My Lent: Ashes, Addiction, and the Reality of Hell (Pace Rob Bell)

Death is at your doorstep, and it will steal your innocence. But it cannot steal your substance. “Timshel,” Mumford and Sons

We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive.
2 Corinthians 6:8

Lent is late this year, thanks to an unusual alignment of the earth and heavens—the vernal equinox, the paschal full moon—and to the Easter algorithm that for centuries has determined the date of the Feast of the Resurrection. You don’t hear too much about it: Ash Wednesday via liturgical math.

Early or late, Lent is a time to consider our mortality—to remember that we are creatures of the soil and to soil we shall return. There’s plenty about our finitude worth reflecting on: the acts both large and small by which we diminish our humanity; the countless ways we hurt ourselves and those we love. We know our transgressions, as the Psalmist says, and our sin is ever before us.

It’s been painful to watch the Charlie Sheen spectacle in recent days. Painful because he is clearly a man out of control, caught in a web of illness and unchecked ego; painful because he’s both a victim and co-conspirator of his own exploitation at the hands of self-serving voyeurs masquerading as serious journalists; and painful because the countless ways he is hurting himself and those he loves—and those who love him—are not unfamiliar to me.

When you have someone in your life who struggles with addiction, the late-night jokes about Sheen (or any celebrity “screw-up”) are not entertaining, nor are the tweets and status updates hurling the latest zingers, looking for easy laughs. But I understand that we all want to be funny on Facebook (and to be “liked”) and that we live in an age when everyone is an armchair therapist.

The depths one descends to while in the grip of addiction and its associated pathologies are rightly called “hell” since they constitute a black hole of alienation, torment, and anguish. Friends and family members are dragged along for the harrowing ride, even if the addict thinks she is protecting loved ones from the destructive habits she cannot break, and sometimes because she exhausts herself and everyone else with her lies. And so hell is populated with people who don’t “deserve” to be there but, because they could not abandon a troubled soul (whom they regard with both unconditional love and unmitigated fury), find themselves in a place where there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Which makes another controversy of the last few days also hard to take—not painful, exactly, so much as exasperating. In advance of the publication of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, speculation has run wild that the enormously popular Bell has abandoned sound Christian doctrine and espoused the dreaded universalism: the idea that in the end all will be saved and thus, if there is a hell, no one is in it.

This is an old debate, though the 20-somethings (almost exclusively male) who have obsessed about it in my Facebook news feed seem unaware of this. Those who are ready to send Bell to the hell he purportedly denies have unwittingly confirmed the suspicion of skeptics who want nothing to do with a religion whose practitioners seem to relish every opportunity to squabble, berate, and condemn; who strike a contentious pose on every theological issue; and who have the profoundly mistaken idea that at the heart of the Christian gospel is the doctrine of karma rather than that of grace. In my more professorial moments I want to take the “come, let us reason together” approach to this unattractive wrong-headedness; but as of late, caught up in the exhausting realities of addiction and the hell it creates, I simply want to say (uncharitably, I admit): What the fuck is wrong with you people?

Lent reminds us that we’re all in the same boat—the sinking ship of our failed attempts to save ourselves, love ourselves, and save those we love. The ashes are not mere symbol; they are not a public sign of our piety (exactly what Jesus warns against in Ash Wednesday’s gospel reading). Instead, the ashes are as real as it gets—a sticky, gritty, grimy smear plastered to our foreheads, precisely on the same spot that the oil of baptism was applied. For Christians, the juxtaposition is as liberating as it is instructive: we are dying, yet we live. Death may be at our doorstep but it cannot steal our substance. We are alive in Christ, alive in one another, and alive in the hope that death (and hell) do not have the last word.