Christians talk an awful lot about hell. But have you ever stopped to imagine what hell is really like? I mean really. Stopped and imagined. Eyes closed. The world pushed away. Just you and whatever vision of hell is in your head — or at least at the edge of your thoughts.
Got it? Okay. Now let’s compare notes. Was it anything like this?
- Shivering and reduced circulation.
- A slow, weak pulse, slowed breathing, lack of coordination, irritability, confusion and sleepy behavior.
- Slow, weak or absent respiration and pulse — and the irrational desire to engage in “paradoxical undressing” as one loses rationality, nerves become damaged and one begins to feel incredibly hot.
Now, before you think I’ve lost my mind with that third bullet, let me explain the source of that term “paradoxical undressing”: The three descriptions above constitute the three stages of hypothermia.
So am I saying that hell is cold rather than hot? No. At least not literally.
Rather, I believe that hell is existing in the absence of God’s love. Or rather, living in the absence of the awareness of that love. Call it a distancing.
And if you wanted to distance someone from God, to really cause them to doubt or forget or even curse God, how might you do it? Well, here’s one recipe:
- Saddle them with a mental illness, an addiction, a crippling life circumstance or a seriously bad choice (or series thereof).
- Let the condition(s) above distance them from friends and loved ones.
- Jeopardize their livelihood.
- Cause them to lose their home.
- Degrade their health.
- Let them sleep on the streets.
- Put them at the mercy of cold weather.
- Let hypothermia set in.
- Allow them to die alone.
If any version of that happened to you, would it strain your relationship with God? Even a little? (Maybe some of it has. I don’t want to assume, I’m just painting a picture.)
As I write this, I’m personally aware that a variation on what I’ve just laid out has happened to at least three people in our midst in recent days. Three children of God, my friends. Three blessed souls subjected to what I would argue is hell on earth.
And not only is this preventable, but the tools to prevent it exist and get used. So how do three people die anyway? Let’s just say that at least one of the tools is, shall we say, tragically mis-calibrated. That tool is called a warming center, and there’s more than one in the city of Atlanta. Several of them open once the temperature dips below 41 degrees, and several more open when it dips below 36 degrees. They’re all mostly small, accommodating anywhere from five to 100 people in a metro area with an estimated 3,000 homeless. They’re also all privately operated by nonprofits.
The largest warming center of them all, operated by the City of Atlanta, can accommodate more than 100 people but is seven miles from downtown, outside 285, and at least a 46-minute public transit journey from Five Points. It also doesn’t open unless the temperature dips below 33 degrees.
And that, my friends, is how three people have ended up dead before the official start of winter. Are you upset yet?
Most mornings I start my day with a cup of coffee, a meditation, a morning prayer and the posting of a thoughtful saying I’ve nicknamed “For the Day’s Journey” that anyone can join me in keeping in mind as we go through the day. One morning this week, my daily saying was this one by the theologian Rob Bell:
Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.
It’s a dramatic oversimplification, but in service of a point about Christianity’s less than pretty moments. And almost immediately after posting it on Facebook I received the following comment:
… let’s all pray that the city has the common sense to open all three large warming centers tonight, we all know that a black woman died under the same kind of weather circumstances two weeks ago… I am putting a Facebook event page together asking folks to help us get the people moved to the warming centers…
The writer of that comment being so in tune with my thoughts in the moment that I briefly considered charging him rent for the space he’s clearly occupying in my head.
Unfortunately, what he was suggesting that particular 50-degree day — that people volunteer to help move the homeless to warming centers — only works if they’re actually open. It’s been a topic of debate in my circles for the last three weeks.
And I’ve heard a whole range of excuses, chiefly these two:
- It costs too much. So now we know there’s an actual calculus of some kind when it comes to the value of a human life here in the richest nation the earth has ever seen.
- The temperature isn’t low enough. The overnight low temperature in the last six days having been 46, 43, 39, 37, 46 and 39 degrees as I write this.
So what’s low enough? Apparently, according to the City of Atlanta it’s exactly 32 degrees — which as you’ll recall from fifth-grade science class is referred to as “freezing” because it’s the temperature at which water changes from a liquid to a solid state. It becomes ice. And how much of the human body is water? Sixty percent. In fact, according to H.H. Mitchell in the Journal of Biological Chemistry:
- The brain and heart are 73 percent water
- The lungs are 83 percent water
- Skin is 64 percent water
- Muscles and kidneys are 79 percent water
- Bones are 31% water
I feel qualified to speak on the subject of being outdoors in all kinds of weather because my own congregation meets outdoors every Sunday morning. And in the 12 years since we started doing that, we’ve realized that any weather conditions that result in a wind chill below 40 degrees are just too uncomfortable even for a church that moved outside on purpose so as to truly be a “Church Without Walls”.
And it’s not as though we show up unprepared. We wear layers, we bring blankets, we build a fire. And all this just to get through an hour under a picnic shelter that keeps us dry (but also shields us from the sun, which is great in July and not so great in January).
So at this time of year we watch the weather forecast for 10:30am Sunday in Candler Park pretty closely, and we try to make the call by Thursday or Friday of each week as to whether we’ll move to our version of a warming center, the chapel at First Christian Church of Decatur, where our offices are located. (And in fact, this weekend’s call was to move indoors.)
Before we started doing that, we endured some comically quick outdoor services in the winter — our record being a bright, brutally cold Sunday where we came, worshipped and left so quickly that one parishioner who showed up 15 minutes late surveyed our usual meeting place and concluded that we must have cancelled the worship service altogether.
So if we can learn that, why can’t the City of Atlanta? What exactly is their calculus that guides them to act as though any outdoor temperature above 32 degrees is just fine for an unsheltered human?
Consider this: According to the National Weather Service’s Wind Chill Chart, even a five-mile-an-hour wind can make a 35-degree temperature feel like 31 degrees. A 10-mile-an-hour wind makes it feel like 27 degrees. A 15-mile wind, 25 degrees. And so forth.
Are we collectively not smarter than a fifth-grader here? Or are we ourselves just cold to the reality of what’s happening? Three. People. Have. Died. In essentially autumn weather.
Actually I’m not sure who’s in a bigger hell right now, the homeless or us. When my church distributes hygiene kits to the homeless, the most frequent expression of thanks I hear is “God bless you.” So I’m thinking that the average homeless person is actually acutely aware of God. I’m thinking they actively yearn for God’s love. That they recognize acts of kindness as blessings from God. And that they immediately reflect that blessing back onto the giver of that kindness.
Which we probably need, now that I think about it. Maybe we’re the ones being ministered to. Maybe we’re the ones who are the most separated from God right now: We with our collective calculus about the worth of a human life and, connected to that, our inability to correctly calibrate our live-saving tools to reflect actual science and experience. We who have homes, meals, hot water, heating, clothes, and the love and friendship of those around us.
We have all those things but we can’t be bothered to reflect those blessings back onto the least among us. Instead, we’re apparently content to live in a city that famously issued one-way bus tickets to homeless people in advance of the Olympics, and where that particular chicken has come home to roost in the form of an investigation by The Guardian showing that Atlanta is one of the top two mainland U.S. destinations for homeless people being bussed out of other cities.
So have we learned our lesson? With Atlanta the host city for the multimillion-dollar Super Bowl LIII, I think we’re about to find out. And whether we bus anyone out of town again or just chase the homeless away from where tourists are most likely to be, we’ve still got our little 33-degree problem. Or if, God forbid, a homeless person dies on a cold street during the Super Bowl, will the spinmeisters determine that it was of natural causes?
I mean, whatever we need to tell ourselves, right? And in the next breath we can go on about affordable housing, that old shibboleth I’ve been hearing on politicians’ lips again lately. But does housing help addicts recover? Does it treat mental illness? Does it come with a living wage? Because if not, then we’re not politically serious about homelessness; we’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
But it feels so good! It feels like we’re helping. It feels like we care. It feels like we get it. And we couldn’t be more out of touch: Out of touch with our fellow humans, and therefore out of touch with God’s will for all of us.
And isn’t that a kind of hell? The most clever one you could imagine? One that doesn’t even feel cold, or hot, or lonely, or deprived? It doesn’t feel like any of the things we externalize hell to be.
Hell feels like self-satisfaction, like we’ve done enough. Like maybe there actually are disposable people. We can’t save everyone! Or can we?
Can we afford not to?
God goes to incredible lengths to remind us that in God’s eyes, we’re all equally children of God and therefore equally worthy of God’s love: Wonderfully, uniquely made fragments of none other than God, who presents you with the paradox that you are but one of billions of grains of sand in the universe, and that God created all of it for you.
It’s just another window into understanding God’s true anguish over a forgotten woman dying on a cold street.
God cannot love you or me unconditionally if God isn’t also with the freezing woman. God is there with her in our place, pointing the way to our salvation. In a faith that teaches that we are all brothers and sisters bound by Jesus Christ, for us not to want to be there too is the spiritual equivalent of avoiding our own sister’s deathbed. It’s a journey down a cold road.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, not for a moment longer. And we are by no means prisoners of our past. Because in the eyes of the God of love, each of us is also as innocent as the day we’re born. Each of us is only a moment away from redemption. The definition of repentance being simply to change direction.
This Christmas, can we not collectively admit that the direction in which we’re going isn’t working? That it’s actually destructive? Because it’s not only destroying human life, it’s also destroying us. When a person dies of accumulated collective neglect on a street in the richest nation in human history, our choice is either to feel it deeply or not at all.
I choose to feel it deeply, because the alternative is hell on earth.