Love Wins, Week 2- “Hell”

This is the 2nd sermon in the series, “Love Wins,” based on ideas from the book by Rob Bell.  Citations are noted by page number.

Luke 16: 19-31

‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

My first real memory of hearing about hell was when my sister spent the night at a friend’s house and came home the next day vividly upset about something she had heard at her friend’s church- that she was going to hell if she didn’t believe in Jesus.  To this day, my sister has a somewhat negative view of the church because of that experience.  As I mentioned last week, I was never really taught much growing up about the afterlife- heaven, hell, or otherwise.  My Jewish faith was not concerned with heaven or hell, but rather how we lived our lives here and now on earth.  So again, when I became a Christian, I had to really struggle and wrestle with this concept of hell- what is it, why it is a part of Christian belief, and why in the world would a loving God send people to such a horrible place?  It just didn’t make any sense to me, and honestly, it still doesn’t.  Yet hell or condemnation for the unrighteous is part of our scripture, creeds, and doctrines of Christianity, and even of the United Methodist Church.  So what does it all mean?  How do we interpret and understand hell for ourselves as part of our beliefs and how we understand God?  My hope for today is that you will gain a new understanding of hell and different kinds of hell, whether you believe it is an actual place, state of mind, or do not believe in it at all.  Let’s take a brief look at the controversies and conversations surrounding this complex topic of hell.  

It’s important to understand that many of the images we get that depict hell come from a variety of cultural, literary, and artistic sources, and also from Greek mythology and folklore.  In scripture, the images of hell include lakes of fire, gnashing of teeth, and some form of judgment or punishment for those in the lake of fire.  Descriptions and images of hell have evolved today to be more elaborate, more scary, more supernatural with demons, torture, and of course, Satan.  Today, especially around Halloween, you have the opportunity to visit a variety of Hell Houses, usually put on by churches to give people a “real experience” of what hell might be like and to (in my opinion) scare people into believing in Jesus or you will end up in a place just like that- the ever infamous “turn or burn” theology- the types of things you might hear from the street preacher at a rock concert who shouts as people pass by, “You’re going to hell if you don’t repent and believe in Jesus!”  What kind of God is that?  Nowhere in these places do we find a loving or grace-filled God.  Nowhere in these places do we find the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  These ideas and images have gone on for far too long.  I think it’s time to reclaim and redefine what hell is as we take a closer look at what Jesus teaches about it.

First, a glimpse of what the Old Testament (Hebrew scriptures) reveals about hell- not very much!  Again, the afterlife was not too much of a concern in the ancient Jewish culture, but we do find some references throughout the texts that refer to some kind of realm of the dead.  Take, for example, the world “sheol” found in some of the Psalms, such as Psalm 18 where the psalmist cries out to the Lord, “the cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of Sheol entangle me; the snares of death confronted me,” or Psalm 16, “For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.”  This word, “sheol” is a word that is associated not with hell as we might think of it, but as simply the realm of the dead- a mysterious, dark, murky place where people go when they die- not good or bad, just the dead.  And a lot of times when it is used, we see God not sending someone to Sheol, but bringing them out of it or remaining with them in the state of death, such as in Psalm 139 we see the psalmist asking, “Where can I go from your Spirit?  If I ascend to heaven you are there, if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there…”  In these instances, God is either restoring, redeeming, or lifting the person out of this place of Sheol- a sign that God does not want this for us.  Instead, God wants to uplift and redeem us.

In the New Testament, the word for “hell” is used roughly 12 times almost exclusively by Jesus himself (62) as he is talking to his followers and the religious leaders who were religious, devout Jews.  These were not people on the outside.  Jesus did not use hell to compel “heathens” to believe in God.  He talked to religious people to warn them of the consequences of straying from their God-given calling to show God’s love (82).  Today, we often think of someone preaching about hell to those on the outside of the faith, to unbelievers, to “sinners,” to “heathens, to those who have not repented or have heard the good news.  But that was never Jesus’ intention to teach about hell as a scare tactic or to get someone to turn to him.  He taught about hell to show what it looks like when people of God stray from the God-given goodness that is within each one of us.

And the word that he uses for hell is: “Gehenna”- Ge=vally, henna=Hinnom.  Gehenna or the Valley of Hinnom was an actual valley on the south and west side of Jerusalem.

Modern Day Gehenna in Jerusalem

Modern Day Gehenna in Jerusalem

Gehenna was the city dump where trash and other waste burned day and night, resembling a lake of fire.  Gehenna was the place of the gnashing of teeth of wild animals fighting over scraps of food, where the fire never went out (LW 68).  So when Jesus is talking about Gehenna, people knew he was referring to the trash dump where fire burned and scavengers scavenged.  In Matthew 5 Jesus say that if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away- it is better to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell- the same way with your hand- if one causes you to sin, it is better to cut it off and throw it away than for your whole body to be thrown into hell- or the lake of fire, or the local trash dump, Gehenna.  Whenever we see Jesus talking about hell, he uses “a volatile mixture of images, pictures, metaphors describing very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity” (LW 73).  If we make the choice to sin, then we might as well throw whatever caused us to sin into the trash, or as he says for dramatic effect, cut it off completely- some words are strong for a reason because they need to reflect the realities they describe and the consequences of our choices that turn us away from God.

Other words for hell in the New Testament include:“Tartarus,” found in 2 Peter 2, which is borrowed from Greek mythology- an underworld where Greek demigods were judged in the “abyss,” and “Hades”-the Greek version of Sheol (Rev. 1, 6, 20, Acts 2), Matthew 11 and Luke 10, and Luke 16 (Lazarus and Abraham), our story of reference this morning.  We find the rich man carried off to Hades where he is in torment while the poor man he neglected in his life is carried by the angels to be with Abraham (a Jewish way of talking about a kind of heaven).  While in torment, the rich man asks Lazarus to give him water- the rich man wants Lazarus to serve him- after years of living in wealth and believing himself to be better than Lazarus, the rich man still believes he is above him!  Because of this, he is in his own hell (or Hades) because his heart has not changed.  He has neglected to love God and love his neighbor, and that is the new social order that Jesus teaches.  In this new world order, to reject Jesus was to reject God.  This story of the rich man and Lazarus, then, served as a warning to the religious leaders listening to Jesus- that there would be serious consequences for rejecting the Lazaruses outside their gates- they might as well be rejecting God (LW 76).  What we see in this story is “an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next.  There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” (79).

Taking hell seriously means that just as we have a role to play in bringing heaven to earth (as we talked about last week), in the same way, we unfortunately have the ability to bring hell to earth.  It is vital for each of us to understand that love, grace, and goodness can be rejected- that we are terrifyingly free to do as we please because we are given choice and free-will to go against what God wants for us. Because of this, there is indeed hell on earth.

If I believe in any kind of hell, I believe in hell on earth.  Sometimes we live in our own hells of addiction, self-harm,  disease, or rejection.  Sometimes we are victims of tragedy or violence, abuse, neglect, or caught up in darkness or hopelessness of any kind- we find ourselves in hell.  If you’ve ever heard someone tell their story of rape or sexual abuse, you’ve had a glimpse of that person’s personal hell.  When you see a person on the news who has shot and killed 20 children, you’ve caught a glimpse of hell on earth.  If you’ve ever visited a war torn country where hundreds of people are murdered each day or people don’t have clean water of food to speak of, you’ve caught a glimpse of hell.

I knew that I was standing in hell the day that I stood in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.

I caught another glimpse of it when I walked through a city dump in Tijuana where people called home.

Rob Bell tells the story of visiting Rwanda where he saw a young boy with a missing hand standing by the side of the road.  Then he saw another boy with a missing leg not too far off, then another in a wheelchair, then one after the other with various missing limbs- arms, legs, hands.  His guide explained that during the genocide, one of the ways to most degrade and humiliate your enemy was to remove an arm or leg of his young child with a machete, so that years later, he would have to live with the reminder of what you did to him (71).  That is hell…right here on earth.  Reminders that we as human beings are capable of rejecting our God-given capability to do good and choose to do harm instead.  Reminders that we have it in us to choose hell instead of the riches of heaven that include God’s grace and mercy.  Reminders that “God gives us what we want- and if that’s hell, we can have it.  We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice- we can use machetes if we want to” (72).  We can use gas if we want to.  We can use harmful words or acts of violence…if we want to.

One of the questions I was asked when I was up for ordination in the United Methodist Church was this: What is your understanding of evil as it exists in the world?  There are many ways to answer this question, but it all boils down to this:  there is evil in the world, without a doubt.  Some believe it comes from an external force such as a Satan type figure from a place like hell, but I believe that evil comes from the very depths and darkness of humanity when we use our power of choice to do harm instead of good.  Evil comes from within ourselves if we allow it to take over.  Evil shows its face when we abandon or reject what God intends for us when we refuse to love our neighbor, when we choose hate over love, when we abuse power over the powerless.

So the next question is, is there judgment or punishment for those who do evil?  Is there a place of torment and consequence called hell for those who commit acts so heinous that we might believe they deserve it?  If there is such a place, is there a list of sins that will send someone to hell?  Is there a line you have to cross?  I don’t know.  But I do know that hell is the consequence of rejecting the goodness and love that God has for us.  Hell is the word we use to describe the pain that human beings inflict on one another individually, societally, and culturally- when we fail to live in God’s world in God’s way (93).

I do know that perhaps those persons we believe deserve hell were already in their own hell to drive themselves to commit acts of violence or evil- so much so that they saw no other way out.  I do know that God reveals in scripture that God longs to bring us out of the depths of the pit into restoration and new life.  I do know that if there is a hell, God is there, yes, even there, working to bring restoration and life out of the depths of darkness and despair.  I do know that the God of Jesus Christ reveals a God who loves us so much that he chose suffering and death so that we might know how to truly live.  I do know that my experiences of God have convinced me that “God delights in getting God’s hands dirty, lifting men and women from the depths of hell and cleansing them.”   A holy God delights not in purity or perfection, but in restoring the impure (If Grace is True, 73).

And sometimes we may find ourselves going through hell in order to fully understand the joy and beauty of heaven on earth.  Sometimes we find that we have to hit rock bottom in order to gain the strength and courage to find our way back to the joys of heaven.  Throughout scripture, we see the Hebrew people straying from God, wandering in the wilderness, worshiping false idols, becoming persons who have lost sight of the God who calls and loves them.  All through this time, God weeps over them and longs to bring them home with singing and rejoicing.  And not just that, but God works to make this happen.  Sometimes there is judgment, but in that judgment, there is a longing for restoration and reconciliation- a promise that whatever hell you might be experiencing won’t be forever.  Death and destruction do not have the final word.  After all, that is what the cross and resurrection is all about.  We worship a God of life and experience a God of love.  In fact, we are told that God is love.  If so, how can we worship a God who casts people away from God’s presence in eternal torment?

I think so many struggle with this because we might want hell for those who do wrong.   What about justice?  Punishment for wrongdoing?  In response to this I’d like to think that God’s ways are higher than our ways.  Perhaps God does not deal with evil in the same way we do.  Perhaps we will never understand the ways in which God reaches out in this life or the next to those who commit heinous acts of violence or murder against other human beings.  If there is a hell, I want to believe that Hitler is there.  If there is a hell, I might want to believe that someone who murders hundreds of innocent people are there, paying for what they did.  But then I am reminded that there is no way for us to understand God’s compassion and mercy for those who perhaps deserve hell.  Perhaps it is not for us to understand, as much as we might want to jump to conclusions or send them to hell ourselves.

In this I am reminded that God is God, the God of the living and the dead, and I most certainly am not.  I reminded that “perfect love casts out fear” and the constant reminder throughout scripture that we are not to be afraid and we are not to fear death.  Why is this?  I believe it is because God’s love and grace is more than enough for each one of us.  God’s grace and mercy overcomes even the depths of hell, whatever your understanding of it might be.  God’s grace is from everlasting to everlasting, to the ends of the earth, to the cross, to the empty tomb.  Even the gates of hell cannot overcome that good news.  The good news…that love wins.

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