What does hell look like?

Is it fiery and hot or dark and cold? Does it exist at all outside of our minds?

I visited hell in 1992. It was in an AIDS ward in an LA hospital. There I met a young black woman, clinging to life but already in purgatory.

She was in a gray place, neither dark nor light, hot nor cold, caught in transition between the best and worst of her life. She was tormented by the demons of her past -- years on the street and a dependence on drugs -- but sustained by love.

The staff attending her was literally counting the days. Most were surprised she had held on so long. What kept her alive, I was told, was her fierce determination to make sure her 6-year-old daughter was taken care of after she was gone.

The word "hell" comes from the old English. Literally, it means "to separate" or "to build a wall around." To be "helled" was to be shut off from.

All who love can relate to the torment this woman felt at the thought of being separated from the one she loved most deeply. It was truly Hell.

"Diabolic" comes from a word meaning "to divide." Diabolic forces separate us from each other and God. In our lives they find expression in ego, anger, pride, nationalism, racism, envy, ignorance, and greed. These are the forces of darkness.

With the affluence of our society and the increasing polarization of resources, separating ourselves from others becomes easier and at times seems almost inevitable. Increasingly, we are tempted to create boundaries of geography, blood, and race. It is not difficult to become convinced of our preciousness, independence, and self-sufficiency. It is not difficult to fell threatened by those who look or seem different.

But when we close others out, we shut ourselves in. We walk willingly into a hell of our own making. The walls we put up for our protection serve only to isolate us, leaving us lonely and alone. In the process of trying to protect ourselves, we only diminish ourselves.

By contrast, "heaven" means "harmony." If demonic forces divide, love unites. The heaven on earth will not arrive until we are able to get beyond the superficial elements that divide us and realize that the only thing that separates us from God and each other is the belief that we are separate.

Hell is here. It is now, not then.