In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Jesus did not say that if your are angry with your brother, you will be put in a place called hell. He said that if you are angry with your brother, you are already in hell. Anger is hell.” I like that. A lot. It is an intriguing reading of the passage from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. Jesus says there, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the fire of hell.” I have almost always heard this passage interpreted to mean that Jesus was ratcheting up the intensity of the law so that it would be impossible for a person to keep the law, and we would realize that only through grace can we escape the fire of hell. Not just murder will send you there, but anger and insults will, and of course none of us escapes both of those little numbers.
Here’s why I like Thich Nhat Hanh’s reading of Jesus’ words. I’m with C. S. Lewis all the way on this whole heaven and hell business. To oversimplify just a bit, Lewis saw heaven as the presence of God (Love, Light) and hell as the absence of God (Love, Light). Lewis says that we don’t just go to these places when we die, we are in them all along. So I understand Jesus, C. S. Lewis, and Thich Nhat Hanh to be saying that any time we step away from Love and Light (and by extension no longer communicate those things to others) we are in hell. And any time we experience Love and Light (and by extension communicate those things to others) we are in heaven. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce creates beautiful concrete metaphors for both those conditions.
Even Pogo, in the old comic strip, got got it right several decades ago when he said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It would be hard to put it more succintly. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Our enemy is not the other person, no matter what he or she has done. If we look deeply into ourselves, we can see that their act was a manifestation of our collective consciousness.” He means that we all have violence, hatred, and anger in us, and it is manifested by some people in extreme ways. This all reminds me of something else Jesus said, that the judgment you use against others will be used to judge you. That is a hard one, as so many of Jesus’ little broadsides are, especially in a time like ours, when every day the violence and hatred are manifested on TV and the internet.