To Hell With Hell

Scripture: Psalm 139:7-12, Luke 16:19-31
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
August 14, 2016

A man from Chicago was traveling to Florida for a vacation.  His wife was delayed and was going to join him the next day.  When he arrived at his hotel, he saw that his cell phone battery had died so he decided to send her an email from the lobby computer. But he couldn’t recall her email address from memory.  He typed in what he though was her email address, but unfortunately he got one letter wrong.  Instead of the email going to his wife, it went to an elderly preacher’s wife, whose husband had died a few days earlier.  When the preacher’s wife checked her email, she found the message from the guy in Florida.  When she read it, she screamed and then fainted.  It said:

Hi Honey,

Just got checked in.  Everything is prepared for your arrival tomorrow.

Your loving husband

P.S,  It sure is hot down here!

This morning we are going to talk about Hell. It seems fitting to talk about Hell during the hottest month of the year in Redlands.  One person even suggested that we turn off the air condition for this morning – so that we could really imagine being there – in Hell –but after some thought, we decided against it.  Some of you may be thinking, “Hey, we are a theologically progressive congregation – why in the world are we even talking about Hell?”  Some of you have grown up in conservative churches – maybe even hellfire and brimstone churches and there may be some lingering questions about Hell.  Therefore, today I would like to share the history of the Biblical concept of Hell and my personal reflections of Hell.

In the Old Testament, in the Hebrew scriptures there is not much written about life after death.  We read about “Sheol” which translates as an inescapable grave, pit or abyss.  All dead people went to Sheol, which was an area located beneath the earth.  Most Jews focused on the present life and on how to be good and faithful human beings within this life.

By the time, the New Testament was written, the understanding of Hell had changed dramatically.  Why?  Israel had been occupied and / or heavily influenced by powerful cultures / countries surrounding them.   To the south, there were the Egyptians who believed that the newly departed faced a ritual trial of judgement.  Bad people were devoured by a crocodile-headed deity. Good people settled in the land beyond the sunset.  To the west, the Greeks believed that souls were sorted into four groups at death:  the holy and heroic, the indeterminate, the curably evil, and the incurably evil.  The holy and heroic went to a place of joy and peace.  The incurably evil experienced eternal torment.  The two in-between groups were sent back to earth for multiple reincarnations.  To the East, there were the Persian Zoroastrians, who were judged by 2 angels.  The worthy were welcomed into their version of heaven.  The unworthy were banished to their version of hell, the realm of a Satan-like figure.  So, it’s not surprising that many Jews adopted a mix of Egyptian, Persian and Greek ideas of the afterlife (Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, pg. 112). The concept of Sheol in the Old Testament, the place of the grave or the pit is translated as Gehenna in the New Testament.  There was literally this valley called the valley of Hinnon.  The valley of Hinnon was used as a garbage dump that was always burning – in order to get rid of trash.  There was a continual fire.  The valley of Hinnon was transformed into Gehenna – a place of fiery punishment.

During the time of Jesus, many Jews understood the heaven-bound to be religiously observant, socially respected, economically prosperous, and healthy in body – just like the Pharisees.  The hell-bound, the Gehenna-bound were careless about religious rules, socially ostracized, economically poor and physically sick or disabled – like those who lived on the margins.  They were thought to be no better than “trash” – trash to be burned.

Jesus comes along and takes the popular understandings of the afterlife, of Heaven and Gehenna, and turns them upside down.

Who was going to hell?  Rich and successful people who lived in fancy houses and stepped over their destitute neighbors who slept in the gutters outside the gates.  Proud people who judged, insulted, excluded, avoided, and accused others.  Hypocrites who strained out gnats and swallowed camels.  (Jesus turned the condemnation back on the religious elite.)

According to Jesus, who was going to heaven?  The very people whom the religious elite despised, deprived, avoided, excluded, and condemned.  Heaven’s gates were wide open for the poor, the destitute, the sick, the homeless, even prostitutes and tax collectors…We might say he wasn’t so much teaching about hell as he was un-teaching about hell (McLaren, pg. 113).

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a parable that would have been shocking and scandalous to the listeners, to the Pharisees in his day. There is a rich man and there is a poor man.  The poor man’s name is Lazarus.  Lazarus dies and is carried by the angels to the “bosom of Abraham” – which we would identify as heaven. The rich man dies and he ends up in Hades which we would translate as Hell.  The rich man begs Abraham for mercy and still thinking that Lazarus, the poor man, is below him, he asks Abraham to send the poor man “to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony I these flames.”  Abraham reminds the rich man that he had received many good things during this life, but Lazarus did not.  So, now Lazarus is comforted and the rich man is in agony. We can only imagine how irate the Pharisees must have been when they heard this story.

It’s important to note that this story is simply a parable.  We must not take this story as a theology of the afterlife.  It is not a guide to the next world.  The symbols are symbols and not literal fact.   We must be careful not to transform mythology into theology.  This story is not about the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell.  Jesus merely tells this parable to help us examine this life (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.).  The rich man, while on earth, probably walked by Lazarus in the gutter and couldn’t care less about him.  And the parable asks us to take note of anyone whom we may be stepping over in our life time?   Is there anyone whom we are treating like trash?  The Jesus of compassion was metaphorically referring to a life that has gone astray – a life where we do not love our neighbor, rather than to some place where the loving Creator is going to torture a person for all eternity.

To continue with our history of hell, after the New Testament was written, Dante came along in the 1300’s a.d.  Dante’s Inferno, part one of the Divine Comedy, redefined eternal damnation for the medieval masses.  What had been an abstract concept in the Bible became a terrifying one.  In fact, after the poem was released, the Catholic Church enjoyed a huge boost in attendance.  Why?  People wanted to avoid hell.  

In the 1400’s, Botticelli painted Dante’s horrific vision of hell.  Those who had not read Inferno or those who were illiterate could now see it in art.  Botticelli painted a wretched underground landscape of fire, brimstone, sewage, monsters and Satan himself waiting at its core.  Guess what?  The Catholic Church received another huge boost in attendance.

Even after the Reformation, there were preachers like Jonathan Edwards preaching sermons entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”.  Rev. Edwards preached, God holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire.  Hell is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit.   God looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast in the fire.  You are ten thousand times more abominable in his Eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.  O Sinner consider the fearful danger you are in!  You are holding on by a slender thread, with flames of Divine wrath flashing about you.  So much for coming to worship and feeling uplifted and inspired!  Although that sermon was preached in the 1700’s, there are many Christian pastors today who say that was the best and truest sermon ever preached in all time.

That is a brief history of the concept of hell.  It appears that the church has fired the furnaces of hell more than anyone else.  Why?  Because religion is in the guilt producing control business, seeking to scare the hell out of people.  Today, many churches say they are the true church and they have the ultimate authority – whether it be an infallible pope or an inerrant Bible.  Any deviation from the ultimate authority can send someone straight to Hell.  The idea that the truth of God can be bound in any human system, any human creed, any human book is ludicrous.  God is not a Christian.  God is not a Jew.  God is not a Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu.  All of these are human systems that help us walk into the mystery of God (Bishop John Shelby Spong, video on “Hell”).

We are emerging people.  We are not fallen people. The problem is not that we are sinners in the hands of an angry God.  The function of Christ is not to rescue sinners from the depths of Hell, but to call us and empower us to be more deeply and fully human.  Salvation is about enhancing our humanity rather than rescuing us from it (Bishop John Shelby Spong).

I think Psalm 139 got it right.  Psalm 139 says, “Where can I go from your spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go to the heaven, you are there.  If I go to Sheol, the pit, you are there.”  In other words, God’s love goes where we go.  God does not abandon us.  God does not quit on us.  If we make a living hell out of our lives, God is with us.  When we live in love and joy, God is with us. God’s love is limitless, boundless, unconditional. The apostle Paul puts it this way, “There is nothing in all of creation, neither life nor death, nothing that can separate us from the love of God.”

Therefore, I think it is time to change the course of a 2000 year religious history and begin to send hell to Hell.