Do you believe in Hell? That is a question that would never have been asked fifty years ago. When I was fifteen everyone I knew believed in Hell. It was the final destination of the wicked. Hell was an eternal exile from God where sinners were subjected to fire, worms and darkness. Many a soul has been frightened into confessing belief in Jesus solely because they desired to escape from the eternal damnation so dramatically described in the writings of Dante and the sermons of Jonathan Edwards.
But that was fifty years ago. One of the amazing things about the Bible is we all know what it says but we seldom take the time to actually read it. We allow other people to do the leg work and then we base our acceptance or rejection of their arguments on conclusions we have already reached. Maybe it is time to take a closer look at the idea of hell.
In Mark 9 Jesus is reported to have said, “If you put a stumbling block before a little one, better you be thrown in the sea or go to hell, a place where worms never die and the fire is never quenched.” That would seem to wrap up any doubts about the existence of such a horrid place. Yet a careful reading of the New Testament reveals 99% is about salvation and the passages referring to hell are actually quite difficult to find. The Apostle Paul, who is chiefly responsible for explaining the significance of Christ, fails to mention hell at all. The Gospel of John makes an astounding argument for universal salvation. So what gives?
In his book The Formation of Hell, Alan Bernstein makes a compelling argument that Hell was a Greek/Persian concept that filtered into Jewish thought three centuries before the birth of Christ. The concept of hell was not universally accepted. Orthodox Judaism during the time of Jesus and Paul did not believe in an afterlife so punishment after death made no sense. But some radical Jews had begun to consider the idea of an afterlife, a concept prevalent in other cultures. With the believers of Jesus embracing the idea eternal life, naturally it followed that if there is a heaven, there must be a hell. The early church theologians grappled with the idea of hell for the better part of three centuries. Many early church fathers argued that God’s forgiving nature would not allow a soul to be separated from God for eternity. But Augustine ended the discussion when he ridiculed those who thought eternal punishment was too long. He claimed they were too tender hearted to fully appreciate the wrath of God. Ironically, Augustine, the greatest defender of Paul ignores Paul’s greatest contribution to the Christian faith, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God”.
So how does one reconcile the division between Paul and Augustine or between Mark and John? Are some folks so evil they deserve eternal damnation, or is God’s grace greater than any sin? If it is written in the Gospels, do you believe Jesus must have said it, or do you if wonder the writers of gospels might have occasionally editorialized those sayings? The writers of Matthew and Mark lived in a time of horrible persecution. If their gospels reflected the promise that God was going to get even with their tormentors, don’t you think this would have given First Century Christians a brief moment of joy? These are questions over which the church has argued since the death of Jesus and I suspect they will never be resolved. So let me add to your confusion by making a statement I am sure some of you will be find to be a contradiction.
I believe in hell, but not necessarily eternal damnation.
Let’s go back to the text. Jesus said, “If you are a stumbling block for another, or if your hand, or foot, or eye causes you to sin, change directions, or you will be thrown into hell.”
Friday a week ago I made the decision that eight o’clock in the morning would be the proper time to head for New Haven, Connecticut. We traveled up Interstate 81, avoiding Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia but discovered unless one goes to New England by way of Canada, New York City cannot be avoided. We hit the Tappan Zee Bridge at 5:00. Do I need to describe hell for you? Monday, after conversations with the local folk, we got back in the car at ten in the morning for our return. We had an uneventful trip all the way back to Nellysford. The decisions we make often determines the hell we create.
Do not think for one moment I am making light of the concept of hell. My “go to” definition for hell has always been “The absence of God”. Sometimes this is voluntary, sometimes it is thrust upon us, and sometimes it is caused by the hand of another. Most of us have seen the photo of Aylan Kurdi, a three year old child lying lifeless on a Turkish beach after the boat carrying his family capsized as they were attempting to escape the war in Syria. In a family of four only the father managed to survive. Can you even begin to imagine his personal hell?
We are besieged by events, both personal and international, that can send us into an overwhelming darkness. Recently a survey was taken at the University of Texas in which 26,000 students participated. 55% had thoughts of suicide, 18% had seriously considered it, and 8% had made an unsuccessful attempt. To more than half of those young people, hell is real. So the question becomes, can the church of Jesus Christ move our theological conversations from speculation on an eternal destination to a more pertinent dialogue concerning how our words and actions might address the darkness residing within the hearts of more folks than we might imagine?
I am convinced that we live in an age of agitation and isolation. In so much of my ministry I have discovered folks who feel utterly lost in their search for purpose, community, love, and self. They indulge in diversions such as alcohol, sex, recreation and entertainment as a futile attempt to distract from the emptiness of their lives. Once their motivation was a search for meaning, but disappointment and failure has turned a pursuit for excellence into the quicksand of hopelessness. What they desperately desire is a way out of hell.
Tennessee Williams in his play, The Night of the Iguana, creates a conversation intersecting hell with hope.
Hannah begins. “I can help you because I’ve been through what you are going through. I had something like your spook only I had a different name for him. I called him the blue devil, and we had quite a contest between us.
Shannon interrupts, “Which you obviously won.”
Hannah responds, “I couldn’t afford to lose.”
“So how did you beat your blue devil?”
“I showed him I could endure him and I made him respect my endurance.” (stop)
So many folks who believe they have hit rock bottom are looking for a quick fix and the greatest failure of the church is we are more than happy to offer them one. Our magic elixir is, “Believe in Jesus and your life will be good.” Then when people come back complaining nothing has changed, we assure them heaven will be better than earth. What we have done is put a millstone around their neck. We have given them permission to opt out of this “evil world” and dream of a paradise where all the residents will look and be just like us. Why not invite them to hear an earthly story of endurance and hope? Why not invite them to hear the story of the love of God?
The Old Testament centers around two trips to hell. The first is the exile in Egypt and the second is the exile in Babylon. According to the text, the Israelites were invited to visit Egypt and they overstayed their welcome. Their dependence on Pharaoh resulted in their loss of freedom. In the case of the Babylonian exile, Judah was dragged to Babylon kicking and screaming. The downfall of Jerusalem began when they forgot how to love God and their neighbors.
From this hell emerged stories of endurance, hope and finally salvation. It was not an easy road and it did not happen overnight. The wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land was filled with anger, panic and fear. The road through the desert from Babylon to Jerusalem did not seem feasible until the songs of the prophet promised the road less traveled would lead to a place they could once again call their own.
The story of salvation continues in the New Testament, only it is not the saga of a nation but a person. Jesus met people exactly where he found them. Be they rich or poor, fisherman or intellectuals, Biblical scholars or altogether ignorant of the Torah, Jesus said, “Follow me.” He didn’t say the road would be easy because it wasn’t. He didn’t promise riches or fame and he was correct. But he did say, “Stay with me and you will discover a peace that is beyond your understanding.” The road Jesus walked was filled with wilderness and mountain tops. The disciples were often disoriented, confused and even disheartened. What kept them on the road to Jerusalem was not a promise of eternal salvation but the assurance that every single day Jesus would be with them. No truer words have ever been spoken.
Paul summed up the promise of Jesus in one sentence. “Neither life, nor death, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depths, nor anything in all creation, will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In The Divine Comedy, Dante saw written over the gates of Hell the words, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” I believe Dante was wrong. God goes where there is suffering because God has suffered. God goes where there is pain because God has felt pain. God goes to those abandoned because God has been abandoned. God goes where there is no hope because that is what God has always done.
Hell is a lonely place. The question is will you join someone in their darkness? Will you listen to their story? Will you promise not to offer simple or even complex answers? Will you wait until they finally ask, “Why are you here with me?” And then will you gently sing to them a song of the One who has never left us. Will you sing to them a song of endurance amidst the pain, hurt, and loneliness of this world? Will you sing to them a song of hope and peace? Will you sing them a song of a God who will never let us go, no matter what? Will you sing to them God’s song of salvation, a song for today and a song for all our tomorrows.