Burning Ring of Fire

May 12, 2023

“What about other religions? Judaism, Islam, Buddhists --”“Burning ring of fire.”“Mom, come on.”

My mother lived out her final years in an “active senior citizen” community in Port Saint Lucie, Florida. It was a compound of pre-fab houses slapped up around a golf course and a man-made lake. Anyone who decided to move there got a free golf cart to drive. As far as I could tell, the primary activities of this place, besides golf, were day drinking, gossip, and infidelity. It was one of those neighborhoods where a wife dies, casseroles and sunbaked women wearing lipstick and push-up bras show up on the widower’s porch. The day of the funeral. It was rumored that one resident, a retired plumber from New Jersey, rented a minivan once a month and brought a van full of hookers to his house so all the retired dentists, carpenters, and World War II vets could have a good time. Mother laughed, slapped her knee, and swore it was true, “I can always tell when the hooker van visits the neighborhood. The next day, all the old geezers zip by on their golf carts with smiles on their faces.” She laughed so hard she had to wipe tears from her cheeks, “I’m telling you, this is a regular Peyton Place.”


Here's the thing about my mother, she married and divorced or buried six husbands. She worked as a waitress and hairdresser and was a full-blown, fall-down, pass-out-in-the-car-alcoholic for years. But one morning, during her prayers, the Lord told her to stop drinking. And she did. She stopped cold on her own and didn’t touch a drop of alcohol for decades. But when she turned eighty, she decided the Lord wouldn’t mind if she had a Heineken or two. When my friends met my mother, they usually said, “She’s a real pisser.” I never wanted to imagine my mother urinating in her Bermuda shorts, but I knew what they meant: Mom was fun.  

“Would you look at that?” Mom said, pointing out the window. We sat in her enclosed sunporch, a box with windows that looked out on a cul-de-sac with six other tiny houses. Mom gestured across the street toward a woman wearing a straw hat and pink sneakers, unloading the trunk of her Prius, “Look at that old bitch. That is her third trip to the store today. She went to Publix and Dillard’s earlier, and now she has two bags from Sam’s Club. She is always shopping. And where does she get her money?”

“Why don’t you ask her?”

“I don’t talk to her. She’s a nosy gossip.”

Now, I never knew if my mother was utterly oblivious or delighting in irony. Was she testing me? Trying to draw me into one of her serpentine arguments? I took the bait and asked, “How do you know she’s nosy?”

“She always comes over and asks if I need anything from the store.”  

“That’s nice. That’s a nice thing to do.”

“She’s not being nice. She comes over to see what I’m doing or to see if I have her husband hidden in the closet.”

“Do you?”

“I don’t know, go check. He may need water.” She held up her empty bottle. “And while you’re at it, grab me another Heineken.”

I grabbed us Heinekens, and the conversation turned from neighborhood gossip to her favorite subject: Jesus Christ. I am not being flip, nor do I condescend. I was raised in the church and continue to be a follower of Jesus. But when it came to sin and salvation, my mother and I butted heads like two bighorn rams on a mountain top. I recall this particular day vividly.The argument went something like this:

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on. So, you’re saying that billions and billions of people will go to hell unless they believe in Jesus?”

“Yes. If you don’t claim Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior and carry him in your heart, you will burn in hell.”


“Yes, forever. Don’t give me that look. Are you saying it’s not true?”

“I am not saying it’s not true. It’s just…. Okay, so what about a child, an innocent little girl living in the jungles of Brazil, cut off from the modern world? Her tribe is isolated, but they’re peaceful, and she is lovely. This little girl is kind to her baby brother and loves her parents. But one day, she has an accident, or an alligator eats her --"

“I don’t think the Amazon has alligators.”

“Okay, fine. An anaconda swallows her. The point is she dies.”

“She’ll go to hell.”

“Oh, come on.”

“If she doesn’t know and accept Jesus, she will burn in hell.”

“But this child is innocent. She doesn’t know about Jesus or --”

“That’s why we need missionaries, to go out into the world and spread the good news.”

I knew my mother believed in the efficacy of missionaries because she had supposedly given away half of her inheritance to Pat Robertson to build a TV station somewhere in Africa. She gave the other half to her second husband, Gene Hinton, to buy a bar in Marion, Illinois, The Grapevine.

“All right, so here’s a hypothetical,” I said. “There is a man. He’s an atheist.”

“Oh, Lord.”

“He doesn’t believe in God or Jesus or any religion, but he’s a good man. He dedicates his life to helping others, working with Habitat for Humanity, and volunteering at food banks. He made money and gave it away to build a hospital for children. He dies. But he’s an atheist.”

“Straight to hell.”

“But he has done good things. He helped people!”

“Doesn’t matter. He didn’t accept Jesus into his heart. Oh, look at that,” my mother smiled and pointed out the window. A man with sunburnt cheeks and a steel gray flattop haircut drove past on his golf cart. “He is good-looking. That is a good-looking man, right there.” She sighed and shook her head, “His wife’s still alive.”

“You could pray she has a heart attack and drops dead so you can make your move.”

“Don’t be a smartass.”

“Let me make up another hypothetical,” I said.

“All right,” Mom nodded and took a sip of beer.

“There’s a rotten man. He lies, cheats, and steals. He beats his children and steals all the money his wife saved working two jobs so their kids could go to college. And he goes to Vegas, takes drugs, and gambles it all way.”

“I know where you're going with this.”

“He gets sick and is dying. But with his last breath, he confesses his sins and accepts Jesus into his heart.”

“The man will go to heaven.”

“That doesn’t make sense!”

“Jesus died for his sins, so his sins are forgiven. We all fall short. My life has been a darn shitting mess, but I know Jesus died for my sins, and I’ll see him in heaven.”

“So, I can be a rotten piece of crap my whole life, and just before I take my last breath, I call out and accept Jesus, and Bam! I get into heaven?”

“But we don’t know when that last breath is coming.  It could be right now or ten years from now. Only the Lord knows.”

“What about other religions? Judaism, Islam, Buddhists --”

“Burning ring of fire.”

“Mom, come on.”

“Hell is real.”

“I don’t know if I even believe in hell.”


“I don’t know if I believe that ‘hell’ is an actual place.”

“You have been living in New York City too long. That is secular humanist thinking.”

“The concept of hell has existed for ages. Look at the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Jewish mysticism. But I have a hard time believing we get cast down to an actual fiery pit to be tormented. Forever.”

“God created a lake of fire as a place of punishment for Satan and demons, the fallen angels.”

“I don’t believe that. Burning lakes? I don’t buy it.”

“I know what I am getting you for Christmas.”


“A fire extinguisher.” Mom laughed and took a sip of beer. “You’ll need it when the flames of hell are licking your hind end, and the devil is poking you in the butt with his pitchfork.”

“I don’t believe any of that.”

“You don’t believe in the devil?”

“No, I know there’s a devil. She lives in Port Saint Lucie and drinks Heinekens.”

Mom slapped her knee and lowered her head, chuckling, “That’s good. That was a good one.”

The ferns outside her windows fluttered and bent over as rain droplets splashed and streaked the glass.  It was one of those showers that roll through Florida most afternoons, lowering the temperature but raising the humidity. The windows steamed and started to blur.

“I think the concept of hell was created to manipulate the masses, scare the populous into submission so they would obey those in power,” I said.

“Hell is mentioned throughout the Bible.”

“I know.”

“And did you know that Jesus preached more about hell than all the other Bible teachers, including Paul?”

“I didn't know that.”

“Gehenna is the Greek word for a place of eternal torment. Hades is another Greek word for hell. You know I had to learn and read the original Greek when I got my Master’s Degree.”

“Yes, I know. And if I remember correctly, you got a B in that class.”

“B plus,” she corrected me, waving a finger. “And that was a very tough course. I had to use flashcards.” She sipped her beer. “After Jesus died on the cross, he descended into hell for three days to rescue the souls of the righteous.”

“If they were righteous, what were they doing in hell in the first place?”


“And you know this notion of death and resurrection didn’t start with Jesus? There is Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis --”

“Heathen. My son is a damn heathen.”

“Maybe hell is not a place.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Maybe hell is eternal separation from God. Paul talks about our longing to leave this earthly tent and be in God's glory.”

“Second Corinthians,” she said with a smile.

“We long to return to God, to be a part of the Godhead. Perhaps we are separated, but we learn and grow through many lifetimes until we reach Brahama, the creator god.”

“So now you're a Hindu?”

“The Hindu religion existed about two thousand years before Jesus came along.”

“Just because something is old doesn’t make it right.”

“Look who’s talking.”

The phone rang. Mom snatched the portable receiver off the side table and answered, “Praise the Lord! What? No… I paid that bill. I most certainly did... Well, tell him to kiss both cheeks of my ass. I’m not paying it again... I’m sitting here with Mark. Yeah, he’s my sweetie… Okay, sure.” She hung up and leaned back in her chair. “Your sister can be a real bitch sometimes.”

“Mom, Beth takes care of you. She makes sure you have groceries and the house is clean.”

“She can do nice things and still be a bitch. Hey, I was thinking. You know, this senior citizen community is for people fifty-five plus, so you and Angelina are eligible. You two could get out of New York and move down here. You would get a free golf cart.”

“I would rather swim naked through a lake of fire.”

“Why? It’s a nice place. Maybe what’s his name will let you drive the hooker van.” She winked and saluted me with her beer bottle.

“Let me ask you this. Why would a loving God, who knows all things, allow his children to burn in eternal torment? Would you like it if your children writhed in torment for eternity?”

“Maybe one of them. My oldest son, perhaps,” she said, nodding in my direction. “So, you don’t believe in hell. Do you believe in heaven?”

“I don’t believe in marble thrones, gold streets, and cherubs strumming harps. I believe heaven is God's energy, thought energy, the Supreme Mind that created and lives in all things.”


“Yes. And when our spirit energy leaves our body, maybe it returns to The Source and becomes part of the vibrant, electromagnetic field that is God’s mind.”

“Like a big ball of electricity.”

“Something like that, but that energy is alive and sentient, creative and flowing. And maybe we check in with God to see how we’re doing, discern what we need to work on, and come back down to live another life.”

“So now you’re what? A damn Buddhist? Should I shave your head and buy you a robe?”

“I’m open to the idea of reincarnation. I’m not saying I believe it or don’t believe it. But think about it. Suppose, through many lifetimes, we learn and grow and experience every aspect of life so God can experience life through us, and we experience life through God. And we keep evolving until our mind and soul are as rich as God’s mind and soul, and we finally transcend and remain in the presence of Divine Thought for eternity.”

“So, everyone goes to heaven?”

“Maybe. Eventually.”

“That is called Universalism.You don’t need Jesus. You don’t need salvation. Everyone gets a free pass.”

“I’m not saying I fully believe that, but I’m open to exploring other faiths and beliefs to see where they overlap and discover what all religions have in common.”

“That sounds like a religious stew. Throw a bunch of beliefs into the pot and mix them all together. My honey, the gate is narrow, and the only way through that gate is to believe in Jesus Christ.”

“Can’t I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior and still contemplate the possibility of karma or reincarnation?”

“No,” she said, taking a swig of beer. “Speaking of alligators.”

“When were we speaking about alligators?”

“The little Amazon girl.”

“Oh, right.”

“This happened a few months ago, a woman was walking her dog right here by the lake, and an alligator ate her dog.  Right off the leash.” Mom snapped her fingers and chuckled.

“Why are you laughing? I thought you liked dogs.”

“I love dogs. Obviously, alligators do too. They wrote about it in the newspapers. I guess little Fluffy ended up a tater tot for the gator.”

“Do you think Fluffy went to hell?”

“Fluffy doesn’t have a soul.”

“How do you know? Maybe Fluffy reincarnated. Maybe Fluffy was one of your dead husbands come back to chew on your ankles and pee on your lawn.”

“You are going straight to hell. Before you go, grab me another Heineken.”

I headed toward the kitchen but noticed something outside. The rain had stopped. Through the foggy windows of the sunroom, I saw a figure approaching.

“Who is that?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Mom said, pushing herself out of the chair. There was a knock. Mom opened the storm door. It was the lady with the straw hat and pink sneakers. She was holding a small cardboard box.

“Oh, I didn’t know you had company,” she said, peeking inside.

“It’s my son, Mark. He lives in New York.” The sneaker lady gave me a little wave. “Do you want to come in?” Mom asked, opening the door wider.

“No, I've got to run. Here, I bought you this,” she said, handing Mom the box. “It’s a scented candle I picked up at Dillard's. Gardenia. I thought you might like it.”

“Why, thank you. Are you sure you don’t want to come in?”

“No, I’ve got to go pick up my husband.” She gave a quick wave goodbye and crossed the street to her Prius.

“Well, that was very thoughtful,” I said.  

“She knew I had a man over here. The old bitch was spying on me.” Mom pried open the top of the box and smelled the scented candle. “But that was a sweet thing to do."