This article is chapter 14 of What’s So Confusing About Grace? (pp. 87-93). It is the second of three chapters that comprise part 5 which is aptly titled “Highway to Hell.” You can order the book here.


So how do people end up in hell if it is not simply because they goofed? To answer that question, I’d like to take a journey back for a moment to one day in kindergarten, just a few months after my conversion. It all started with a cookie, but not just any cookie. This was a special cookie.

First, I should provide some background. We’d been looking forward to Friday the whole week, for it was the day the entire kindergarten class would be able to decorate our very own gingerbread cookies with candies and sparkles. Then the cookies would be baked in the school oven and at the end of the day each of us would be able to take our very own creation home. My creative process went very well. I channeled the inspiration of Michelangelo as I expertly placed the sparkles in the frosting trim and planted several brightly colored Smarties buttons on the chest.

•A BRIEF SIDEBAR ON SMARTIES•

Just for the record, I grew up in Canada and so I’m referring here to Canadian Smarties which are similar to M&Ms. Thus Canadian Smarties are a very different confection from American Smarties which are called Rockets in Canada. I tell you this because I want to be clear that I would never dream of using American Smarties/Rockets (chalky medicinal pellets that they are) as buttons on a gingerbread cookie. Some things should not be done.

My masterpiece was taking shape. Then came the waiting: restlessly I endured the day, staring blankly out the window, anxious to be reunited with my stellar handiwork waiting with the other lesser cookies on cooling trays in the back of the classroom. Finally, as the last bell rang, the teacher told us that we could go get our works of art. In a flurry of excitement, my classmates leapt out of their chairs and began seizing their prize cookies like a herd of frantic shoppers fighting over bargains on Black Friday.

I refused to submit myself to such indignities, choosing instead to make my way calmly through the crowd. Eventually I got to the cookies and began to scan the cooling trays, looking for my beloved creation with the brightly colored Smarties buttons. Strangely, I couldn’t see it anywhere. As the last few cookies disappeared and my classmates gathered their belongings and began to filter out of the room, I became increasingly desperate. One by one the remaining cookies were claimed by their rightful owners until there was one orphan cookie left behind. And it didn’t have Smarties buttons.

By this time I was frantic. Panicked, I informed the teacher that some miscreant had stolen my work of art. While doing her best to act like she cared, she assured me that all the cookies would taste much the same. Anxious to get on with her weekend, she picked up the one remaining cookie with a napkin, dropped it in a bag for me, and shuffled me off to the door.

As I fumed on the ride home, my mom did her best to calm me down. She promised to take me to the mall on the weekend, suggesting that maybe I could even get a toy (to calm my wrath, no doubt). When that didn’t work, she resorted to pragmatic reasoning by pointing out that I still had a cookie of my own. Admittedly it didn’t have Smarties buttons, but it was still a perfectly fine cookie.

And then as if to rub still more fistfuls of salt into my gaping wounds, she echoed my teacher’s point that gingerbread cookies all taste pretty much the same anyway. So what did it really matter who decorated this one? A cookie was a cookie. My dad would make the point a little differently: “Cookies all look the same six hours after you eat them,” he said. (Et tu, dad?) Anyway, my mom ended her speech with a stoic reflection: sometimes bad things happen in life. By sitting there just being angry, you don’t hurt anybody but yourself.

It all made sense, of course: Mom’s points were perfectly reasonable. But it didn’t matter: I would not be consoled; I would not be reasoned with. By the time we arrived home my sulk had blossomed into a full-blown seething rage. This wasn’t my cookie, and that was all that mattered.

As I got out of the car I looked down at that disgusting monstrosity mocking me from its plastic bag. (Imagine a snide, cocky version of Gingy from the Shrek movies.) Overcome by contempt and hatred (yes, hatred), I wanted nothing more than to grind this imposter into gingerbread dust. I despised that intruder. I loathed its disgusting frosting trim, its mocking, jelly eyes, its abhorrent licorice buttons. (Who uses licorice for buttons?) I needed to do something about that mocking confection!

At long last I decided on a course of action. Shaking with fury, I walked up to the side of the big, empty ravine beside our house and I pulled that damnable confection from the bag. As I held it tightly in my hand, the hot tears began to roll down my cheeks.

Determined to get back at the cookie thief and to show the world my utter contempt for this gingerbread fraud, I reached back and, with all the force I could muster, I cast the cookie into the ravine. It sailed out into the blue sky spinning end over end and then disappeared into the shrubs far below. Temporarily satisfied and yet still strangely tormented, I turned back and walked toward the house.

So what does that dramatic little story of childish angst have to do with hell? A fair question! Here’s the central issue. I was so consumed by my own sense of injustice and victimization that I was determined to deny myself happiness and joy. And not just myself: I wanted everyone else to suffer too: the teacher, my mom, and most of all, the wretch who took my cookie. I would have stolen the happiness of all of them, were that only possible.

But that made no sense. My teacher and mom had offered wise counsel. No doubt all the gingerbread cookies did taste pretty much the same. What’s done is done and by continuing to seethe I wasn’t hurting anybody but myself. Regardless, none of that mattered: the fact is that I would rather nurse my miserable anger and my sense of offense than to make the best of my situation and enjoy the cookie that I now had.

When I was in university I first encountered C.S. Lewis’ penetrating reflections on hell and they provided a far more sensible approach to damnation than the notion that you go to hell by goofing up. In The Problem of Pain Lewis suggests that hell is a self-imposed state of alienation from God. As he famously put it, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”28

In this moment, that was me. Sure, the issue was trivial and the rage and rebellion short-lived, but in that moment, that was me. I would rather be alone, cookieless, standing on the edge of a ravine and hating the world than accept life’s events as they had unfolded.

I was determined to punish the world . . . when in point of fact, I was only punishing myself.

Lewis picks up the same theme in his fictional exploration of hell, The Great Divorce. The book explores the concepts of heaven and hell within the framework of a dream motif. In the story, we follow the Narrator on an imaginary journey up from hell and on to the borderlands of heaven. With this clever literary backdrop Lewis offers some penetrating observations about the self-destructive nature of sin. At one point in the story the Narrator observes a woman (the Lady) who is now reconciled to God in heaven as she appeals to the husband of her former life to abandon his self-destructive behavior and join her in the heavenly state. Sadly, he refuses. I can’t help but see in his defiance echoes of my own gingerbread cookie rebellion.

At the same time, there is an important difference. In my state of rebellion I had a hope of making my mom and some other folks miserable. But in Lewis’ story the man no longer has that power: his former wife can no longer be manipulated by his bad decisions. Nobody, including her former husband, can steal her happiness from her now. As she wisely observes, “Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing.”29 But the emotional blackmail which once enslaved many will continue no longer. The sober lesson is that the residents of heaven cannot have their joy stolen by those on a self-destructive course who simply want to steal the happiness of others. The universe will not be held hostage to those who choose their own misery.

The Narrator is unsettled by the blunt recognition that the Lady is now free to pursue her own joy regardless of the decisions of her self-tormented husband. From his perspective it seems callous that one is able to find peace and joy when others suffer, even if their suffering is self-imposed. The Narrator expresses his reservations to his guide on the journey, the Teacher: “Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his self-made misery?”30 The Teacher replies by returning to the woman’s point: “Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it, or else, for ever and ever, the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves.”31 In short, if some people remain determined to punish the world, the world may need to move on as they are left alone to punish themselves.

And so it was for me in that moment. Deprived of my cookie I would prefer to remain in misery and anger rather than accept the cookie I had received (not to mention a toy from the mall, and the wise counsel of my teacher and mother). A trivial incident, to be sure, but the basic idea was the same. As I looked back years later I could see that in principle this kind of self-destructive tendency resided within me, a spark which, if fanned into flame, could erupt
into a lake of one’s own self-imposed fire.

Needless to say, Lewis’ conception of hell is as far away from the Somebody Goofed view as could be. Rather than stumbling into hell by chance because “somebody goofed,” one ends up there because time and again, one has chosen to foster bitter hatreds and resentments over the promise of reconciliation and the offer
of true happiness.

Damnation is, in essence, self-damnation. It’s the rage that leads one to stand on the edge of the ravine, determined to be miserable, anxious to punish the world, shedding tears of rage as a gingerbread cookie tumbles into the abyss. It was with great relief that I finally abandoned the Somebody Goofed vision in favor of Lewis’ view of hell as self-imposed exile.

This shift in my theology went a long way toward reconciling hell with God’s goodness, love, and mercy. Hell is still a miserable place of suffering and alienation, but it is a destination that we fashion and choose for ourselves, not one that God plans as a cruel trick and then springs on us when we least expect it.

While that shift in perspective dealt with some significant objections to hell, not every problem was solved in the process. While the theological benefits of viewing hell as self-imposed exile were great, the existential payoff was significantly more limited. And to see why, we only need to return to the reality of that kindergarten kid engaged in the colossal self-destructive rebellion of tossing his own gingerbread cookie into the ravine. The disturbing fact I had to face is that I was the one who had exhibited that irrational, self-destructive resolve to deny myself happiness; I was the one who had exhibited that spark of rebellion.

And that meant that I needed to consider whether I still had the potential to produce such sparks. Even more disturbingly, I needed to ask whether it was possible that one of those sparks was smoldering even now deep in my twisted flesh. Though all looks fine on the surface, it could be that the seed of damnable rebellion had already taken root deep within like a coal seam fire that can slowly burn hidden in the bowels of the earth for years before it
finally bursts forth in a hellish display.

Digging Deeper

1. It has been said that God doesn’t send anybody to hell. Rather, we send ourselves. Do you agree with that? Why or why not?

2. Have you ever chosen suffering and alienation over happiness? If so, why do you think you reacted in that way? Did anybody try to reason with you?

3. What do you think about the idea that a loved one might suffer forever in hell by their own free choice? Does that possibility make it emotionally easier to accept the idea of hell?

4 thoughts on “Hell by way of a gingerbread cookie

  1. “Deprived of my cookie I would prefer to remain in misery and anger rather than accept the cookie I had received (not to mention a toy from the mall, and the wise counsel of my teacher and mother).”

    I don’t think that is fair to your five-year-old self. Maybe it was true of this little boy that he would prefer to remain in misery, but I doubt it. When I have found myself in similar situations (when I have felt what I would call righteous anger), it sure did not seem to me that I was acting according to my preferences. And even as I reflect back on such episodes, it still seems to me wrong to say that, at those times, I preferred to remain in misery. Rather, I was miserable because I had suffered an injustice. And I cannot help (certainly no five-year-old can help) that misery is my natural response to injustice.

    So, I did not prefer misery. In fact, I preferred to not be miserable. But I was not capable of overcoming the misery at that moment in time. And this was no fault of my own. This is how I naturally react. I suspect that something similar was true of young RR. It is not that he preferred to be miserable, it is that he found himself miserable and could not help it.

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    1. Excellent comment Thibster! I would add that humans being what they are, i.e., prone to fast-acting hormonal reactions to what they consider threats (necessary for our species’ survival no doubt, but not so handy when it comes to developing a habit of assessing ideas and other’s behaviors in a calmer more patient and rational fashion)… that humans being what they are, even children eventually calm down, the hormones of anger or fear, eventually stop pumping so fast into the bloodstream. The foot stomping or crying jag ends. In other words it doesn’t sound like a sound way to try and justify eternal damnation.

      Also, I can’t deny the intuition that any God that exists who is truly loving would know how to heal people where they need it most, where they don’t even know they are wounded, since God created and sustains everything (literally everything came and continues to come directly and solely from God’s will, power). Hence this God knows each of us more deeply than we know ourselves. And even our personal armor that may seemingly appear to keep God out, keeps nothing out, since God is everywhere, sustaining all things. Hence the only rational conclusion if there is a loving God is that God and time are the greatest teachers and healers, and everything will be well. If God is good and there is no evil in him then evil has no genuine substance, no solidity compared with goodness, so goodness and love must succeed. And everything that seems like evil or failure today is but part of a great shadow play, a divine comedy.

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  2. Rand, Have you considered examples in the Bible where Yahweh is depicted like an angry child suffering a tantrum? Pressuring the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites by saying that if they don’t, then God will wipe them out too, right off the face of the earth? Cursing Israelites if they refuse to bloody their swords in such slaughter? Shaking the earth, sending a worldwide flood, sending fire to envelope entire cities, sending plagues, famines, opposing armies to kill thousands together, sending an angel to kill Moses at an inn, locking late-comers out of the party… forever, having His angels toss people into a lake of fire, pouring out great big bowls of wrath on the earth? Paul in 1 Cor also depicts God judging Christians by making many ill and killing some because of how they were mis-celebrating the Lord’s supper. Paul’s own roller coaster of emotions and emotional manipulation, sky high praises and lowdown curses, can be seen in his writings.

    “I don’t know who the worst sinners are on this planet, but I am quite sure that if a High Intelligence wanted to exterminate them, It would find a very precise method of locating each one separately. Carelessly murdering millions of innocent children and harmless old ladies and dogs and cats in the process is absolutely and ineluctably to state that your idea of God is of a cosmic imbecile… Accepting the Warren Commission Report, even Lee Harvey Oswald only hit one bystander (the governor). The early Old Testament ‘God’ appears not only as crazy as Oswald but clumsier, stupider and generally less civilized. King Kong is as convincing a portrait of God as that given in the Old Testament.”–Robert Anton Wilson

    The Israelite God was so wise, powerful and compassionate he couldn’t come up with anything better than flooding the whole earth to kill the people He was after? That’s like burning down the barn to kill some rats, using a sledgehammer to debug a rosebush, or using a guillotine to remove a mole on someone’s neck.

    “‘Bible believers’ are constantly telling us how wicked the people were who lived in the days before Noah’s Flood. In Biblical plays and movies you can practically feel the evil oozing out of them. By Jupiter, you can almost see it! But could they have done any wicked thing that hasn’t been done by folks after the Flood? Conversely, if you examine the worst corner of the globe at its sorriest moment in history you will still find, by any reasonable standard of decency, a fair number of decent people. And, don’t forget the children! Die-hard Bible believers answer curtly that the children were part of the cancer that had to be cut out! Their poor limited God had no choice, I suppose. He couldn’t let pre-Flooders corrupt the purity of post-Flood generations. The fact that Noah got stinking drunk after the Flood and was shamed by one of his own sons whom he subsequently cursed, only points toward how much worse things would have been had Noah rescued a single pre-Flood baby by stowing it away aboard the ark. I shudder to think what might have happened had that rescued child’s progeny one day wandered into Sodom and Gomorrah, thereby staining the reputation of those two cities.” –Dave Matson, “On Taking the Bible and Noah’s Flood Literally”

    “I would like to ask if there is a Christian in the world who would not be overjoyed to find that every passage in the Bible that supported slavery, polygamy, and wars of extermination, was an interpolation… He says: `Honor thy father and mother,’ and yet this God, in the person of Christ, offered honors, and glory, and happiness an hundred fold to any who would desert their father, and mother for him. Thou shalt not kill, yet God killed the first-born of Egypt, and he commanded Joshua to kill all his enemies, not sparing old or young, man, woman or child, even an unborn child… According to the Bible, God gave orders to kill children and to rip open the bodies of pregnant women. The pestilences were sent by God. The frightful famine, during which the dying child with pallid lips sucked the withered bosom of his dead mother, was sent by God. God drowned an entire world with the exception of eight persons. Imagine how such acts would have stained the reputation of the devil!… Why did God fill the world with his own children, knowing that he would have to destroy them? And why does this same God tell me how to raise my children when he had to drown his?”–Ingersoll

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  3. C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, wrote that the orthodox Christian doctrine of eternal punishment had “the full support of Scripture.” But a crack appeared in that view in his novel, The Great Divorce, in which he named a major character after the universalist Christian minister and novelist, George MacDonald, and has MacDonald escort a visitor from hell around heaven, where the visitor eventually chooses to remain. Sounds hopeful! Lewis even had the MacDonald character deny that the orthodox Christian doctrine of hell had the “full support of Scripture,” by having MacDonald say, “St Paul talked as if all men would be saved.” Nor did Lewis have the angel (with whom MacDonald was speaking) deny such an interpretation of St Paul’s words, but only had the angel reply that it was not for man to ask such questions. The Great Divorce also features lines from the writings of Julian of Norwich, a medieval Christian mystic who alleged that Jesus told her in a vision, “Sin is befitting, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” and, “What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall keep my word in all things and I shall make all things well.”

    But Lewis never did side with MacDonald. Less than five years before Lewis’ death, a reverend asked Lewis why he did not agree with MacDonald’s universalism. Lewis replied, “I parted company from MacDonald on that point because a higher authority — the Dominical utterances themselves — seemed to me irreconcilable with universalism… The finality of the Either-Or, the Sheep and Goats, the Wise and Foolish Virgins — is so emphatic and reiterated in our Lord’s teaching that, in my opinion, it simply cannot be evaded. If we do not know that he said that, then we do not know what he said about anything. And this is my sole reason… Need I add that I should very much prefer to follow G.M. on this point if I could?” [C. S. Lewis to Rev. Alan Fairhust, personal letter, September 6, 1959]

    The most ridiculous thing Lewis ever said about hell involved his attempt to defend the idea that animals might inherit eternal life, all of them, including mosquitoes. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain:

    “Nor am I greatly moved by jocular inquiries such as, ‘Where will you put all the mosquitoes?’ — a question to be answered on its own level by pointing out that, if the worst came to worst, a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined.”

    But a few years ago I almost blew coffee out my nose reading this rejoinder to Lewis:

    “So where do the naughty mosquitoes go, Spider heaven? Venus Flytrap heaven?”

    I wanted to add, “Nope, the righteous and damned mosquitoes attempt to feast on damned humans together, but God guides the hands of damned humans to squash damned mosquitoes into bloody pancakes as soon as they land on their skin, while God deflects those same hands whenever a righteous mosquito lands to feast.”

    As for limiting his illustration to mosquitoes, think of how people would have reacted if Lewis had been asked about great white sharks or stinging jelly fish? “If worst came to worst, a heaven for great whites (tearing off hunks of resurrected human flesh for eternity) and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined.” Or a hell in which humans are stung eternally by jellyfish who then ingest bits of inflamed resurrected flesh. Augustine imagined a hell of flames that never broiled the resurrected flesh completely off the bones. Calvin wrote that the image of a fiery hell was a metaphor for God’s punishments that would far exceed the pain of mere flames.

    Such talk about hell’s eternal punishments proved a boon to the church since wealthy Christian converts proceeded to contribute loads of money to try and ensure that their loved ones would wind up in heaven rather than hell. According to noted Christian historian, Peter Brown in his book, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity, a revolutionary shift in thinking about the fate of the soul took place between 250 and 650 CE, when personal wealth in the pursuit of redemption led Church doctrine concerning the afterlife to evolve from speculation to firm reality. This new relationship to money set the stage for the Church’s domination of medieval society.

    Famed historian, Robin Lane Fox adds that “Post-Constantine Christians classified all rival religions as demonic systems… If Satan was the source of error and evil, then false teaching and wrongdoing were not merely mistaken: they were diabolic… Like Satan, the Last Judgment was a force that Christians… claimed to be able to defeat… This teaching was reinforced by an equally powerful ally, the Christian idea of sin. Sin was not just the sin of an action, or even an intention, but also the sin of a thought, even a passing interest in an appealing man or woman. This combination of rarefied sin and eternal punishment was supported, as we shall see, by books of vision and revelation that were probably more widely read than modern contempt for ‘pseudepigraphic’ forgeries allows: acquaintance with the Apocalypse of ‘Peter’ would make anyone think twice before leaving the Church (we happen to know that ‘Peter’s vision of hell’ was still read as a holy text in the churches in Palestine on Good Friday during the fifth century). [Not to mention depictions of hell in inter-testamental writings attributed to Enoch, such writings were even cited by the author of the Epistle of Jude and the author of the Book of Revelation, as well as by early church fathers.] If fears for Eternity brought converts to the faith, one suspects that they did even more to keep existing converts in it.” [Pagans and Christians (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1987), p.326-327, 330-331, 412]

    To avoid appearing too hard on Lewis, I should add some passages from his work concerning God and goodness that I admire:

    “[There are dangers in judging God by moral standards, but] believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshiping Him, is still greater danger. . . . The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scripture is to prevail when they conflict. [Lewis was replying to the Biblical accounts of what he called ‘the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua’ and the account of Ananias and Sapphira being struck dead instantly for holding back some money from the church and trying to keep their lie a secret, called ‘Divine’ decrees by those who believe Scripture is without error. Lewis continued…] I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible…

    “To this some will reply ‘ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognize good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say we are as fallen as all that. He constantly in Scripture appeals to our conscience: ‘Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?’–‘What fault hath my people found in me?’ And so on…

    “Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason)… If ‘good’ means ‘what God wills’ then to say ‘God is good’ can mean only ‘God wills what he wills.’ Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.

    “The real danger is of corning to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So, there’s no God after all,’ but, ‘So, this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’

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