Where and What is Hell? - Reservoir Church
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Where and What is Hell?

Steve Watson

Jul 21, 2019

So today, I’m preaching, I think, my first sermon ever about hell. 

I’m not alone. People seem to either talk not very much at all about hell, or they bring it up a lot. And if you’re like me, the people that bring up hell on the constant seem, I don’t know, not that healthy about that fixation. 

You may think of people who try to convert people outside sporting events by wearing placards and passing out brochures about hell. Or there are the folks who pay for highway billboards in other parts of the country, warning people about hell. I’ve found out driving my daughter to a couple college visits outside of New England, that you can be driving along the highway and see one sign by the side of the road – WARNING: construction ahead. And then a little while later another one up higher that’s like: WARNING: you’re going to hell!

Which makes me think of one other reason some people either talk about hell a lot or almost never. Many people who have a lot to say about hell seem to be really clear on who is going there and – surprise – it is never them. 

But despite all this, with a little fear and trembling, here we go. What the hell! 

A quick thing up front:

If you know me or Reservoir Church well, this should not at all surprise you, but this sermon will not be entirely predictable or expected to everybody in the room. And, depending on where you’re coming from on this topic,  I may have something to say that will be outright surprising or even difficult. What I can promise is that I’m not making anything up today. Everything I have to say in these sermons is, as always, my best attempt to teach the Bible in light of the life and teachings of Jesus, in an accessible, timely, hopefully interesting manner. To do so in a way that is representative of at least parts of the Christian tradition. And to make space as I talk for our community, and each of individually, to pay attention to God’s voice and invitation to us to engage constructively in the deep and important aspects of making meaning and trying to flourish in our lives. 

If all that is happening, it never much matters whether you agree with me or not, or whether we all agree with one another. Our invitation at Reservoir is never to conformity but to connection. 

So let’s get right into today’s passage from the lectionary, the church’s read-the-Bible together plan. And as we do with this reading from Luke’s biography of Jesus, we’ll see the lectionary has the same trouble that we do. In that the reading recommended for preachers from this passage was to read the first eleven verses and the last one here, but to skip over some of the troublesome lines near the end. 

But, never one to back away from a challenge, I have kept those verses for the sake of today’s talk. So here they are – the approved, and not so approved verses, from today’s reading in Luke 10. 

Luke 10:1-16 (CEB)

10 After these things, the Lord commissioned seventy-two others and sent them on ahead in pairs to every city and place he was about to go.2 He said to them, “The harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest. 3 Go! Be warned, though, that I’m sending you out as lambs among wolves. 4 Carry no wallet, no bag, and no sandals. Don’t even greet anyone along the way. 5 Whenever you enter a house, first say, ‘May peace be on this house.’ 6 If anyone there shares God’s peace, then your peace will rest on that person. If not, your blessing will return to you. 7 Remain in this house, eating and drinking whatever they set before you, for workers deserve their pay. Don’t move from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a city and its people welcome you, eat what they set before you. 9 Heal the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘God’s kingdom has come upon you.’10 Whenever you enter a city and the people don’t welcome you, go out into the streets and say, 11 ‘As a complaint against you, we brush off the dust of your city that has collected on our feet. But know this: God’s kingdom has come to you.’ 12 I assure you that Sodom will be better off on Judgment Day than that city.

13 “How terrible it will be for you, Chorazin. How terrible it will be for you, Bethsaida. If the miracles done among you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have changed their hearts and lives long ago. They would have sat around in funeral clothes and ashes. 14 But Tyre and Sidon will be better off at the judgment than you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be honored by being raised up to heaven? No, you will be cast down to the place of the dead. 16 Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. Whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

Jesus gets a little steamed near the end of this bit. Perhaps you can see why some Bible teaching plans skip over that part that we will focus in on today.

But before we do, let me just note that the parts of this passage that are included in the lectionary have been really helpful to me over the years. 

Jesus is commissioning his apprentices to partner with him in doing good work in the world. The renewing work of God on this earth is not just for Jesus, but for all of Jesus’ students. 

Similarly, Jesus’ ongoing work of renewal in the world is not for the religious professionals like me, I guess. Use whatever language for God’s work you want – good news work, kingdom work, family of God work, salvation work is Jesus’ commission to all people to partner in with Jesus. We also see that Jesus’ work in the world he invites us into is fundamentally a work of healing. 

Help people be well, Jesus says, and then you can tell them, they are experiencing God’s ways in the world. 

Jesus also tells us that as we find our way in this world and in this work, we shouldn’t ever go it alone. Good things are done in pairs, in teams, with partners, with friends. 

Jesus seems to know that if we have a lot of stuff, it can distract us. Living simply, living in a focused way, has power, has freedom. 

Even this interesting advice Jesus has to publicly shake the dust off your feet, when people are unresponsive to the best, most beautiful thing you have to offer – that’s really liberating, in my experience. 

Two different times in my life, I’ve had three-year work stints that were so hard, so humbling at times. Each time, my challenges were partly of my own creation, but each time I was treated really inhospitably by some people. And each time, the best of what I had to give, the best from God I had to offer, was not fully received.

And each time, on my final day, I left literally shaking the dust off my feet, and trying through that symbolic gesture, to not carry the experience with me. To not internalize other people’s stuff. To not take rejection into my own identity.  This is a powerful spiritual practice in moments of rejection or transition. 

But then Jesus moves into trickier territory, so tricky our Bible plan recommends skipping it. 

Because he tells his students that when they shake the dust off of their feet, they should do so telling unresponsive communities that it represents God’s judgment against them. 

For various reasons, I do not recommend you do this in times of rejection and transition. Ha – you may reject me, but you’re the one going to hell! Not a winning move for either person really in most circumstances. 

But it’s what Jesus has to say in this time and place. Now, he actually doesn’t mention “hell” at all – I supplied that. And we’ll come back to this. But Jesus does talk pretty vividly about judgement. 

And so before I get into talking about where and what hell is or isn’t, let me share a few thoughts about God and judgement. 

The two primary things that Jesus and the New Testament have to say about God and judgement are that God is Judge, not us, and that whatever it is, we will likely find God’s judgements surprising. 

Jesus famously says that only God is in a position to see all and know all and fairly judge people and institutions’ character, motives, and worth. So, however we work out the details of this, we’re to try to trust God to judge, and to cultivate a generous, non-judgmental attitude toward others and ourselves. 

Jesus also says that God’s judgement will again and again surprise us. The basic point of the section we read today is that Jesus’ neighbors, who don’t at all feel bad about rejecting Jesus, are worse off that these faraway towns they look down on. As if to say anytime we think we’re God’s chosen, or we’re God’s favorites, or we’re God’s faithful, and we look out judgmentally at other people, it may just be that God thinks the opposite. Thinking that you’re God’s favorite is a pretty good sign that at least right now, you’re not. 

But even as Jesus commands us not to judge, and encourages us also not to presume we know who and how God judges, he still sometimes talks about judgement, as if there’s something we need to hear in it. 

Here are three ways we’ve tended to hear Jesus when he speaks about God’s judgement. 

The first, definitely the least common, is judgement as exposure. Judgement as an act of revealing the truth that has been at least partly hidden. The exposure of secrets as a form of God’s judgement isn’t much discussed, but it’s common in the scriptures, and I think timely and important. 

Jesus says elsewhere – it’s in Luke 8 – that there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, nothing concealed that won’t be made known and brought to light. One form God’s judgement takes is the disclosure of things that should have never been secret. 

This kind of exposure is so hard, and so necessary, so good. We all know that toxic and harmful things are usually deliberately said and done in secret, and these things and much of their harm hides in the shadows. Jesus tells us that God will expose harm that is said and done in secret. 

And then people, institutions, cultures can decide to deny and defend, as usually happens, but then they will be opposing God’s judgement. So the other choice – the way we agree with God’s judgement when exposed – is to acknowledge the truth, to feel sorrow, to make amends, and to commit to healing.

This is of course timely in a hundred ways, because my sense is that in public life in the US right now, we are under this kind of judgement. This is at the heart of the #metoo movement, it’s at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s part of what’s going on in the political life of our country. 

We live in times when much harm done in secret is being exposed. And where a great deal of old, public sin – be it white supremacy, be it misogyny, be it racism, be it sexual abuse and sexual assualt – is being exposed. 

And for me, to interpret this at least in part as a form of judgement has been helpful. Why? 

Well, again, it encourages me as a follower of Jesus to never assume I’m all in the right and to heap judgement on others. It encourages me to be humble and circumspect and to trust that God is the judge.

It also encourages me that the Spirit of God is prompting a work of healing in my land, in my lifetime. It’s not guaranteed, right? Because if we deny or defend against what God is doing, it will just continue. But God exposes in order to heal, so if God is any way involved in these times of great exposure, perhaps it is to change and heal. That gives me hope.

More often, though, when Jesus and the scriptures speak of healing, they speak of judgement as consequence. That despite what happens today, eventually, people tend to get at least some of what we deserve. 

Life is often unfair. God is often gracious too, giving us more and better than we deserve. But in the long haul, we will reap what we sow. Our passage from Luke is accompanied in the lectionary by an excerpt from the Bible’s letter to the Galatians. Here’s three verses of that excerpt:

Galatians 6:7-9 (CEB)

7 Make no mistake, God is not mocked. A person will harvest what they plant. 8 Those who plant only for their own benefit will harvest devastation from their selfishness, but those who plant for the benefit of the Spirit will harvest eternal life from the Spirit. 9 Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up.

Not always, especially not in the near term, but in the long run, people and institutions and cultures tend to get what we deserve. There seem to be exceptions to every rule. The Bible certainly implies that God’s long term goal is to give each person and all of humanity better and more that we deserve. But still, the basic rule of thumb that the Bible – and most of the earth’s religious and wisdom literature affirms – is that in the long haul, we get what deserve. Actions, habits, ways of being have consequence.

Maybe this is what’s going on big picture with Christianity in America. This is just me speculating, but maybe a religious tradition that has done harm to most humans is now experiencing the inherent consequence of that harm. A White-dominant, male dominant expression of Chrisitanity in both the European and American tradition, often did harm to women, did harm to people of non-White race and non-Anglo ethnicity, often did harm to children, did harm to sexual minorities, did harm to the earth, and – shockingly – people are losing interest in that tradition. 

If there is a future for Jesus-centered faith, and Jesus-centered communities in the so-called West, it’s going to need to look really different. And maybe that’s not a bad thing, maybe it’s because of judgment as consequence. 

So I’ve talked about God’s judgement taking the form of exposure and of consequence.  

But the third way people hear Jesus and the Bible’s words about judgement is judgement as divine punishment. That God intervenes in history, either now or in the future, or both, to punish evil, wrongdoing, injustice, or just unresponsiveness to God. 

And this is where hell usually comes in. 

As you know, lots and lots of Christians – not all, but many – have thought that there is an awful place called hell that God sends some people after they die, maybe many people, in order to be punished forever.  

This view or theology of hell is technically called Eternal Conscious Torment. Three words to describe how long it lasts – eternal, how aware you’ll be of the experience, – conscious, and how awful it will be – torment.  

Someone when he heard I’d be preaching about hell, asked me if I’d tell people how hot it’s going to be. Let’s just say that in the Eternal Conscious Torment version of hell, this weekend is just warming up. Only the merest miserable foretaste of infinitely worse to come. 

Now, quick pause. Everything I’ve said today up until now, I’m really certain about. This section of the talk about hell, though I’m glad I’m giving, it is my best attempt at what’s true and helpful. That said, if you disagree with me or aren’t persuaded, again, that’s OK. Just hear me out. 

Because I think this Eternal Conscious Torment view of hell has some major, major problems. It’s not the most historic view, not the most biblical view, not particularly honoring of the God we know in the person of Jesus, and has had some really bad fruit.

One by one real quick. 

It is not the most historic view. There was some division among the early church fathers and mothers about whether or not there would be a place of punishment after death, who would go there, how long they’d stay, and whether they’d get out. The division played about along geographic lines to some degree. Church leaders further east (places like modern day Egypt and Greece and Turkey) thinking hell would be limited and temporary, that God’s inclusive mercy would prevail for all or most people. And church leaders further West (think modern day Rome and Northwest Africa) thinking lots of people would go to hell and would stay forever. Catholic and later Protestant churches largely developed this side of the tradition which wasn’t at first the most common view. 

Hell as forever punishment for lots of people after death also doesn’t best reflect the writings of the Bible. Our modern American pictures of this hell owe more to a 15th century Italian epic poem – Dante’s Inferno – than to the Bible. Much of the Bible’s language that gets translated as “hell” in English is from the Bible’s allusion to a shadowy place of the dead. It’s interfaith language picked up from old Middle Eastern and Greek mythologies and ported into the Bible when death is discussed. 

And then there’s this word “Gehenna” that Jesus uses now and then that we translate as “hell.” This comes up in only four scenes in the life of Jesus. And it’s a word used only 11 times in the gospels, mostly just in one of the gospels, Matthew. I’ll come back to this in a bit, but for now, I’ll just saw that when Jesus talks about Gehenna, it’s not at all clear that he means what we think of when we think of hell. I think he’s talking about something else, in fact. 

Thirdly, this view of hell as eternal conscious torment is not especially honoring of the beautiful God we come to know in the person of Jesus. Early in my years of faith, I was taught accurately that in Jesus, we discover that the first and primary quality of God is love. I was also taught – less accurately – that you could read the Bible as a love letter from God to people. I don’t think this is a great way of understanding the Bible. But let’s run with it for a minute. 

Just imagine a love letter when someone says, My darling, I love you completely, entirely, deeply, passionately. But by the way, if you don’t love me back, just like so, in a certain number of years, I will punish you with fire and misery and suffering, FOREVER. We would not call that love, would we? We’d call that threatening. We’d call that abuse. We’d be, like: run away from that so-called love letter. Now, if this is the truth about God and history, then so be it – we’ll have to grapple with that. But we wouldn’t call it love. And I don’t think this is the truth anyway. 

Lastly, before what I do think is the truth, this view of hell as eternal conscious torment for unrepentant sinners has also had some really bad fruit. 

A few years back, Grace and I, along with Ivy and Scott Anthony, travelled to the Midwest to attend an event for people that were still interested in Jesus, but were having a hard time with their Christian church roots. As we had conversation after conversation, it was surprising how often hell came up. People had been threatened: if you believe this, or if you don’t believe that, you’re going to hell. People’s sweet old Christian grandmas had told them that if they do this or that, or if they even think this way or that, they too are going to hell. 

All these threats didn’t drive these folks closer to God, they just gave them a mix of resentment and fear. Not good fruit at all. I heard in these stories the other bitter, bitter fruit of this teaching on hell over the centuries. Which is that people that taught most often about hell were usually sure they knew who God was sending there. It was people of other cultures and races, people of other religions, people of other sexual orientations. Even people who claimed to love Jesus and were honestly wrestling with the Bible and the Christian tradition, but came to different conclusions. Believing that God sends some set of humanity to a post-death eternal punishment has historically served as an invitation to people to help God get them there. It’s led to all kinds of violence in the name of God, which might be just about the worst fruit of toxic religion. 

And if you were raised in the faith on this kind of teaching about hell, I am so sorry. Historically, this teaching on hell has never been at the center of a Jesus-centered faith, and it doesn’t need to be any part of it at all. 

So, I join many Christians now and throughout the past two millennia, in not being a big fan of the eternal conscious torment understanding of hell. 

So what do we do with the times Jesus seems to talk about exclusion, or Gehenna, or the suffering people will face when we don’t welcome God’s good presence and work in our lives? And what do we do with some of the Bible’s more colorful judgement material, like the stuff near the end of Revelation? 

If you want a deep dive on this, I would recommend the best, most accessible book I’ve read on this topic. It’s called Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, by Brad Jersak. But in just a couple of minutes, I’ll share a perspective that takes seriously the metaphorical and historical and literary context of the Bible as well as the powerful, inclusive love of God that insists that all people need a type of judgement, but that mercy also triumphs over judgement. 

In this view, when Jesus talks about Gehenna, we start by recognizing that he was talking about a specific, geographic place – a valley just outside the gates of ancient Jerusalem. A place where the prophet Jeremiah said child sacrifice had occurred in ancient times, against the will of God. A place that Jermiah warned would become a mass grave site, after imperial Babylon attacked and destroyed Jerusalem in the sixth century. A place that, legend has it, became a smoldering garbage dump, and could again become a mass gravesite after the cataclysm of Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem, just decades after Jesus’ ministry. 

This was Gehenna. And Jesus, as a prophetic teacher to his people, warned them again and again of the suffering they and their children could experience in this life and perhaps in the next, if they didn’t respond to God’s ways of healing and peace for them. 

In this understanding, hell is a metaphor for the very real wages of sin, which is suffering and death. When we miss God’s mark for our lives and for the systems and cultures we create, we create untold suffering and death, unleashing hell.

I watched the old film Gladiator with my boys for the first time this weekend. I don’t know that it’s a great movie or anything, but for reasons that are probably quirky to me, I love it. There’s this line near the beginning when the Roman general is leading an attack on a resistance movement in Germany. One of my kids was asking if we’re supposed to be rooting for the Romans or the Germans, which was a really insightful question, because the movie is asking us for a moment at least, to empathetically sit with both sides. And then when the attack is about to begin, the general played by Russell Crowe tells the commander of the archers and catapults, “On my word, unleash hell.” 

The fire and violence and devastation of war is in fact an experience of hell. All the bitter fruit and suffering violence in all forms causes is hell. Every time you’ve heard someone tell you a story, or you’ve read a story, that expands your notions of the horrors people can do to one another, you’re hearing about, you’re reading about hell. The shame, the isolation, the mental and physical torture we have experienced or heard or read about in all the worst, most evil, and shockingly common, episodes of history are the unleashing of hell on earth

We know that hell in this sense is real because we have been there, or we have seen or heard it, or maybe we have in part caused it for others. 

Hell as the bitter consequence of humanity at our worst makes a lot of sense in the gospel passages that mention it. Reaping the consequences that we sow for one another. And God’s position in regards to this hell isn’t sending people there, but mercifully rescuing people, and calling God’s children into partnership in works of healing that rescue some people from hell, and make sure we don’t create it in the first place for others. 

And then to the extent that this godless suffering continues into and beyond death, a loving God’s position is the same – to mercifully extend love and invitation into hell, until all are responsive to love and are rescued, and until hell itself can be no more. 

This orthodox, biblical take on where and what hell is again is that hell is a metaphor for the suffering and death that human sin create in this life. And that hell is also the state of isolation and death beyond the grave for people who are not yet disposed to respond to the love and grace of God. After all, the passionate and good mind and spirit and force that is God is said to be experienced as love and grace by some, and as fire and threat by others. 

Hell is not punishment, because the longing of God is to love and to restore and to heal, not to punish. Hell is what we are and what we do when we are not yet open and disposed to love. 

Again, this is just a short take in one day’s sermon, but what is the upshot? Where is this going?

Three places of good fruit, I hope. 

A Jesus-centered, love-colored understanding of judgement and hell will reduce our fear and increase our sense of accountability. The law of consequence – we reap what we sow – the God of justice ensures we will each be accountable for all that we do, in the light and in secret. This is healthy for us all to know. And yet, this is for all of our good. There is nothing to fear in Jesus, for perfect love – the scriptures tell us – casts out fear.  

Secondly, a Jesus-centered, love-colored understanding of judgement and hell has no room for human exclusion, rejection, disgust, or judgement of others. This doesn’t mean we have to be nice and chummy with every human alive. There are people that aren’t safe, there are people and situations that require some distance or boundaries for the sake of everyone’s health and welfare. But the way of Jesus is for all of human life and culture to be characterized by loving humility. To long for flourishing for ourselves and others, to hope for abundant life in this and the next for all people, to not presume that particular people are less than or unaccepted or undervalued by God or by us. 

And lastly, a Jesus-centered, love-colored understanding of judgement and hell should and can nurture in us fearless hope. 

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

When you see or experience tremendous evil, situate yourself where God is – longing and working for love, mercy, peace, and healing.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Fearlessly welcome God’s loving movement in you this day, and every day.