Word of the Week

Conversations about Heaven and Hell: Who Goes Where?

Matthew 25:31-46

It has been a hell of a week, hasn’t it? From the unthinkable earthquake, to the tropical storm battering our homes yesterday, to the ever-changing political situation around our globe as leaders rise and fall with no end in sight, the past few days have reminded us all the state of world as it is not what we would like it to be.

When natural disasters fall on the most vulnerable, when the elderly and sick have to be evacuated from their homes in moments of panic, when people going about the business emerge from work in the afternoon to find bricks and mortar destroying their cars, if you are like me, you crave good news. You crave to see pictures of any kind evidence of what the world should be, of what the world could be, of any hope at all for the future. Yet, in our 24 hour news cycle of doom and gloom and conflicts over everything imaginable around our world holding back the prophetic and creative gifts of artists who could help us see a different way, we are often left without the hopeful pictures that we crave to see.

Sometimes, however, pictures of hopeful realities find their way into mainstream culture. One such occurrence happened in response to the 1984- 1985 famine in Ethiopia, which claimed nearly one million lives, during one of the worst droughts the continent had seen in modern times.

Harry Belafonte, a known American entertainer and social activist at the time had a dream of gathering together some of the most influential and important musicians of the time for a joint project. Though rarely seen before that singers and entertainers of all kinds would gather together, laying aside personal projects, their own pride and schedules, somehow after signing on Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and legend producer, Quincy Jones, soon the artists came out in droves to support the project.

When I say, “We are the World” you name that song by completing the phrase, “we are the children.”

With this interracial and multi-ethnic team of gathered artists, musical history was made—not only in the details of this unlikely coming together, but of the message of the song inspiring unity, service and the human responsibility for the suffering of all. In “We are the World” a statement was made, a picture was boldly drawn —that indeed, beauty could come from tragedy, that death and starvation did not have to be the only story being told.  While the proceeds of record sales went on to support hunger relief in Africa, the lasting effects of this musical production were far greater. A picture of something different from the normal way things go on in the world was created, and once this happens, there’s never really any going back to complete ignorance of things again.

In the same way, when Jesus gathers his disciples together to give them the last what Matthew’s gospel calls the series of five discourses, he too is seeking to paint a picture of this “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” that he has been talking so much about for the entire course of his ministry. Only a vivid image would do to get the point across clearly: we know the story as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

As we begin to read it again this morning, we might find that these words are familiar to us, especially those of us who are lovers of the social gospel, seeking proof that our “help people” mentality is truly pleasing to Jesus. In fact, many churches read these verses as a spiritual litmus test for its members. Asking one another, “Did you visit the sick this week?” “Did you cloth the naked?” “Did you go to prison?” And, if one’s responses aren’t in the affirmative, telling congregants to get to work! By all means, care for somebody other than yourself if you want to get the “get out of hell” free card.

But was this what Jesus meant at all? Was he telling a story to his followers to scare them? Was he really talking about eternal, forever damnation for those whose good works list was short and not sweet?

Well, to begin to uncover some of these questions, I feel we have to remind ourselves to whom and why the gospel of Matthew was written in the first place.

In contrast to other gospel authors, Matthew writes with a specific audience in mind—fellow Jewish Christians. Matthew was said to have been well versed in the language of Jewish law, the political plight of a Jewish citizen living in a Roman empire during the life and ministry of Jesus. As a result, throughout Matthew’s version of the gospel, we find him being quite concerned about how to remain Jewish and Christian in a Gentile world and what a Christian response should be to the changing political landscape.

Whereas countless Jewish Christians would cheer “revolt” seek to use the life and memory of Jesus as one who came to birth a new political kingdom, Matthew was known to be regularly re-defining life in God’s kingdom in ways that had nothing to do with the expected norms of “us vs. them” “the strongest always win” or “conquer all by force.” Rather, Matthew’s Jesus taught a lot about what life could be like in the kingdom of God, asking followers of Jesus to do everything they could to help create it.

Thus, when we get to the 25th chapter of Matthew, it is good to frame this story as one more representation of the picture of such the kingdom.

To make it explicit, the picture looks like this: there are those whose lives are full of mercy (represented by the sheep) and there are those who are not (represented by the goats). Our world is full of both types of people. And while sheep of this world may never wonder about or know the impact their overflowing compassionate acts have had (saying “Lord, Lord!), and those who are goats might wonder the same things about their lives, continuing to live as carefree as possible, Jesus has an answer for those in both. In the kingdom of God: we are all seen for who we really are.

While this all sounds well and good, when we think about it, it is quite a controversial message of Jesus, for it goes against everything that is normal about life in this world as human being.

How often are we known to lie because it is just easier? Cheat because no one will ever know? Steal because no one is watching? Or go home and watch more tv or read more books or cook more fancy dinners without considering how our neighbors are doing, or what they are having for supper or even if they can afford this night to have supper at all?

The truth be told, we think that what we earn is ours, what we live in is ours, who we birth is ours, and ours alone. We easily shun out of our kingdom those whom we or our society has not claimed as their own.

In response to this, instead, Jesus is painting an entirely different picture of life in his household where all of us are intimately connected to each other and the distinctions of what we call “heaven” and what we call “hell” have a lot to do with how we choose to deal with each other. Learning to play well with others is the main event in the classroom, not what gets you extra credit.

Consider this: a holy man was having a conversation with the Lord one day and said, "Lord, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like." The Lord led the holy man to two doors. He opened one of the doors and the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round table.

In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew which smelled delicious and made the holy man's mouth water. Yet, the people sitting around this table were thin and sickly. They looked miserable and starving as if they were barely alive.

The holy man questioned why until he realized that these people were holding spoons with very long handles that were strapped to their arms. Because of the way the spoons were placed, each found it impossible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful for they could not get the spoons back into their mouths. The holy man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering—to be so close to what nourish them but yet so far.

The Lord said, "You have seen Hell."

They went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the holy man's mouth water again.

The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The holy man said, "I don't understand." "It is simple, this is heaven you see," said the Lord, "being here requires but one skill. You see, they have learned to feed each other.”

So, while attending our well-being, our own self-care, our own recovery is not to be thrown out the window in the kingdom of God (Jesus did say after all to love our neighbor AS OURSELVES too)—Jesus is teaching us that this is not to be our entire focus. It simply can’t be IF we want to see the kingdom come on earth—a kingdom where the spoons we do have are well-used to feed all those who are hungry.

Yet before you go ahead this morning and do some self-critical judgment of your own by saying, “I’m simply a goat, there’s no hope for me. I like myself. I like my nice clothes and shoes. I like my time to be my time. I can’t live without my gym membership or my I Pad. So, I guess you are just implying, Pastor, that I’m doomed.” To which, I say, wait a minute and let’s think about this.

Just like the holy man in the story who gets to take a tour with God of what heaven and hell might look like, what they feel like and smell like, consider your time spent today with this passage as a journey too.

Pastor Rob Bell helps us out here in his book Love Wins when he gives insight into the original Greek of the place where the goats are sent which is an aion of kolazo. Bell writes, “Aion, we know, has several meetings. One is an age or a period of time; another refers to intensity of experience. The word kolazo is a term used for horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of the plant so it can flourish.. . . So depending on how you translate aion and kolazo, then the phrase can mean ‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming’ or an intense experience of correction.”

Thus, if you are ready to say today that the deeds that you are known by and the lack of mercy of your heart are choking out the coming of the kingdom of heaven into your life, there is always grace and hope waiting for you.  Like a plant surrounded by suffocating weeds in a garden, consider your life in a time of trimming.

Consider yourself not dammed to a lake of fire, but strongly exhorted to jump over the fence more often and take note from the deeds of the sheep: deeds which display the love and mercy of our God in the most ordinary of ways day in and day out.  Deeds like
sharing what you have with those who need it more than you do, noticing those
whose physical needs are robbing them of the opportunity to pay attention to their spiritual needs, and then doing something about it.  Consider then, what needs to be “trimmed” from your plate so that more of God can be known in all you do.

I end with this personal reflection. This past Tuesday, your church hosted the monthly gathering of the Reston Interfaith Clergy Ministerium. As part of our meeting as religious leaders of all faiths from within this neighborhood, the new principals of Forest Edge and Lake Anne Elementary were invited to share more with us about their students and how we as faith leaders could support them. Besides being informative in nature—who knew there was a large and growing immigrant Russian population in Reston—I left the meeting struck by the enormity of the needs within walking distance of this church and what we are doing and not doing to be ambassadors of love in Jesus’ name.

Of course, we are a small but faithful band and we can’t do everything that we would like, you and I do need to be strategic in terms of where and when we commit our energy, remembering we can’t be all things to all people after all. But, I left this meeting with a conviction and the conviction was that I need to be a community participant at Lake Anne elementary. I need to begin having lunch there once a week with a troubled student, as the principal highly encouraged us was a great need there: for relationships of kindness to be built between adults in the community and youth who had just about all given up on someone caring about them.

So, I tell you this today because I admit to you that there needs to be ongoing trimming in my life, as much as does in yours. Not because good deeds make us feel good or look good or even because someone at church told us too. Rather, if we want to mirror the kingdom of God here, if we want the kingdom of heaven to be on earth—we each have to fill our lives with acts that matter among those who are desperate to know that they matter to anyone at all.

For I tell you today, God is longing to tell each one of us: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”


What the Hell? Conversations about Heaven and Hell

Revelations 20:11-15; Mark 9:42-50

For Christian youth growing up in conservative congregations whose theological perspective is all about getting as many people “saved” as possible, there’s a phenomenon called a Judgment House.  A Judgment House, if you’ve never heard of such is a Christian evangelistic alterative to the “devilish”practices of Halloween. And churches run these drama presentations with the
hopes of getting as many people to visit them as possible, especially the children and youth.

If you were to visit a Judgment House, you would find it constructed in a church fellowship hall or a barn in a field or even in someone’s home with special lighting, sound and special effects all with the purpose of creating a fear producing presentation about the fate of everyone who dies without confessing Christ.

The setting alone would seek to evoke feelings of guilt and shame about how an unrepentant heart for sins committed would punish you for eternity.  Hell, in this context exists maybe like some of the images you drew on your pieces of paper this morning—dark, full of fire, torture, and of course with Satan at the center—a man, believed to be a fallen angel who is the author of all evil.

When you reach the end of each station of hell, there would be an emotional presentation by a pastor about how you can be certain of never going there by praying a simple sinner’s prayer of repentance. Many leave the Judgment House committing to Christ and church leaders cheer about how the gospel has been effectively shared (and no I am not making this up—witnessed it personally while serving a church in North Carolina only a couple of years ago).

While I will not be proposing the Church Council that we host a “Judgment House” in our building this October (rest assured), I think there is something to why some of our Christian brothers and sisters go to the trouble of creating such elaborate events.We as Christians or as people who are interested in matters of religion for that matter have and will continue to be fascinated by hell. No matter if we’ve never tried to convert someone to belief in God out of a fear of hell—“What the hell?” “You are going to hell for
that,” “When Hell freezes over” or even “You are going to hell in a hand basket” are a part of our every day vernacular. We find great purpose in talking about hell, apparently.

Yet, even with this all true, when we as open-minded Christians come to church or begin a spiritual conversation with someone about what happens when someone dies, we often shy away from language of hell. We cling to an idea of a loving God and just don’t know how to interpret all of the mentions of scripture about hell, so we do the best thing we know how to do when we don’t know- we ignore them and say nothing at all.

And, I have been right there with you.

Hell is not something I’ve ever preached or taught about in my eight years of doing pastoral ministry. So I enter into this conversation this morning and for the next three weeks about the topic of heaven and hell with some fear and trembling of my own.

But, with encouragement taken from one of the New York Times best sellers the past few months, Rob Bell’s book called Love Wins (a wonderful resource that I highly recommend by the way), I decided to take the challenge and begin in the depths of hell—hitting this subject right on, no squirming around it.

When we go into the witness of scripture searching for understanding about hell, we are a bit lost if we just stay in the Hebrew Scriptures found in our Old Testament: for to the Jewish tradition, we find no mention of hell. If you’ve been a Jewish memorial service lately, you know this to be true, for there is no talk about the afterlife, only mention of their actual life on earth.

However, one of the Hebrew words that even comes close to implying the presence of something beyond this is “Sheol” known the place—yet undefined—where people go when they die. In our opening litany for this morning, Psalm 16, we find a mention to Sheol when the Psalmist writes: “My body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead.” Yet, even in Sheol’s existence—one is not left with a clear understanding of what it is, where it is and who goes there when they die.

When we reach the New Testament, however, we find that the word “hell” is quoted around 12 times depending on what translation you are using. And it is almost always quoted by Jesus in one of his sermons or parables.

The Greek word that is used for Jesus’ mention of hell is Gehenna.  Let me break it down for you like this: “Ge” means valley and “henna” means “Himmon.” Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom is actually a place in the city of Jerusalem, a place that was known in Jesus’ time as the city dump. It was the place where a resident of the city would come to bring their garbage, where stray animals would fight over scraps of food and often the fights that would break out among them would be heard through the gnashing of teeth sounds from all around town.[i]

Kevin and I had our first meal when we visited Jerusalem in January right beside Gehenna and the big joke around the table to our guides was, “We have come all the way here to have dinner in hell? What is the rest of our trip going to be like, then?”

However, stay with me here, for this concept of hell as the city dump is quite important to remember when we begin to look at what Jesus says in the gospels.

Though I’m sure that many of you were cringing this morning when the gospel lesson was read (maybe even thinking why in the world did Jesus say that?), let me read part of it again and have you insert in your own mind the word Gehenna, the town garbage pile for the word “hell”

Jesus is teaching the disciples saying: “43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble,cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 where ‘the worms
that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.

I was busy working last week at a writing conference for pastors in Minnesota last week. As we talked about what it meant to be good communicators of over used words and ideas, we conversed a lot about metaphors and the importance of choosing just the right one. We talked about how descriptive metaphors—ones that show action are much more interesting that nouns or adjectives that merely tell what has happened.

And, Jesus being the ultimate storyteller that he was, I think is doing just this. Jesus talking about hell, as we understand the translation and cultural context, seems to be about using a strong metaphor to convey his hope for his followers: not let anything get in your way of the good that you can do in the name of my love.

But if you are still looking for hell to be a literal place, you’ve found your New Testament alternative to Sheol in the word “Hades.” Like Sheol, Hades is an undefined, unspecified location for where one goes in the afterlife. It is word used by Jesus the parable of the Rich Man and the beggar named Lazarus—to talk about where the rich man goes when he dies and is found our epistle reading for today taken from the book we normally associate with hell—Revelations.

In Revelations 20, we read about the great judgment, where an image emerges of a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The dead of the earth are standing before it. And, all while this takes place, books are opened, with some names being written in the book of life and others not. Then those who had been judged according to actions that were evil were placed in Death and Hades and then Death and Hades were through into the Lake of Fire.

It’s one of the most frequently quoted and dramatic images of the New Testament about hell— good fodder for anyone trying to create a Judgment House this Halloween.

But, what we miss, in our exploration to understand hell from a literal reading of this passage, is also the context in which it was written. The book of Revelation as best I’ve studied it, is not about a play book for the end times—though I guess many would like to interpret it this way.

Revelation is a letter written by John on the island of Palmos to seven churches. It’s a pastoral letter that seeks to help a suffering people deal with the political and social upheaval that was near. The methodology of this letter seeks to address a distressed
people with a clear message of in the end, good and evil will be known for what they are. Saying “You may be in distress now, but you won’t be in distress forever,” so take heart! Whereby, the presence of “Hades” in this context actually exists as a statement of love—those who endure injustice are not forgotten by God.

So, where does this leave us as Christ followers? Can we talk about hell? Do we know anything about hell?  Where does it factor into our faith?

A pastor friend of mine recently found herself in a conversation with a self-professed atheist guy whom she felt she soon had to explain herself when the words, “I am a pastor” were uttered about her vocation. “Know this, “she quickly uttered: “I am not the kind of pastor who will beat you over the head with the Bible, make you handle snakes or dam you to hell.”

And he replied, “Well, if you can’t send me to hell, then what is the point?”

It’s a valid question-- if hell is not be a place of eternal damnation for those who aren’t baptized, prayed up or in proper relations with Jesus, or a place like we drew on our paper at the beginning of the service—if it’s not a threat we can hold over people’s
heads--is hell still necessary?

I think hell is necessary—because hell is not something that we know nothing about—it’s not something have to go on some sort of mystical journey to see. Hell is not something that we can fully draw in pictures. Hell is something that actually occurs around us and to us anytime anyone our human family finds themselves in situations full of torture, pain, and life-altering abuse seemingly without end.

Hell, in fact, is as real as turning on our televisions and seeing the pictures of the countless children who have died this week from famine and cholera in Somalia—dying in a country without peace from war or connections in the world to resources that could save these young and precious lives.

Hell, is a real, as what happens every two minutes in our country, a sexual assault: the torture that forever clouds the world of helpless women and children where 80% of the victims are under the age of 30 years old- vulnerable to no one speaking for them.[ii]

Hell is as real as the world of continual anguish those who live with undiagnosed mental illness patients abide in day in and day out, not knowing there could be a better life because no one has ever showed them how.[iii]

Hell is as real as the grief that seeks to swallows us whole when someone whom we love is no longer there, and we
must face the deep shadows of the night alone.

But, life is not supposed to be like this, is it? Hell wasn’t part of the original plan when man and woman came to be in the garden, was it? There was always to be enough food, enough protection, enough love, enough care and enough support to fulfill every need
that we have on earth. But, then there wasn’t enough— we forgot how loved we were. We made choices to kill, steal and destroy and to see needs and not share what we have with one another.

Rob Bell talks about why Jesus talked about hell, why John wrote about hell and why we as modern people need it too. Saying, “We need a loaded, volatile adequately violent, dramatic, serious world to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world in God’s way.”[iv]

If we cannot name this, how can we ever show there is another way?

So as much as I want to tidy up the end of this sermon and declare for you as your pastor today that hell will be exactly like this, and exactly this type of person will go there and this kind of person will not, or that hell is not literally a place or it is not, I
can’t because I believe as soon as you and I begin to have a conversation about hell, we find that there are more questions than answers.

But what I know is this: there is goodness and beauty and love and wonderful redemptive things that happen in our world that are of God, and there is hate, lies and all types of evil that are not.

If we believe that hell is real—and if we take a look around our world, we cannot deny that it is—then the question remains with us…what the hell are we going to do about it?


[i] Thank you Rob Bell for this wonderful text work!

[ii] http://www.rainn.org/statistics

[iii] http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/05/03/mental-health-statistics/

[iv]Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived. Harper Collins: New York,