Everyone will be salted with fire... Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other. (Mark 9:49,50)
For my summer reading I gulped down the Inheritance Cycle, a series of 4 fantasy books written by Christopher Paolini. The world Paolini creates is populated with elves, dwarves, humans, and dragons. The latter have been in short supply ever since the current king, Galbatorix, turned traitor to the company of Dragon Riders, slaying them all (men and their dragon steeds/companions), and stealing the three remaining dragon eggs. Eragon, a young man of questionable birth (no surprise there!) mysteriously receives a dragon egg which then hatches for him. Shocked to find he is a Dragon Rider now, Eragon embarks on a quest to avenge his grandfather's death, ultimately ridding the world of the evil monarch.
Galbatorix, whose strength is enhanced by the life force of former dragons, is not only a master wizard, but has surrounded himself with strong wards, making it almost impossible for the young Eragon and his friends to defeat the powerful king. Time is running out and all looks hopeless as Eragon, facing the king, knows he is about to die. Powerless to fight against Galbatorix, he instead finds himself wishing that the king would just be able to feel the pain of all the people he has harmed over the years - dragons and their Riders, other kings he has met in battle, the commoners who have been systematically destroyed by powers he's unleashed. This wish transforms itself into a spell, and, to Eragon's amazement, the king begins to writhe in agony. The pain is so great he cannot bear it. Finally, in desperation, Galbatorix speaks a spell of unmaking and destroys himself.
Perhaps having read this story helps me make sense of Jesus' strange words in this week's Gospel reading from Mark, chapter 9.
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where
“‘the worms that eat them do not die,
and the fire is not quenched.'"
Part of my personal journey theologically in the past several years has been cutting a path up the steep doctrine of hell. Like many other Christians I've read books by various pastors/theologians questioning whether hell is "real," or just figurative, whether it occurs here or in an afterlife, and if it does exist after death, whether those who are there are condemned to "conscious, eternal punishment" or will, after a period of time, be welcomed into the kingdom of God, thus allowing "all" things to be brought into the reign of God.
The ledge I am now camped on sees hell as literal and figurative, both here and now, and then and there. Although the fire and the worm never die (whatever that means), I don't believe that human punishment goes on for eternity. Rather, I see hell as more of a place (dimension) where those who have refused to live their lives under the banner of love, neglecting the forgiveness that God freely offers, are sent while they deal with the consequences of their lives. In this way it functions much like the debtor's prison where the king in the parable throws the ungrateful servant until every last penny is paid. What happens after that is still unclear. Perhaps people are then allowed into the new heaven and new earth, or face annhilation. (See Matt 18:21-35 and 25:31-46).
There's no doubt that actions have consequences. Walk into any psychologist's or therapist's office and see the hard work required to rebuild a soul that has been crushed or twisted due to relational unkindness, or downright evil. Our sense of fairness says that the perpetrators of these wounds should not go unpunished. But what interests me is those families of victims who say, "I would just like the person who murdered my daughter to feel the pain that I am feeling now. Forget about prison, the death sentence. Nothing can make a difference. But if they could feel what I feel, somehow that would make it right."
And so I wonder if that might be what happens to those whose lives continue on a trajectory of self-indulgence, unconcerned about how their life choices have affected others. Living as if they were the only people who mattered - their comfort, their power, their pleasure - along the way they have left bruised and battered people. They have, as Jesus says, "caused a little one to stumble." And according to this authoritative rabbi, it would have been better for them had they never lived. Like the evil Galbatorix in Paolini's novel, perhaps it's facing the pain that they have caused that will make them weep and wail. Maybe the gnawing of worms will be a welcome relief from the mental pain and anguish as face after face comes into view, and all the resulting emotions flood into the psyche.
If this is the case, no wonder Jesus' words, which seem absurd, might be not as strange as they first appear. If the results of one's sin will be so drastic, then taking up drastic measures makes perfect sense. In the long run, which pain would you rather endure? Of course, I don't believe that Jesus really wants us to cut off our appendages, or gouge out our eyes, but it is scary that maiming and death by drowning would be preferable to what waits for those who continue in sin.
There's good news, of course. We can choose to take Jesus' admonition to save our lives by losing them, in essense dying sooner than later. C. S. Lewis says that the hard part about Christianity is that we can't do it halfway. God is after nothing less than all of us. There's plenty of grace along the way, and love which covers a multitude of sins. Still, there is a part we play, we make the tough choices to keep dying to those things which keep us from living wholly out of love. That's what I think Jesus means when he says, "have salt in yourselves." With the power of the Spirit and our own fearlessness, we can find ourselves living in peace, starting here and now.