“Have you got a man yet?”
“No, have you?”
“You can see I don’t have a man and you’re asking me if I have a man?”
One prostitute, more accurately to be described as a young girl, walked away from the other. I am in Sierra Leone and am trying to work out how to feel about the fact that the girl beside me has not yet got a customer for the evening. I guess in a sense I should clearly view it as a good thing and yet... The truth is that everything about this situation is utterly tragic and truly sad.
And it is in this context that I am having a conversation about God.
The human drama of the Bible has been the topic, how the joyful and the seedy sit side by side with the murderous and the wonderous. My opinion is then asked of hell. Is this to be a place of fire and burning? I smiled, I have to admit, a little ruefully at the question, my own nature not excited about getting in to the nitty gritty of damnation with someone who is yet to follow the Father. “Well, so often what we get in the Bible are pictures meant to express an idea so it is difficult to be certain of such things. If man was created to be in relationship with God then heaven is where we enjoy the fullness of that, that relationship in its perfection. Hell is when we are cut off from that relationship totally. Hell is the absence of God. How that will look I don’t know.”
The conversation went on for a little longer but, as I thought about it, what came to mind was a question posed by The American recently. She deals with the ugly side of the human experience everyday and wondered, “How can we keep on working amidst human misery?” If Heaven is where our relationship with God is made perfect, where we are made perfect...and Hell is where God is entirely absent and everything is irredeemable...then our present state in this life can be seen as where the utterly corrupted can still find itself in the presence of God. In Douglas Coupland’s book, “Hey, Nostradamous!” one of the characters toys with the similarity between “God is now here” and “God is no-where”. The truth is that God is here, that though he can be ignored, betrayed and rejected he can not be avoided. And so as you work alongside the tragic and amidst the hatred people subject one another to, you remain in the presence of love. In this love is hope and the possibility of redemption, of the person and of the situation. And so by the hospital bed of a loved one and between the shards of a broken heart, perhaps...just perhaps...we can still wonder at the beauty of a relationship so important to us. Amidst the anger of the bitterest war we can tell tales of bravery, deliverance or self-sacrifice. When in prison or in pain, when oppressed or without, moments of relief could...perhaps...still be savoured. When everyone has given up, one voice might stand out that still has a strain of hope within it.
I am wary of a directness which could open me up to the criticism of bitter experience, to voices which would suggest that I don’t know what their lives have been like, that I don’t understand, that I am too idealistic, that I have a lot to learn about the darkness of this life. This is all true. I have much to learn and I am concerned that life might all too readily teach me. But in a world in to which the Kingdom has come, God is now here and so, to answer The American, we aren’t in hell.