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No Hell (BIT Tarot Snapshot)

Inspired by Jerry DeWitt's new book Hope After Faith: An Ex-Pastor's Journey from Faith to Atheism, I decided to share my "No Hell" BIT Tarot Snapshot with my blog readers. Excerpt from The Back in Time Tarot courtesy of my publisher, Hampton Roads Publishing.

No hellFrom the time I was a small girl, I felt a connection to the Presence some call God. This connection was unusual, because my family didn’t go to church at the time. Yet, I felt closeness to God, often talking to “him.” I begged my mom to take me to church, which she did, and I eventually acquired an olive green, leather King James Version Bible. I won the Bible in a “sword drill,” a Sunday school game where the teacher would call out a verse in the Bible and the students scrambled to be the first one to find it, then to stand up and read aloud the correct text.

As I devoured the Bible, I couldn’t understand the concept of a supposedly loving God sending anyone to hell. I used to get angry when I read the verse asserting that hell was made for “the devil and his angels,” but not humans; yet humans could end up there regardless if they didn’t ask Jesus to be their savior (or so the preacher said). As I sat fuming in my bedroom, I asked God, “How can this be?! If you’re so powerful, how can it be that you created a place called hell for one intention, but then—oops!—it eventually becomes a place of torment for people?” Every time I asked this question, I “heard” a voice that said, “One day, Janet, you will know.”

This internal argument with God, especially about hell, went on for years, even after I entered Bible college to study to become a minister. After college, I became ordained and copastored a Pentecostal church with my first husband. We were pastoring in a new area about an hour away from where we both grew up. We became friends with the pastors and congregation of a nearby church, sometimes guest teaching for services.

I became close friends with the other church’s assistant pastor and many of the congregation members. After a few years, my friend and his wife went on to be the main pastor of the congregation. My friends were with me through thick and thin, including my first husband’s diagnosis of leukemia, hospitalization, rigorous treatments, relapse, and eventual death. We remained close even after I moved an hour away. After I remarried, my present husband and I traveled an hour one way to attend church to be with our spiritual “family.” They rejoiced with us when I became pregnant and held a lovely baby shower in our honor.

BIT COVER large 3One day, the son-in-law of one of the congregation members came to preach. He was a young itinerant minister with an unusual, but fascinating, teaching style. His teaching seemed to convey wisdom beyond his years, and I eagerly soaked it up. Attending church three times a week since I was a child, as well as mandatory Monday through Friday chapel services at college, intense theology classes, rigorous personal study, and frequent teaching left me with a “already heard it/know it” attitude towards 99 percent of Bible teachers/ministers. That this minister captured my attention so completely was quite a feat at the time.

After church, many of us went over the visiting minister’s in-laws’ house for dinner and conversation. There was lots of laughter and sharing. I ended up asking the minister one of my nosy questions—I can’t even remember what it was, at this point—when he looked at his mother-in-law and said, “Should I tell them?” The minister went on to tell us that he didn’t believe in a literal hell and quickly, but thoroughly, gave us the scriptural, linguistic, and historical reasons why he felt this way. I “heard” a voice in my spirit say, “Now, Janet, you finally have your answer.”

I felt an indescribable sense of peace and clarity. It seemed so simple—and so obvious! I even declared, “Wow, I felt like I went to a spiritual chiropractor!”

However, my friends the co-pastors and the rest of the congregation present at the dinner (other than his in-laws) weren’t so thrilled with this revelation. You see, they had no idea of his “heretical” theology before he guest-preached at the church. Because I had even considered that the minister’s theology might be correct, my friends shunned me. They’re behavior became so bizarre—and my husband and I became so uncomfortable—that we left the church a few weeks after that fateful day. Our friends cut off their relationship with us to the point that the co-pastor—one of my closest friends for years, so close that he was like a brother—forbade his twelve-year-old daughter from contacting me (she tried to call me on her own one day to wish me a happy Mother’s Day).

Decks Used: Universal Waite Tarot and the Lo Scarabeo Tarot

Ace of Swords: I chose this card to represent my childhood anger towards God about upon the unfairness of hell and the suffering of humanity. The single, upright-pointing sword reminds me of “giving the finger,” which I sometimes did in my room behind closed doors towards this ridiculously contradictory deity that I feared and loved.

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The Hierophant: I often see this card as “the system,” especially in terms of religion. I’ve come to associate this card with bearing the power of the “tribe,” which often controls who is in—and out—of its special circle. Those that defy the decrees of the Hierophant (whether within the confines of a church, denomination, club, family, or culture) usually pay the price by becoming an outcast, or even a scapegoat. The moralizing right and wrong stems from his pious decrees (written, spoken, or unspoken).

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The High Priestess: The “gospel of inclusion” was heresy to my former friends and is a somewhat secret doctrine within Christianity. One reason this doctrine of universalism was largely unknown in Pentecostal circles at the time (despite the widespread historical tradition) was the consequences of believing and preaching a gospel that condemned no one. While I tend to see the Hierophant as organized religion, which tends to exclude those it considers to be undesirables, I tend to view the High Priestess as one who wishes to include all and whisper her secrets to those who quiet themselves to hear the still small voice that’s always there.

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Five of Pentacles: My favorite Bible passages to teach as a minister were those dealing with self-righteous Pharisees. In Jesus’ world, this group of religious people made it very difficult for average folks to reach God, and they were the only people Jesus ever slammed in his ministry. Every time I see this card, I think of a song by the Christian band Petra titled “Rose-Colored Stained Glass Windows”, which speaks about the “locked doors” of churches that keep out anyone deemed “unholy” or “tainted,” while the leaders of these churches hoard the “light” for themselves as they refuse to behold and remedy the suffering of others.

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Four of Pentacles: In the Universal Waite deck, this card shows a man clutching a coin to his chest, with a coin under each foot and one on his head. During one of our last services in my former friend’s church, he called up the church board (made up mostly of relatives) and asked them to stand in front of him as a “spiritual barricade.” The board president prayed a very odd and loud prayer about protection for the pastor (from the devil’s wiles or some such). Their unusual theatrics reminded me of the man in this card who holds tightly to his belongings, seemingly fearful that someone may try to steal them from him or possibly destroy that which he worked so hard to obtain and maintain. In the Lo Scarabeo Tarot version of the Four of Pentacles, a man sits smack dab in the middle of a walled fortress, clinging to a coin—much like the congregation members who tried to keep at bay any insidious influences from tarnishing the “treasure” of (their version) of “the truth.”

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The Tower: The bolt from the blue represented by the lightning is an apt symbol of my spiritual chiropractic adjustment. My new perspective destroyed the theological tower built up by clergy, my theological studies, and years of reinforced belief. However, my newfound illumination cost me my reputation and friends as I was forced out of my beloved spiritual community.

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The Hanged Man: I chose this card to represent the complete turnaround of my perspective. While the fallout of my new ideology resulted in the Tower of rejection and upheaval, there was spiritual peace and clarity that defied logic. I felt as if I had been reborn, that the questions I had wrestled with for years were now answered. I no longer had to struggle and strive for answers, because they were coming in stillness and silence. Like the Hanged Man resting upside down with a peaceful look on his face, I was willing to wait in the place of not knowing until understanding came.

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Three of Swords: Having my friend tell me that my mere consideration of a new theology made me a heretic grieved me. But when he continued to shun me and turned everyone in the congregation against me, it cut deeper than most anything I had experienced in my life. The wounding from a faithful friend cuts deep, so the saying goes, and it took me many months to heal from this rejection. I felt as though my heart was ripping out, and the card image of three swords impaling a bright red heart over the backdrop of a gray, rainy sky captures my hurt and bewilderment.

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Death: Although my former spiritual beliefs passed away, I entered a new path that led me to where I am today. There is no way I would have touched a Tarot deck in my old life, let alone consider that there were vibrant spiritual truths in other faiths and traditions. I wouldn’t trade the pain and loneliness caused by the disapproval of the Hierophant, the locked church doors of Five of Pentacles, or the grief of the Three of Swords for the life-affirming vocational and spiritual experiences that have brightened my way on this unexpected journey.

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Commentary

When I was in college, one of my theology professors taught us about gezerot, a Hebrew word describing the hundreds of laws erected as a “fence” to keep people from getting anywhere close to breaking Torah laws in Judaism. When I think of the religious formality of the Hierophant in the Rider-Waite, I sometimes think of all the “laws” (spoken and unspoken) that ministers and denominations create to keep people in line or to prevent them from breaking accepted rules.

The Ace of Swords reminds me of focused power and cutting ability. While this card can relate to an idea, ideal, or act of communication, I’m reminded of how Christians call the Bible a sword. This doubled-edged sword has been used for centuries to persecute those who believe differently, sometimes to the point of excommunication or even death, as seen in the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the Salem Witch Trials. The concept of no hell was such a threat to my former friends that they chose to use their “sword of truth” as an excuse to reject my husband and me and brand us as heretics.

The Five of Pentacles reminded me of my former friends, who would actually help the suffering and the poor, as long as the poor believed like they did. They acted like modern day Pharisees, willing to throw away a deep and abiding friendship based on a mere theological concept. Jesus once called the Pharisees “white washed tombs,” noting that they strived to look perfect on the outside, but their insides—their lack of compassion and kindness—may as well have been a boneyard.

Interestingly, Joan Bunning associates the Four of Pentacles with blocked change and control, which fits perfectly with the attitude of my former friends and church board.

In his book The Spiritual Science of the Stars: A Guide to the Architecture of the Spirit, Pete Stewart makes the powerful observation that although the thunderbolt has been considered a weapon of God by some, that its use by Zeus was actually a tool to reduce the world to its original state. It was a symbol of an utter restructuring of the universe. He notes that Buddhist iconography indicates that the thunderbolt was actually a symbol of indestructible enlightenment—a vajra signifying the shattering of an illusory reality.

In my case, the bolt hitting the Tower came in the form of a peculiar minister bearing a forbidden secret—one that instantly, quietly disintegrated the ivory towers of theology and my shaky “house built on the sand,” as Jesus would say. My eyes were now clear, my understanding finally illuminated in one pivotal instant, and the jumbled puzzle pieces of my relationship with God suddenly assembled into a reasonable picture that finally felt right to me.

The companion booklet to the Jean Noblet Tarot echoes my experience perfectly and says this about the Tower: “The multitude of past experience and memories suddenly rearrange themselves into an orderly, meaningful constellation. It is a dazzling experience of fusion with the divine, appropriately named the House of God.”

Your Turn

  • Is there something about you that makes you feel or seem different from those around you? Have you ever been ridiculed or shunned because of your beliefs, religion, looks, or orientation? While it may be painful, journaling can often be healing and enlightening when we distance ourselves from the situation. In this spirit, choose cards to represent all the components of your experience, including what you learned from it and where you are right now.
  • Do you know of someone who has a secret that could cause them to be humiliated or shunned if someone found out? Select cards to represent the secret, as well as what the person must go through to keep it hidden—and what has happened to them thus far.
  •  Can you think of a public figure who goes against the status quo, often reaping a backlash of controversy or even hatred? Which cards would you pick to represent their actions or ideology, as well as the reactions of those involved?

Do you enjoy this way of learning the Tarot? If so, get yourself a copy of my Back in Time Tarot (print book or for Kindle), which features over 100 Your Turn exercises for practicing connecting pop culture with the cards.

-- Janet

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