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?