Sermon–Where is hell? September 30, 2018


19 Pentecost—Proper 21-B/ September 30, 2018

William Bradbury

Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29, Psalm 19:7-14, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

Since our Gospel mentions it three times, we need to talk about hell. Some of us were taught by clergy and parents that hell is a real place in which God throws rebellious human beings, so that they can be punished for their sins. This hell is a place of conscious physical and psychological torment which lasts forever. Dante’s Inferno in the Middle Ages seared images of this hell into the psyche of the world. I remember reading it first in college and being struck by the image of the ring of hell where a man gnaws on another man’s head. The church promoted this view of hell because it assumed it was a deterrent to sin—“if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

Of course we know from our personal experience that when we are in the grip of lust, anger, greed, or addiction we are quite capable of doings things we know will bring punishment.

Some Christians think this vision of hell is a fiction, because they can’t imagine Jesus of Nazareth ever throwing a finite, fallible creature into a state of endless torture. After all, we believe Jesus reveals the character of the Father, for, as Jesus says, “The Father and I are one.” If Jesus is too merciful to do it, then so must be the Father.

But we go too far if we reason that because there is no literal hell in the life to come, there must be no consequences for bad behavior in this life if don’t get caught. Maybe Jesus’ Father is so meek and mild he just smiles when drunk teenage boys abuse teenage  girls.

My view, though, is that if there is such a thing as hell in this life, we cannot rule out there being hell in the life to come.  

And there is hell on earth. We say of someone who suffers the ravages of disease that she went through a living hell. Or, he went through hell because of his addiction. In this view all of us have been in hell at one time or another—either because of what we did or because of what someone did to us.

This week in the hearing room of the Senate Judiciary Committee we saw two people going through hell—one as she recounted an assault that happened to her when she was 15, the other as he recounted an assault on his character in the past month, which, in his view, was false and unjust.

No matter what you believe about these two people, we can agree that on Thursday they both went through hell. It is also true that millions of women, and many men, who have been the victims of sexual assault re-experienced that assault and its searing pain and shame, as Dr. Ford told her story.

But here’s the thing: I don’t believe God is responsible for the hell we experience, therefore I don’t believe God ever inflicts suffering on anyone in the next life. Because of our freedom, we are able to inflict suffering on each other in this life, so too we may be free to live in rebellion to God’s love, and actually choose hell after death, just as we choose hell before death.

C S Lewis, in his short story, The Great Divorce, has the residents of hell taking a bus trip to heaven to look around and at the end of the day, some choose to stay in heaven, while, others, like an Anglican vicar, get back on the bus because he has an important lecture on the impossibility of the resurrection to deliver back in hell.

Our freedom means we must consider this as a real possibility.

If I am free in this life to participate in the slaughter of 6 million Jews, along with millions of homosexuals, gypsies, and followers of Jesus in Nazi death camps; if I am free to participate in the enslaving of millions people of  color, I may still have that freedom in the next life and get to experience  life with others who hate me every bit as much as I hate them. This would not be God’s choice, but ours.

Some Christian thinkers have solved this problem by saying those who reject the grace of God simple get to live without God which means they are choosing annihilation, instant extinction, because it is impossible to live without God.

But I’ve gone too far without looking more closely at what Jesus is really saying.

First of all, Jesus doesn’t use the word for “hell”. Rather he uses the word “Gehenna”, which is the name of a valley just south of Jerusalem. It is the location of the town garbage dump, where maggots, rats, and horrific smells coexisted with perpetually smoldering garbage.  In Jesus’ day, Gehenna was both a real place for garbage and the bodies of those who committed suicide AND Gehenna is a metaphor for punishment after death.

But whether you believe in a literal hell or you think hell refers to the terrible ways we treat each other in this life—Jesus’ point is still crucial: Avoiding Gehenna—in this life or the next—is worth any sacrifice we can make. Speaking metaphorically, Jesus says, if your hand is used to abuse another person, it is much better to have life without that hand, than it is to keep that hand to abuse others and fall away from life and love.

If your eye leads you to so covet your neighbor’s house that you’ll gladly cheat on your taxes, it is better to live without that eye in your small house instead of living with both eyes in the big house we know as prison.

I believe every human being is enveloped by Christ who loved us and gave himself for us. In every moment Christ is working to wake us up to the reality of God’s great affection and forgiveness, and luring us toward new life and healing.

The so-called “good thief” throws himself onto that love and experiences paradise that very day.

If you are one of the millions who have been abused by others,  please know that you are loved and held by Jesus, our Lord and Christ, who knows personally what it is like to be attacked and tortured.

If you are one of the millions who have abused another person, please know that you are loved and held by Jesus, our Lord and Christ, ready to forgive and heal you, just as he forgave us all for killing him.

Studies show that those who were abused as children sometimes become adults who abuse children themselves.

I believe only the Crucified Christ can intervene in this cycle of violence—to set us free to choose life over death, to choose following Jesus over following the false gods of wealth, sex, patriarchy, racism, sexism, and countless other isms that lead us into an experience of Gehenna.

But Jesus didn’t give his life just so we could avoid Gehenna in this life and the next. Rather Jesus lives and gives his life so we can share his experience of God, whom he calls Abba.

In John 17:21 Jesus prays to God, “as you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us….I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.”

To experience this Oneness is the goal for us all.  

Here’s my summary, then: We can build our lives on top of a burning garbage dump or on Christ.  Because Christ is always choosing us, every day we have the freedom to repent of past choices and to choose Christ.