Sunday, July 11, 2010
"Hell": a Sermon
In early June I began to encourage you to share with me those topics you most wanted to hear discussed from the pulpit. I was overwhelmed by your response. I received suggestions for topics as diverse as “God: Referee or Judge?” and “Ghosts and Spirits and the life of faith.” One of you wants to hear about “American Greed,” and another, the crimes and punishments of the ancient Israelite kings and the apostle Paul. One is interested in the topics of true love and divorce, and what it means to be a success; another wonders, what exactly are “Biblical Family Values?” But the card that stopped me in my tracks, and made me wonder exactly what I had gotten myself into, said the following: “Is there a hell? And if so, how can you get out?”
I read a blog—that is, an internet journal—written by David Hayward, a pastor, artist and musician who calls himself “nakedpastor” (don’t worry, he’s talking about spiritual nakedness). By sheer coincidence, about a week after I’d decided I’d be tackling this sermon topic today, David posted an original cartoon to his blog. You have a copy of it in your bulletin. The title of the cartoon is “Hell.” In it, you see the words “Tough Love,” and then, as if ablaze, the word “FOREVER.” And that, in a nutshell, is the conundrum we Christians are faced with when considering the possibility of hell. Do we believe in a God says, essentially, “Love me—or else!” Or is there some other way to understand both the scriptural roots and traditional Christian teachings on hell?
A quick read through the comments at David’s blog takes us through many of the positions people hold with regard to this topic. One person affirmed the cartoon, saying,
Funny when you have kids of your own how the craziness of literal hellfire becomes even more apparent. I can't fathom at all sending any of my kids to unbearable, eternal torture no matter how bad they were.
On the other hand, another reader said,
[The] God of the Bible is straightforward: He makes it clear that He is a God of wrath------a God of love------and smack in the middle of it all----a God of justice… What do you do with words like wrath, anger, jealous, when you read them in the Bible--just ignore it because it doesn't fit your image of God?
And, of course, we had to have the jokester, who wrote:
We had a phrase [in my church] that comes to mind, "Turn or burn" which, to be positive, was, at least, a VERY CLEAR message. It was also a helpful tip for the barbeque.
Today, I am going to do my best to share with you, first, some scriptural background for ways to think about hell, including a very brief history of the development of the idea of hell, and finally, some thoughts from a contemporary theologian on what constitutes a truly biblical understanding of hell.
I did a search for the word “hell” in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s not there. The word that is there, instead, is “Sheol.” The most ancient meaning of this term is “the abode of the dead.” Like the ancient Greeks, the ancient Hebrews conceived of a place where the dead went to rest, an underworld. The Hebrew Scriptures are of two minds in describing Sheol. In some passages, such as Hannah’s canticle, Sheol is simply the place where the dead go: “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Sam. 2:6). This passage is not referring to punishment at all. The righteous and the unrighteous alike go to Sheol—it is the final resting place of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Samuel, all beloved of God. In many parts of the bible, “Sheol” functions as the equivalent of “the grave.”
On the other hand, there are passages in the Hebrew Scriptures where Sheol takes on a decidedly punishing tone. Psalm 9 says, “The wicked shall depart to Sheol, all the nations that forget God.” It sounds as if Sheol is a place of punishment there. Still, in another psalm we read the words, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there (Psalm 139:8). Sheol is a place for the dead, but even if it is a punishment, it is a place where God’s presence still abides.
In the New Testament, we do find the word “hell,” which is often used as a translation for the Greek place name, “Gehenna.” You can visit Gehenna if you go to the Holy Land; the word refers to Hinnom, a valley that runs south-southwest from Jerusalem. In ancient days, the valley was the place of worship of the Canaanite gods Molech and Baal. This worship consisted of sacrificing children by passing them through a fire; even some ancient Israelite kings took part in this horrific practice. Later, the Babylonians used the valley as a dumping ground for the bodies of the Israelites they killed during the occupation. By the time Jesus said, “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to Gehenna” (Matthew 5:22), it was being used by the occupying Romans as a garbage dump. The fires burned there day and night.
Between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, a development had occurred. Instead of conceiving of death as a time of rest, darkness, a great leveler of the good and the bad alike, death was seen as a time in which scores were settled, a time when the evil were punished once and for all, even if they had managed to escape punishment in life.
Why did this take place? Why did a religion and a culture which had not had a clearly defined notion of punishment after death suddenly develop one? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I have some ideas. Could it have been the result of centuries of occupation and displacement, of war and persecution? Could it have been a development based on an innate sense that justice must take place some time, even if we don’t get to witness it ourselves? Could it have developed as a result of a fervent hope that God would not allow those who had killed and carried off God’s people go unpunished?
Whatever the reason, by Jesus’ day, there is clearly an idea of an afterlife in which the righteous are rewarded and the evil are punished. Jesus, in his typical take-no-prisoners fashion, threatens this punishment to those who not only murder, but to those who are angry. He raises the prospect of Gehenna for those who not only kill a brother or sister, but those who insult a brother or sister. In fact, if we look closely at this particular passage, Jesus takes the threat of hell to an almost bizarre extreme. Why? What is he getting at?
In his chilling memoir, Night, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel describes his first night in the concentration camp following a nightmarish death march.
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever… 
Now, there is a description of hell: hell as utter separation both from God and from hope. Understood in that way, is it possible that Jesus is using Gehenna as a description of what utter separation from God is like—the kind of separation that is born in despair? The kind of separation Jesus himself experiences when he cries from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Or, perhaps the kind of separation that is born in self-centeredness, and not other-centeredness? The kind of separation that results when we choose to cut ourselves off from God and God’s people?
Presbyterian theologian Shirley Guthrie offers the following:
And what is hell? Not a fiery or dark place of eternal torment located somewhere underground between the United States and China. It is living apart from or in hostility toward God and other people, and therefore denying one’s own true humanity—forever. It is living forever in the loneliness that results from the inability or unwillingness to love and be loved. It is never coming to rest but living forever in the frantic, self-destroying attempt to be what one is not and never can be. Hell, in other words, is not a kind of eternal life at all; it is a kind of eternal death. 
In other words, “hell” is not a physical place God sends us. It is a state of being—mental? Spiritual? Existential? Eschatological?—where we choose to reside, apart from God. And it begins here and now, not at some later date. Some of us are already in hell. Some of live our whole lives in hell.
Karl Barth, the great 20th century theologian, in the end, had great difficulty reconciling Hell with a gracious God. He called it “the impossible possibility”. Each time we say the Apostle’s Creed, we proclaim that, after suffering crucifixion and death, Jesus descended—to the dead, in some translations, to hell, in the translation we know best if we are above a certain age. When we remember Jesus’ cry of agony and abandonment from the cross, that descent makes sense.
But what a hopeful doctrine that is for us to acclaim. Just as the psalm says, if we make our bed in Sheol, even there God is with us. If we take on the wings of the morning and ascend to the farthest limits of the sea, even there God leads us and holds us fast. If Jesus descended into hell, or the realm of the dead, there is no place—whether physical or mental or spiritual—where we can go where God has not already gone before. There is no place we can go where God is not. There is no place where God is not. That includes hell.
“If there is a hell, how can we get out?” What a great question. Traditional Protestant theology has held that once a person is in hell, they are there eternally. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters see it slightly differently. They still understand there to be a hell, whose punishments are eternal. But they also see another place of separation from God—purgatory—in which our sins can be purged from us. The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was built by Quakers with just this idea in mind—place criminals in a quiet environment where even the architecture reminds us of God’s watchful eye, and even the most hardened criminal will repent and come to a new way of life. One of the ways in which people may gain release from purgatory, in Catholic thinking, is by means of prayer—this is why there are entire religious orders who are devoted to prayer for the whole world, both living and dead.
A great thinker said, “It is unwise for Christians to claim any knowledge of either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell…”  The truest and most genuine sermon on this topic might just have been the words, “I don’t know.” I can’t claim to “know” the truth about hell. I can share what I believe: that God is love—as scripture tells us, again and again, through story, song, history, parable and poem. God is love, as we see in the reality of a God who came to be with us in Jesus Christ. God is love, as we recognize in the ongoing presence of the Spirit in and with the church. When we understand that God is love, the idea of hell—of eternal separation from that love—is surely something that makes God weep, and surely something God would use all the power in heaven and earth to overcome.
If we make our bed in Sheol, even there God is with us. If we walk headlong into hell, Jesus is there waiting for us. There is no place we can go where God is not. That is our faith and our hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 1958 and 2006), xix.
 Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 396.
 As quoted by David Hayward at nakedpastor.
 Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949), 294.