Posted by: fostermccurley | September 8, 2009

Deciding to go to hell

The choice for hell has echoed for almost a century and a half through Huckleberry Finn’s penetrating words. Huck’s life in his aunt’s home, her strict mentoring of morals and manners, and the daily life in church and society–all led to his dilemma. In his own attempt to run away from home, he discovered that Miss Watson’s slave Jim was running also. The two teamed up for many adventures and misadventures throughout Mark Twain’s story. The two refugees came to know each other, to share their hopes and dreams, and to take a variety of risks to rescue the other from harm’s way.

Early in their common adventure, Huck was certain about his own right to run, but aiding and abetting a runaway slave meant swimming against the religious and cultural tides. “Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?” (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn [Penguin Books, 1985], 104). Much time and many escapades later, Huck’s mind returned to the question of his responsibility. In a note he wrote to Miss Watson, Huck informed her where Jim was located and how she might reacquire him. He was so relieved of his decision that he admitted feeling cleansed of sin and ready to pray again. Minutes later, however, he read his letter with trembling hands. “‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up” (228).

Rachel Carson had spent decades combining her expertise in marine biology with her talent for writing. After years of researching the effects of DDT on plant, animal, and human life, Ms. Carson sought better-known writers, even the likes of E. B. White, to write a book based on her research. She was committed to educate the public about the dangers of this chemical. Ultimately, she wrote the book herself. Silent Spring was published in 1962. Letters and articles declared her one of the most dangerous people in America, a lunatic the public should ignore. The sources for many of those accusations were—not surprisingly—the chemical and food-producing industries. Clearly, she was bad for business. She expected the outrage, but apparently decided to join Huckleberry Finn in hell. A decade after the publication of her book, however, the United States issued a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides. Jimmy Carter awarded her posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Greg Mortenson has dedicated decades of his life to building schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His book Three Cups of Tea—co-authored by David Oliver Relin—describes his arduous and precarious life in seeking funds for constructing the schools and in working with the local people in the villages to honor their hopes. The moving story about his commitment to education attests to a powerful alternative to war in fighting terrorism in the world. Indeed, the subtitle of the book is “One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations … One School at a Time.” Shortly after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, Mortenson received letters that wished him a painful death for helping Muslims. One promised that the Lord would make him pay dearly for being a traitor. (Does that mean a life of eternal hell?) With his family encouragement and support, he has continued his commitment to the benefit of us all.

I am not certain that I have the courage to make the decisions that Huckleberry Finn, Rachel Carson, and Greg Mortenson have made. Maybe I am too afraid to risk my own personal securities for the sake of the common good. My own health care insurance works rather well. I regret that about 50 million people in the United States do not share that satisfaction and that so many others have been refused treatment. But what can I do about it? Why should I take the risk of making myself unpopular when highly successful people counsel against any change? And why would I support a different health care system when some who espouse religious virtues consider proposed changes to be “evil”?

I could write one more article or deliver one more speech about leaving things as they are, I suppose, to become as virtuous as some of my friends and fellow church members. That would enable me to feel more secure. To prepare such a virtuous stance I would, of course, look to the Bible to prove my point religiously.

What would I find there?

I could not escape the scriptural evidence that in Jesus’ day it was religious purists who condemned Jesus for taking the side of the most vulnerable people in the land—the poor, the widows, the children, the outcasts, and the sick. The ultra-virtuous Pharisees watched to see if Jesus would heal the man with the withered hand on the sabbath, and when he did, they conspired “to destroy him” (Mark 3:1-6). When Jesus healed and forgave the sins of the paralyzed man, the religious “scribes” accused him of blaspheming (Matthew 9:1-8), surely the road to hell.

At his trial Jesus stood before Caiaphas, the high priest, and other leading religious leaders in Jerusalem. This group was not devoid of economic concerns. In fact, the Temple was a major factor in the entire economy of Jerusalem, even a major employer in the city. The home of Caiaphas was probably the most extravagant in the city. These religio-economic leaders focused on the trumped-up charges that Jesus had threatened to destroy the Temple and that he claimed to be the Messiah. Jesus’ somewhat ambiguous responses to their questions lead to the verdict of “blasphemy” and the sentence of death (Matthew 26:57-68). They had just consigned him to hell. To assure their sentence would be executed, the religious powers structure “persuaded the people to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus” (Matthew 27:20).

Like Huck Finn, I would probably tear up the note (or article or speech) I was preparing. Deciding to go to hell in order to love our neighbors near and far might just be the way of Christ, even if it is not religious or virtuous. “He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven…”


  1. HiFoster,

    Great insight with both literature and Scripture. I wonder if much of that insight might also apply to the church’s current deliema as well as the health care issues currently being debated (or being avoided)? Of course, I am one of the fortunate who doesn’t have to worry at this point about health care. It is my responsibility for those others which keeps getting in my way!!

    To risk hell in order to serve my neighbor is an interesting, but scarey, concept. Tom

    • Tom, thanks for your comment on the article. The idea first occurred to me when we were watching together the documentary on Mark Twain. That DVD forced me to reread Huckleberry Finn. The idea kept gnawing at me as I read other books throughout the summer.

      If other thoughts occur, please let me know.

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