Does the threat of hell still terrify you even though you know, consciously, it’s an imaginary place?
Imaginary situations can be terrifying and vivid. Even when you know they’re not real, they may continue to haunt you. Sometimes, it’s a fleeting fear; sometimes, it digs talons in and won’t let go.
I had a recurring nightmare as a child. For weeks, my 6 year-old self was plunged into the same terrifying situation every time I tried to sleep. My mom and I had gone shopping. It was a lovely, sunny day, and we were happy – until we pulled up to our house, and found it in flames.
My little brother was trapped in there.
And this is where I always woke up: with flames roaring out of those windows, threatening to consume us all. Horrified, helpless, knowing my brother was burning to death. Sometimes, I could see him in his rim, see him helpless in his crib, see the flames coming to kill him. I’d wake, sweating, heart racing, wanting to cry and scream, wanting it to stop – but the instant I closed my eyes, the fire was there, coming closer, closer.
I am terrified of fire. Back then, it bordered on phobia. I could imagine nothing worse than burning to death. I also badly wanted a brother. It didn’t matter this one was imaginary: in that dreamspace, he was my brother, and I loved him, and he was about to die in the most awful way possible.
After a week or two, I couldn’t take it. I was getting seriously sleep-deprived. Mom telling me it was just a dream and not real and I shouldn’t be afraid wasn’t helping. Trying to sleep only when exhausted didn’t work. Telling myself not to dream, abject failure. Trying to stop the nightmare when it started, no use. So one night, desperate, despairing yet determined, I decided I’d finish the dream.
I laid down on our old brown tweed couch, closed my eyes, but didn’t sleep. Instead, I pictured the fateful scene. House afire. Flames pouring through the window. Little bro trapped.
Then I found the door. Imagined the flames hadn’t reached it yet. I fought my fear of fire and got inside. I imagined myself a safe path through it, up the stairs, into my brother’s room. He was alive! I picked him up, and carried him outside. We were all right, now. We could live happily ever after.
I never had that nightmare again.
So here’s what I propose, for those haunted by hell: let’s remake it.
There we are, souls condemned to hell because we didn’t believe in God. Down we go to wherever hell is. Oh, it looks grim. A blasted wasteland stinking of sulfur, and horrible spiky black gates that are opened by a huge horned demon. He grabs us in his massive-taloned hands and howls, “Wretched sinners, now you will BURN!!” We are yanked inside, through a curtain of flame, as the demon shrieks about eternal torment at deafening volumes….
And we scream, but…
…the flames don’t burn.
And the talons don’t pierce us.
The gates slam shut with a reverberating boom. We blink our dazzled eyes as we are set gently down. Balmy breezes (or cool, crisp ones, if you like – any sort of breeze, really) waft our favorite scents to us. An attractive person of indeterminate gender, dressed very fashionably and sporting two tasteful horns dusted with tiny rhinestones (or polished to a high sheen, if you don’t like glittery things), gives us a warm welcome.
“So sorry about all that drama-llama-ding-dong just then. Can’t let on to the Big Butthole in the Sky what kind of place this really is, or he might shut us down. Or we’d end up with everybody from the Family Research Council. Nobody wants that here.” A delicate shudder quivers our host’s frame. “Welcome to Hell! I’m Lucifer. Call me Luci. Come have the time of your afterlife!”
We’re given a whirlwind tour of the place, which has got everything we loved most in life. The best beaches, mountains, meadows, libraries, stadiums, feats of engineering, anything you like. The food and drink are abundant, incredibly delicious, and 100% enjoyable due to having none of the bad features of earthly food. All of the people we ever loved are there. All of the people we ever wanted to meet wander in. All the the people we couldn’t stand mingle, too, only now they’re great good fun.
And we have all of eternity to hang out.
We have an infinitely awesome realm to explore.
All of the animals we loved are there, too, plus some mythical beasts, and fascinating ones we’ve never heard of.
We can go anywhere, do anything, be anything. Every day is like living your favorite fantasies. Luci, it turns out, likes people a lot, and loves making them happy, so everything in hell is geared toward that. And what we do here sends out ripples that makes the world we left behind better.
Meanwhile, up in heaven, the sterile streets are sparsely populated by the handful of people rigidly saintly enough for their legalistic bastard of a god, mostly folks who were lifetime members of the FRC. They spend their days digging at specks in their neighbor’s eyes, finding more rules that will get people sent to hell if they break them (which, fortunately, never make it to Earth), and praising God. They, too, are blissfully happy.
Everybody lives happily ever after.
That’s one way of re-imagining this imaginary place. You may rather go in all heroic, and quench the unquenchable fires, and slay the worm that dieth not. You may come to those gates in fear and trembling, open them – only to find the place empty. You may imagine it in ways I can’t even dream of.
Just imagine it. Imagine how it never was. Imagine how you would like it to be.
Give the nightmare a happy ending.
Open your eyes.
And go on with your life, free of that nightmare, forever.