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Jean-Paul Sartre’s view of hell is not instruments of torture but other people: “L’enfers, c’est les autres.” He wrote a play to that effect in 1944 called No Exit. Three not-so-dearly departed souls find themselves locked in a nondescript waiting room together for all eternity: Joseph Garcin, callous and cowardly former adulterer; Estelle Rigault, shallow high-society gold digger; Inès Serrano, cruel and self-aware manipulative lesbian.
In my own house we are four: my godly husband who tends to illness; my retirement-resistant father; my insurance-salesman-turned-pastor father-in-law; and yours truly. We are all Christians, and at the minimum age of 63, in a kind of waiting room ourselves.
A director assembles a cast of characters with a view to making the play interesting. In the case of the French existentialist, he is keen to prove how in this meaningless universe we are doomed to grating on each other’s nerves, playing off each other’s weaknesses, and seeking domination.
God’s love is not sentimental, and neither is His command to ‘love one another.’
Satan is after the same denouement in yours truly’s ménage-à-quatre. He would make the most of our domestic arrangement, a household whose bewildered occupants each arrive with incompatible mental and physical habits at once insisted on and strangely unconscious. The devil coaches his minions:
“When two humans have lived together for many years, it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother’s eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy. … And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters).
God is a Director too. He is in charge of stage settings: “The God who made the world and everything in it” also “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:24, 26). From His Director’s chair He has designed this set from of old: two-story wood-framed American Foursquare at the corner of Paxson and Edgeley—reserved at the crossroads of the 21st century for two Rhode Island, one Massachusetts, and one Michigan transplant. I have a plan.
His plan is the opposite of the devil’s. He is fitting four people for the new heavens and new earth, where crowns and royal responsibilities in the kingdom are promised to those who overcome (Revelation 2-3), who have allowed themselves to be refined by the anticipated frictions, and whose arrival at the Judgment will be preceded by gold and silver if they cooperate (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). God wants the arrangement to accomplish that. He says so. The boundaries are unambiguously so “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:27).
And so, appropriately, the one in our ménage who once proudly did for himself will now need to rely on others. The one who had devised strategies for avoiding personality change will meet his match and have a final chance to crucify the flesh. The one who always worried about finance will face doctor bills challenging the proposition that God clothes the lilies of the field. Satan’s perfect storm is the Redeemer’s school of transformation—if the parties will submit to their roles.
God’s love is not sentimental, and neither is His command to “love one another.” Loving one another (that is, putting the flesh to death) is the acid test of faith. I am chilled by the word ephimothe in Jesus’ parable of heaven’s banquet: an attendee who somehow slips in with the throng is then tapped on the shoulder in the midst of the festivities and asked to leave because he has no wedding garment. The man is genuinely stunned—the Greek word is “speechless.”
What depths of horror in that speechlessness. What misimpression he had labored under, to think he could enjoy the pleasures of heaven on the cheap, with an empty faith that never made a difference in a single day of life.
But as for me and my house, we salute the Director and say, bring on the play.