Anyone who calls [a brother] 'Traitor' will answer for it in hell fire.
And if your right hand should be your downfall, cut it off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of yourself than to have your whole body go to hell.
Don't be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; fear him rather who can destroy both body and soul in hell.'
Matthew 5.23, 30 and 10.28
...So it will be at the end of time. The Son of Man will send his angels and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of falling and all who do evil, and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.
Matthew 13. 40-42
As for this good-for-nothing servant, throw him into the darkness outside, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory...Then he will say to those on his left hand, “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”...and they will go away to eternal punishment and the upright to eternal life.
Matthew 25.31-46 excerpted
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God?
From time to time when we read the gospels we come face to face with an elephant - a bit of text that is so awkward that we just kind of skirt round it. Today is elephant naming time. There are a lot of passages in the gospels where Jesus says that there's going to be a judgement, at which point many of those people who thought they were 'in' with God are going to find themselves cast out – to fire or outer darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. There are more references to eternal punishment in the gospels than anywhere else in the Bible, and they come right out of Jesus' mouth. Some people in some churches love these texts and swell with righteous glee at the idea that the sinners are going to 'get theirs.' Some more reluctantly accept that these are literally true statements about what's going to happen, and sincerely feel as though it's their duty to warn 'others' that their eternal destiny is to fry in eternal torment. And some others have decided that these texts don't sit at all well with their view of God and are a bit of an embarrassment really, but don't know what to do with them, and just choose to ignore them. I suspect most of us fall into this latter category.
So, today is about trying not to ignore them.
There are two things going on in these texts – there's the idea of judgement, and the idea of punishment, or hell. A couple of years ago I preached a sermon called 'The Last Judgement, and other acts of Love.' I re-read it the other day and I still agree with myself, so I'll be saying less about judgement and more about hell today and you might want to look that other sermon up on the Cityside website if you're interested.
To start with, let's explore the popular notion of hell as a real place that people go after they die, where they are punished for their choices in this life, whether by exclusion, cold, darkness, fire, unquenchable thirst, or devils with pitchforks. Whether the punishment in hell is considered in mild or extreme terms, it's still deemed by those who believe in it to be conscious torment forever without hope or end. I think there are deep flaws in this concept.
So what's wrong with hell?
1. The God who dishes up this punishment would be worse than any human tyrant that's being sent there. Humans can do evil to one another only in this life. The doctrine of hell says that God dishes out, or accepts and allows, the torture of billions of people not in a limited finite way, but forever and ever. Our limited human ideas of justice tell us that a punishment should fit the crime. The notion of hell is vastly incommensurate with even the worst human crimes, because whatever our choices were, we made them in this life, for a few short years. How can an everlasting punishment be said to be equal to the nature of the offence?
2. Images and doctrines of hell have mostly been affirmed by those who believe that they are the ones who aren't going to go there. Hell is the place where 'everyone else' gets punished. And yet if Jesus taught us anything, it's that those who think they're in and who judge others who should notice the flames lapping around their ankles. Which is related to the problem that it's not at all clear who is going to be punished in this way. Very bad people? Moderately bad people? Those who aren't Christians, regardless of the quality of their lives and actions? Those who are Christians but don't believe the same as me? Anyone who had the misfortune to be born in the wrong place and the wrong time and so didn't get to hear that they needed to be saved? With so much at stake you'd think there'd be some agreement about who's in and who's out.
3. Salvation versus Damnation is a dualistic concept – dividing the world into 'good' and 'bad', 'in' and 'out', 'heaven' or 'hell.' This is a naïve view of reality. In other parts of the gospels Jesus tried to teach us that life is not really like that. 'Love your enemies', comes to mind.
We say that the cross of Jesus is the ultimate in God loving God's enemies – but the idea of hell says that, actually, this vast love has a use-by date, which is the point of our death. We know from experience that a human life is incredibly complex, and, while I am all for humans taking responsibility for our choices, we are none of us as conscious as we could be of the fullness of our motivations, or the morality of our decisions. And we all have a personal story that inclines us either toward or away from what we have seen or been told of God and the church. As the Anglican prayer of confession has it, we sin as a result of ignorance, and weakness, as well as our own deliberate fault. Following Jesus should call us beyond simple dualisms, not reinforce them.
4. The whole notion of rewards and punishments belongs to a moral and behavioural system that is not every evolved. We threaten and bribe children (though we sometimes don't like to call it that), in order to get them to do what we want, and not to do what we don't want. In most cases, even as we're doing it, we have misgivings, and our instincts tell us that if we could come up with a better way of forming loving and responsible actions within a developing human person then we would. Is God really as limited in scope as a parent as we are...so that the whole destiny of most of the world's people hangs on this axis of reward and punishment? Doctrines of heaven and hell are partly responsible for keeping people stuck at the level where we see evil in others but never ourselves, and where we believe that rewards and punishments are satisfactory ways of shaping society and human behaviour.
5. Which relates to the question of whether God is capable of achieving God's goals for the universe. The whole scope of the biblical story tells us that God created the universe in love and delight, and that God's hope and desire for all creation is a new world of peace, compassion and joy. The doctrine of hell tells us that God is impotent to bring about this new world to include all those God loves...which is...all of us. That in fact the majority of all humans who have ever lived won't make the cut. And that this wonderful new creation will be peopled with 'saints' who either have their memories wiped or can be happy knowing that their human loves are suffering, or at best, absent, even as they get the goodies. Is this God's best design for the new heavens and the new earth? Now, we can talk about human free will and the freedom of love, but that just tells me that this creation process that God is in the midst of is a long haul, and takes infinite patience, infinite wisdom, and infinite love, in order to achieve the desired goal. Just as well we have an infinite God.
6. Whatever Jesus may have said about judgement and punishment needs to be put alongside Jesus' other teachings and ultimately his passion and crucifixion as the key interpretive principle defining what his life and teachings were all about. Teachings such as 'for God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.' All the parables of grace, that have the God-figure seeking out the lost, forgiving endlessly, throwing open the doors of welcome to the last and the least. The Jesus who, instead of engaging in armed revolution and seeking to be proclaimed king, yielded to the hands of his captors and allowed his own death as the pathway to reconciliation. He spoke words of forgiveness for them even as they killed him. What then, cannot be forgiven?
Our beliefs about eternal punishment come, I think, not just from the Bible text, but from our own innate and I would say God-given desire for justice. We look around our world and we see the suffering that happens as a result of people's cruelty, or we suffer ourselves at the hand of another, and we say 'they shouldn't get away with this – where is the justice in this situation?' And because justice so often fails to materialise in this life, we are mollified by the idea that it will happen in the next. Unfortunately, this sense of justice gets mixed in with our not-very-God-like desires for vengeance, our own unresolved hostility, our unforgiveness, and our own impulses to cruelty. And these desires and impulses get projected onto God because we are too powerless or too socialised to give vent to them ourselves. The excesses of language and sheer relish that have accompanied people's descriptions of the various tortures of hell through the years say a great deal about them, but I think not much that is true about God, or about the true nature of justice.
Most of what we have been taught in the church about hell and judgement is not biblical, it's the imaginative work of preachers and artists and poets who seized on the symbols and embellished them, with great gusto and vindictiveness. So what does the Bible, and specifically Jesus, actually say?
For starters, the concept of an afterlife is nowhere in what we call the Old Testament. There is the idea of the 'grave' or Sheol, which is an unseen realm, kind of an 'underworld.' But there's no sense that people go on being conscious there, and certainly no sense that there is any kind of punishment there. The afterlife was never a Jewish idea, it was an import from the religions of those people who the Jews were dispersed among in exile, and so came to prominence in the period just before the New Testament begins. Bad news for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob eh?
When our Greek New Testament has Jesus using the word 'hell', he's sometimes using 'Hades' which is the equivalent of Sheol – the underworld. And there's also this other word, 'Gehenna', which is literally the Valley of Hinnom, a valley just out of Jerusalem where all of the city's rubbish went, and where fires burned continuously. Jesus obviously thought that Gehenna was a good picture of worthlessness and destruction, something that would have resonated easily with his hearers. It's a strong way of saying that something is 'rubbish, fit to be burned' Whether he intended it to be a description of eternal conscious torment after you die is another matter.
Other times, Jesus doesn't use the word 'hell', but paints pictures of rejection and damnation – usually within the context of a parable. This fact should give us pause – parables are self-enclosed story worlds with their own inner logic - portals, remember, to an alternative vision of reality. The imagery in the ones dealing with the 'end of the age' has a repetitive quality – the same words and phrases bracketing the inner story of the parable in a style that we can designate as 'apocalyptic' – which is a particular form of literature. They are not really the stuff doctrine can be built on. Apocalyptic literature, and the question of whether Jesus actually had an apocalyptic framework to his thinking or whether this was imposed by the writers of the early church, is a whole can of worms that would take a long time to go into. So I won't, except to say that in my view all of the parables, even the ones that seem to be about the end of time, are intended not as a description of what will happen, but as made up stories designed to make the hearer internalise the judgement process here and now. The intent is to cause us to stop in our tracks and revise our complacency about ourselves. Many of these apocalyptic-style parables are spoken against the ones who 'should have known better' – those who were creating a domination system out of their religion and oppressing people with it. And they're spoken to connect with their hearers in an oral context. The hyperbole, the dualistic rhetoric and imagery serve a double purpose of encouraging the suffering and marginal, and trying to shock the powerful ones who had rendered themselves practically unshockable.
It's also in my view reasonable to assume that some of the really vindictive passages – and they're mostly in Matthew's gospel, owe as much to the interpretation skills of Matthew as of Jesus, and tell us something of the persecution and conflict his church community had to endure.
Fire, darkness, wailing and gnashing of teeth... In what ways can these images be useful to us now? Should we get rid of 'hell' from our thinking altogether, or is it still a concept that has value in teaching us to live in the way of Jesus? If for you this stuff comes with a whole lot of fearful baggage that is connected to a hostile view of God, then I encourage you to do whatever you need to get rid of it, and to seek rest in a God who loves you. A just God, who won't do a bait and switch on you by awakening your desire for God in this life only to flick you or anyone else off into hellfire after you die.
But if you feel as though your sense of being welcome in God is robust enough not to be threatened by it, then I encourage you to ponder what hell might be as an internalised concept, or as a 'state' of being, rather than a 'place' where people go.
In my view the strength of 'hell' language is a way of letting the story and symbols of faith be adequate to the reality of just how corrupt and harmful we can be, and to the appalling suffering that people have experienced and do experience – suffering beyond the comprehension of many of us. Life is something that we live forward, and we are not free to go back – there is no 'undo' button on our lives. And it is true that, as we pondered last week, it is possible for us to become so estranged from all that gives us life, so estranged from faith, and so alienated from the Good, that we start to live here and now, in hell, and to create it for others as well. There is something very urgent, and very serious about the personal and communal hells that we create for ourselves, and that we can start to participate in if we don't stay awake.
I was re-reading C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces the other day, and one of the key moments in that story is when the main character discovers that in the middle of a self-justifying rant of complaint against the gods, instead of telling the story of her innocence as she intended, she starts speaking out of a deep, unconscious seam of hurt and grievance that she has unknowingly lived out of her whole life. And this grievance gives rise to her repeating over and over words of anger and malice that reveal all of the dark and hidden parts of her soul. I suspect that all of us have within us this unexamined complaint, that repeats over and over in our lives and which is the source of the fears we live within and the unkindness we do to others. Some humans are then caught up into systems that give them power to unleash that damage on a large scale, and others have personal flaws that feed into a cultural or societal 'moment' to such an extent that they end up participating in genocide. We judge ourselves when our words and actions unwittingly reveal the unexamined aspects of ourselves as individuals, or as groups or countries. And hell begins when we refuse to bring any of that stuff into the light of truth, and therefore refuse to receive from God any other way of looking at ourselves and of being in the world. Once that refusal takes root perhaps only fire can burn it out of us.
So what of those who die already in the hell of their making, and causing hell for others? I don't know, and it's my contention that none of Jesus' parables are a literal description of it. Perhaps there is reckoning, and perhaps there is a seemingly unbearable light searching the hidden places of our hearts, and maybe there is the terrible knowledge of all that we have done and not done, and there may be a painful pruning and scouring, all of which we can get started on while we are alive, if we choose. And I also think there is invitation, and forgiveness, and homecoming. Whether we are free to walk away from the latter and go on choosing hell is a question I'm happy not to know the answer to.