Sermon: Hell

John 3:14-21
Uncited/Unedited by 
J. Lavoy

I’d like to begin my sermon today with a light, pleasant conversation about Hell.

There is an internet image, a meme, floating around facebook and instagram right now. It prominently features a 19th or early 20th century photo of an inuit man, with this text: “An inuit man asked the local missionary, ‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I still go to hell? The missionary replied, “no, not if you did not know about God.” The inuit man replied, ‘then why did you tell me?”

Another image of hell is one of my favorites. It is a cartoon by Gary Larson, the creator of the Far Side. Are you all familiar with the Far Side? His work is typically single-image newspaper cartoons of cows wearing mid-century, pointy glasses, saying absurd, non-sequiters. Anyway, my favorite Far Side cartoon is two panes. On the left is an image of Saint Peter welcoming new angels to Heaven. On the right is an image of the devil welcoming people to hell. Under heaven, it says, “Welcome to heaven, here’s your harp.” Under hell, “Welcome to hell, here’s your accordion.”

Most of our images of hell are so ridiculous, that we know them to be patently untrue. In fact, traditional depictions of hell are not at all biblical, not attributed to Jesus’ sayings, and not even attributed to Jewish folklore. Instead, our traditional images come from Dante Alligheri’s Inferno, the medieval story of the seven circles of hell. There is actually a great deal of spiritual depth in Dante’s Inferno, Paradisio, and Purgatorio – the Divine Comedy. It is a tale about Dante’s own journey away from and toward God. Sadly, the images are taken out of context and presented by popular culture and hellfire and brimstone preachers seeking to control their congregations.

Surely you know that I’m no hellfire and brimstone preacher, by now. But, perhaps, you may think of me as a conservative, because I like to talk about these things, like hell, sin, and so forth. This is tricky, because I really think of myself as an especially progressive, if not leftist, christian minister. My own theology is shaped by those Moravians who have actively defied their governments, and lived in intentional community, in order to share a message of God’s love around the world. My theology is influenced by some who are Christian anarchists, radical peacemakers, like Leo Tolstoy, or his contemporary, Shane Claiborne. My theology is flavored with the deep, heartfelt impulses of Dorothy Day and Soren Kierkegaard.

But, I want to be sensitive to those of us in this room, who have come from actual conservative backgrounds, who in their youth, perhaps tragically, were told by preachers that the world is a dark and evil place, and that they themselves were not worthy of God’s love. I also want to be sensitive to those of us in this room, who are being brave by coming to this place, because they may not have much experience with healthy Christian community, but their friends know, from the media, that we’re a bunch of passe, old fashioned people who advocate social conservatism.

In reality, our congregation is composed of many people, with many backgrounds, of many political perspectives, brought together for the purpose of experiencing faith, while sharing hope and love in our communities.

While you may think of me as a conservative for wanting to deal with the topic of hell, I think its actually a conservative impulse not to want to talk about hell. In progressive churches, there is a very good intentioned desire to be a safe and inclusive place for all people. But sometimes, I feel, we desire to take an easy route and avoid talking about things that discomfort or disturb us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the incredible theologian and martyr who left his cushy teaching post at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan in order to spiritually and physically overthrow Adolph Hitler, might call this impulse “cheap grace”.

Our assigned reading, today, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Is one of those scripture readings that many people can quote, or at least, note. “John 3:16”. It’s on bumper stickers, t-shirts, and the bottom of Forever 21 shopping bags.

Our congregation uses a United Church of Canada curriculum, from where we derive many of our liturgies and prayers, called Seasons of the Spirit. It is written by many very mature, spiritually deep pastors and church workers across the country. But today, they suggested that we deal with the idea of being “lifted up”. Just as Jesus was lifted up on the cross, so was the bronze snake that healed those who had been bitten. That’s a rather convenient take, I think, that allows us to avoid talking about a God, who, in the Old Testament passage was willing to harm and kill people in a fit of annoyance, and to avoid discussing the idea of salvation articulated in John’s passage.

It may be easier to avoid talking about those two things, by reflecting on a shmaltzy “lifted up” metaphor, that’s not particularly uplifting at all. I am going to conveniently avoid talking about that angry God identified in the Numbers text. It’s clear that, throughout the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, the authors have a tendency to create God in their own image. Let’s save that for another time.

In the mean time, let’s return to our pleasant conversation about hell. Do we create hell in our own image, or even a desired image that we can be distant from? I don’t mean to be glib, but when our image of hell is, at best, an image of a firey pit, where God has condemned you for eternity, or when our image, at worst, is the image of a real, probably male preacher, condemning you on God’s behalf, all we can do is laugh in the face of it, and respond to it with depth.

What if hell is real? What if hell is not some cartoonish place, or something to be afraid of, but is a real, actual condition, in which people find themselves? What if hell is not a place of eternal punishment, but a constant presence, created not by God but by humans?

Scripture says very little about hell. But Jesus does refer to it, in each of the Gospels. In Mark, in particular, Jesus refers to Gehenna. Supposedly, Hell is the latinized form of the Greek, Gehenna, or the Hebrew Sheol. Gehenna is an actual place, outside of Jerusalem. It is the city dump, where the lepers and outcasts live. It is a horrible, disgusting place, where people do not choose to live, but are forced to live due to the conditions of society.

On the one hand, Jesus has incredible compassion on those who find themselves in Gehenna, not of their own volition. Most people in Gehenna are forced to be there. But on the other hand, he adds, those who continue to create the conditions of Gehenna – like the Pharisees and Scribes and Roman Government, and those who use violence to overthrow the Roman Government – all they will do is expand the boundaries of Gehenna, and create a hellish existence for even more people. And those people, Jesus says, will find themselves in Gehenna, `where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth`.

I think that Jesus is trying to help us see Hell not as a place of punishment, but as an earthly presence that requires our love and compassion. People in this presence of Hell are probably those who are separated our distant from God; those who are unable to love others; those, even, who are unable to love themselves. Perhaps they are there because the cultural conditions are stacked against them. Perhaps they are there because they grew up in an abusive situations, and are unable to see themselves as God loves them – beloved – and maybe, they continue that abusive pattern on others. Perhaps they are there because they have grown up in a culture of extreme poverty or extreme wealth, and are unable or unable to break out of those oppressive systems.

And lets not think exclusively on a personal level. The people who make up ISIS are no doubt experiencing the presence of hell. Not because God has condemned them there, but because of the sad, tragic, and isolating conditions in which they live. Growing up in a region of violence, hatred, and poverty is sure to have awful impacts upon people.

Jesus never said,`obey me, or go to hell.`He did say, `blessed are the peacemakers. blessed are the merciful. blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.`

The blessings come from the experience of alleviating these hellish conditions for us, for others, on behalf of God. The salvation of the world doesn`t happen through some mystical, uknown process. Rather, it comes from active love. Not from being `lifted up`, but by a willingness to go with someone into their deepest depths; to accompany them in their awful experiences; to journey with them through their wilderness.