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August 14, 2016, 3:23 PM

"Hell"


Revelation 20:11-15
11 Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. 13 And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire;15 and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

 

 
Luke 16:19-31
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.[h] 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
 
Hell
 
Last week we explored heaven, and we played for a moment with all those popular images of pearly gates, St. Peter the bouncer, fluffy clouds, angels, white robes, and harps. But all those popular images of heaven are small potatoes when we look at how often popular culture plays with images of hell. Let’s face it, hell and the devil make great fodder for movies, television shows, novels…even commercials. Whether we examine classic works like Dante’s Inferno, or the most current popular television show, Lucifer, hell and its ruler fascinate us. We have the stereotypical images of the fiery pits, raging demons, tormented souls, and the horned devil with tail and pitchfork, some of which springs right out of Dante’s Inferno, and from scripture readings like today’s parable from Luke. We have images of hell as a vast wasteland, a dark stony ruin, a realm of heat and darkness. Each media portrayal plays with the image, seeking to capture the imagination (and the ratings) in new ways.
 
In the Church over the centuries, images of hell have been invoked to motivate obedience, to instill proper doctrinal belief, and to correct societal moral behavior. The Church got a rap for years as being a place that preached fire and brimstone, hell and damnation. Hell was used as the fear motivator to keep congregations in line. Threats of hell were common place, even woven into the architecture of the great European cathedrals in their gargoyles, demons, and tortured souls motifs. Popular culture and church doctrine have become so convoluted in some places that they are interchanged with one another until believers and non-believers alike mistake popular images with scriptural teachings. It’s is past time that we spent a few moments separating them out.

A scriptural concept of hell is not as easy to point to as you might think.  First, there is no concept of hell in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. Our Jewish foremothers and forefathers did not have a strongly developed understanding of the afterlife. They were much more concerned with how they were living in their present life. Most references to death and after-death can be found in the book of Psalms, words like Sheol-an umbrella term for the realm of the dead, the idea of going down to the depths, of being redeemed from the pit or the grave, or the realm of the dead. All of these are just different words for the same vague concept.
 
What scripture does speak of, overwhelming, is a time when all people will turn to God in the age to come. The Psalms and the prophets have repeated references to the age to come—remember last week—when all nations shall stream to Zion or to God’s holy mountain. Certainly the Hebrew Scriptures speak a great deal about God punishing Israel for going astray, chasing after false gods or refusing to care for the widow, orphan, and stranger. But even as God proclaims these judgments through the lips of the prophets, God promises that a time will come when those punishments will end, when restoration will dawn and all people—not just Israel—all people shall come to the light of God. In Hebrew understandings across the Old Testament, the terms ‘life’ and ‘death’ did not refer to literally being alive or being dead, but referred to the life you chose to live. As we saw in examining Deuteronomy 30 just a few weeks ago, God’s people were called to choose either life in the abundant life of God, or to choose the world’s way, which is a living death. Our Hebrew Scriptures are deeply concerned with how we are living our day-to-day lives right now, in the light of God. And these texts hold fast to the image of an age to come, when all people will be welcomed into life in the light of God.
 
In the New Testament, we find frequent use of the Greek term Hades, another concept for an overall realm of the dead, and at times the word Tartares—again a Greek word for the realm of the dead, overseen by the god of death in the Greek-Roman pantheon. The actual word we translate as hell appears only twelve times in the entire New Testament, eleven times used by Jesus and once by James in his letter, in chapter three. The Greek word we translate as hell is ‘Gehenna’ which literally means the Valley of Hinnom. The Valley of Hinnom is a literal valley, immediately south of the city of Jerusalem. In Jesus’ time, this valley was the city garbage dump and refuse area. It was truly a horrible place. All the garbage of the city flowed into this valley; rotten food, sewage, bodies of dead animals, and even, occasionally, the bodies of homeless, unclaimed people. The smell was horrendous. It was on fire constantly—partly to try to consume some of the refuse and decay, party from the heat of the Middle Eastern sun on the rotting materials. Wild scavengers roamed the dump, fighting over the scraps and remains, the sound of their nashing teeth and clashing bodies rising up from the valley. When Jesus invoked the image of Gehenna, his listeners had a truly vivid picture to bring to mind.
 
Each time Jesus speaks of Gehenna, he uses it to speak to those who are deeply religious and dedicated to God. He uses it to speak of how horrible it is for leaders to lead people astray, to cause little ones to stumble in their faith, to stand in the way of people’s relationship with God. It would be better to have your body or a part of your body lobbed into Gehenna than to do these things. This was a truly vivid image to the Pharisees and scribes, and to the disciples, when Jesus spoke about these things.  James invokes the word Gehenna to describe how vicious our tongues can truly be. They can be set on fire with the flames of the valley garbage dump, reeking of burning refuse.
 
The idea of the age to come, as we explored last week, continued into the writings of the New Testament. Jesus spoke of God’s kingdom throughout all four gospels, and made reference in many places to the age to come. He was deeply concerned that those listening to his message, and those who would listen to the disciples’ message after his death and resurrection, embody kingdom living now so that they would embody kingdom living in the age to come. Jesus told parables in which God was the searcher of the lost, never giving up until all that was lost is found—as in the parables of the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, and the Prodigal Son. This message continued into the writings of the letters in the rest of the New Testament. Paul spoke frequently of a time when ‘every knee would bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2).” This message was embraced by many of our early church leaders—Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Eusebius, to name a few.
 
Having said all that, our scriptures today speak clearly and decisively about judgment, a Day of Judgment, to be exact. Our reading from the Book of Revelation is John of Patmos’ word painting of the great Judgment of all humanity before the Throne of God. This painting presents us with a paradoxical moment as two books are opened, the Book of Life and the book of human deeds. All people, great and small, render an account to the One on the throne for the life they have lived in the present age, with the age to come at its dawning. John’s image makes it clear that God means it when God says that we are to live God’s way in this present life. At the same time, the Book of Life is opened, a book of grace to balance the book of judgment. God does want us to live God’s way now, and yet there is grace. All judgment and salvation is in God’s hands, not ours.
 
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke connects a bit with John’s vivid portrait of Judgment Day. This is a story, a glimpse of the kingdom, the age to come, for Jesus’ listeners—in response to some Pharisees who are overly concerned with money. It is not a paper on theological understandings of the end time. It is a story. Jesus is trying urgently to convey the evil of putting your faith in money, possessions…stuff. However, this parable lays before us the consequences of how we live in this present age, and warns us of the dangers inherent in our free will. God’s love has gifted us with the absolute freedom to love God back…or not. That is very evident in our present age. This parable seems to say that this may be true in the age to come.  The chasm between the rich man and Lazarus was not evident to the rich man in the present age, but we can be sure Lazarus saw and experienced it. In the age to come, the chasm becomes literal (in the story). The rich man cannot let go, cannot see Lazarus as of equal worth, even when Lazarus is held in the bosom of Abraham. Instead the rich man orders Abraham to send Lazarus as a servant, first to bring a drop of water to the rich man, and second, to warn the rich man’s siblings. Has the rich man rejected the salvation in the age to come in favor of the sense of self-worth and power he enjoyed in the present age? Is this possible for all of us as well?
 
Having touched just the surface of all this, what is the answer? Will everyone ultimately be saved? Will some perish apart from God? Therein lies the tension of our faith. I do not believe this is a ‘yes or no’ question. What is certain, in the passages we have before us, and throughout scripture, God cares how we live in this present time. It is critically important and has ramifications for the age to come. But we cannot answer these questions about salvation and judgment. It is in God’s hands. 
 
We ended last week’s sermon with an illustration from C.S. Lewis’ final book—The Last Battle—from the Chronicles of Narnia, in which the children from all the adventures find themselves in the age to come, ready to enter a new story, the real story, traveling forever with Aslan…Jesus. Lewis also seeks to address the other side, those who have been rejecting Aslan throughout the adventures, and are invested in the non-Aslan way of living.  At the close of the story, just as the children are ready to head out on their Great Adventure into the kingdom, Lucy, the youngest, sees a circle of creatures sitting in the gorgeous field of Narnia, clearly in anguish. These creatures had been followers of the queen, the enemy of Aslan. Lucy approached them and tried to get their attention, to see how they could possibly be in agony in the perfect reality of the real Narnia. However, they did not respond to her and appeared not even to see her. She reached out and touched them and suddenly she found herself surrounded by fire and anguish, suffering and torment. When she let go, she could see Narnia around her once again.  Aslan gently explained to Lucy that these creatures could not let go of what had been important to them throughout their lives. They were lost in their own anguish and torment, and could not see or accept the beauty that truly surrounded them.
 
C.S. Lewis’ depiction certainly has some flaws and some points for debate, but he captures the tension of our faith and the realities of the freedoms gifted to us. As we continue to journey in faith, as we continue to live in this tension, may we dedicate ourselves to always seeing the Lazarus at our door. May we live God’s realm of justice and love here and now. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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