to do with God. “Don’t you know that you’re headed for Hell?”
Listen, we’ve been through Hell already. We aren’t sure that anything else exists. But we know that the Hell we already experienced was very real. And if it came from God, we sure don’t want anything to do with Him.
Some of us managed, during those days in Hell, to grasp some idea of the love of God. Some of us came out of Hell because we heard His loving words echoing through its dark chambers. Somehow, we managed to cling to a thread of faith. But now we’re trying to fit everything together. Because all those verses from our days in Hell still bombard our thoughts. We read our Bible—and there are those verses again.
So we leave the Bible on the shelf. We shut off the audio Bible. We stop coming to church.
And then we hear you condemning us. “Don’t you know that the Bible is the way to know God? Don’t you know that you must not forsake the assembling of yourselves together?”
We know. And we want a relationship with God more than you will ever know. But some of us found Hell inside a church building. And every time we set foot in a church building, the wounds reopen and the burning comes back. Every time we open a Bible, the flames curl around our fingertips. We want to be able to put out the flames, to get to know the true, loving Father who wrote these words. We want to be able to walk into a building with lots of our brothers and sisters, and worship God. But we can’t stand the pain. So we quietly walk away.
For some of us, Hell was all we knew. While you were watching movies, listening to music, going to events, and generally living normal life, we were going through Hell. So when we finally get out, we don’t know how to live in the normal world. We don’t fit. We’re used to Hell. We’re not used to normal life.
And so we struggle to fit in. Our hair looks weird, our makeup sucks, our clothes are out of style, and we don’t get that movie quote that you made. And sometimes, it almost feels like we didn’t quite escape Hell, because we still feel its effects today in so many ways. But we gamely press on, hoping one day to overcome and actually fit into this culture called American life.
But sometimes we wonder. Because we lost so much time in Hell. With the barrage of media these days, how can anyone become familiar with years of previous culture, while simultaneously learning current culture?
So we do our best to fit in. But every so often, it happens again. Another reminder that we don’t truly fit in.
And then we wonder–again–“Will I ever be normal?”
And one of the biggest burns is inside. The belief that it was our fault that we were in Hell. That we deserved to be burned. Some of us didn’t even realize that we had been burned, because we didn’t know what normal life could be. Indeed, when we saw people who weren’t living in Hell, we derided them for being wimps who were afraid of fire. They only lived outside Hell because they were scaredy-cats who didn’t love God.
Or you look at the little girl whose father repeatedly tossed her into the flames, scarring her most delicate and intimate parts. “It’s no wonder,” you say. “You were always dancing around the flame. With that attitude, don’t be surprised when someone pushes you in.”
“In fact,” you might even say, “you, little girl, had a harlot spirit. You were just a devil who wanted to be in Hell.”
And then the cutting and drinking and drugs and reckless living continue as we try to numb out that pain of having caused our own ruin. And you look at us, shake your head at our stupidity, and walk away.
Some of us find healing. Sometimes, God even works miracles in our lives, and the scars disappear. Skin regrows like brand-new. Crippled limbs become whole again. And we all rejoice, even you. Because who doesn’t like a miracle?
But then we start pointing back to Hell. “That’s where we were,” we say. “This is what it was like. We need to rescue the people still in Hell, and we need to keep anyone else from going there!”
And you shake your head. “Just move on,” you say. “It’s tragic that anyone would be in Hell. But there aren’t nearly as many people in there as you say. We think you’re blowing it way out of proportion. We don’t want to falsely accuse anyone of throwing people into Hell. You’re bitter and unforgiving.”
But we turn our backs to you and head back toward Hell. Because we know what we went through. And we’re going to do what we can to keep anyone else from experiencing Hell.