My 1975 high school “field trip” covered 7500 miles and 21 countries. Our German teacher led 21 boys, 3 adults, boxes of couscous, and a ton of peanut butter for 8 weeks in 3 sleeper trucks across Europe. I recently found my daily journal.
We toured Anne Frank’s Amsterdam attic where she wrote her diary of a young girl during their two years of hiding. My Friday August 1 entry was on the 31st anniversary of her last journal entry — 3 days before she was arrested, which led to her death in a Nazi concentration camp at the age of 15.
That night over a few beers a fellow eighteen-year-old asked me this question: “Do you think Anne Frank is in hell?” “What?” was the only reply I could muster at the moment. “In hell, Wally, the place of fire and torment where God sends you if you don’t believe in Jesus.” “What the hell are you talking about?” “Anne Frank was Jewish. She didn’t believe in Jesus. Do you think God sent her to hell?”
The irony wasn’t lost on me that night, but I couldn’t find the words to reply. My friend was asking if God’s “final solution” was more barbaric than Hitler’s “final solution”. As millions of Jews (like Jesus was) prayed to God on their way to a few minutes in the gas chamber, was God sending them to eternal torment because they hadn’t addressed their prayers correctly?
Up until then I hadn’t thought much about hell. I was raised to believe in a loving, creative God as I sought to follow the way of Jesus who welcomed everyone. Scaring the hell out of me to manipulate me into heaven had no hold on me. Thinking my religious ways of seeing things is the only way that counts and everyone else can just “go to hell” never sat well with me. Thank God I don’t have to look at life and death that way.
Anne Frank was sent to hell, but not by God; her “Gehenna” was Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Hell on earth is a consequence of our individual and societal choices when we choose a burning pile of garbage over God’s vision of love, peace, and justice now.
What were you told about the Bible’s teachings about hell? How have those understandings changed as you’ve grown? Where have you learned about medieval ideas influencing current prejudices about judgment? What consequences do you see and fear coming from acting in the name of an arbitrary and vindictive power?