Saturday, 23 July 2011

5th Sunday after Lent: Hell...

Romans 8:26-end
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
Jesus put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’

At the end of the eight o clock service last Sunday I was approached by a member of the congregation who said that he had appreciated the sermon but noticed that I had completely dodged the issue of hell and judgement. I had to agree, although in my defence my usual eight minute homily would have been rather longer had I tried to mention that as well.

I also promised that I would preach about hell the next time it came up. That was, of course, before I read this Sunday’s readings and realised that hell and judgement came up again, and this time with the added complication that the new testament reading is all about predestination. So, with knees trembling, I’m going to try and answer the question, ‘What is hell and are some people predestined to go there?’

But first a story to set the context. In the Baptist denomination they usually choose their ministers by what they call, ‘Preach-with-a-view’. In other words the elders of the church will interview prospective candidates for the minister’s position, and if they thought they had someone who might be right they would invite them to preach. After they left, the church would meet and decide together whether to call them as the new minister.

And so it was that a certain church had interviewed two candidates and couldn’t decide which one to invite to preach, so they invited them both and gave them the topic of hell to preach on. They both preached amazing sermons that kept people on the edge of their seats, but in the end the choice was quite easy to make. They chose the one who preached with tears in his eyes...

Whatever conclusions we come to about hell, the devastating thoughts that there may be some who will never experience the presence of God, and that there are evil people who never manage to ask for forgiveness should be uppermost in our thoughts. Talk of hell should never be one of our judgementalism and hope that someone in particular should go there. With that in mind let’s think about the subject.

Hell is not a clear-cut biblical concept. Throughout the bible, just as with the devil, hell is an evolving picture. In the earlier parts of the Old Testament there is no mention of either heaven or hell. Instead there was just Sheol, the grave, a grey place of no hope where what was left of a person resided after their life on earth was over. It also seems unjust to us because that was all there was in their beliefs; there was no distinction in what would happen to the good or the evil.

So let’s think about what hell might actually be. It’s a curious thing that in almost every religion there is some kind of doctrine of hell. What that hell looks like depends a great deal on whether the religion is primarily judgemental or whether it is full of forgiveness.

This difference is quite important for us as we consider Christian beliefs because it strikes me that what we say about hell is more likely to say something about ourselves than it is to say something about the truth. We all know, for example, that medieval Christianity went to great lengths to depict all sorts of horrible and permanent tortures that took place in hell and were inflicted by demons.

Yet none of that has any foundation whatsoever in scripture. In fact the one or two references to demons in hell strongly suggest that hell was actually originally created for them, not for humanity at all. In the parable of the sheep and the goats we get this at the end:

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire that was prepared for the devil and his angels.’ Matt.25:41
Demons are most definitely not God’s torturers, so please abandon that concept. This depiction actually tells us that fear was at the root of institutionalised medieval Christianity, not love.

And I think the same is probably true today. If you look at fundamentalist Christianity you will see that it has a very firm teaching that hell is for sinners who will burn forever in eternal torment, and we all know that fundamentalist teachings are very judgmental, and that is true of fundamentalist religions whatever faith they are, simply because they are based on fear, not love.

Now we in the modern western world declare that God is love and that he wants all people to reside with him forever, yet we also have this belief that God, who is love, willingly sends people to hell be perpetually tortured in flames for all eternity, un-ending, simply because they got it wrong over the course of seventy years, for whatever reason, with no excuses permitted.

And in fact it’s even worse than that, because in the reading from Romans we have the concept of predestination built in, and there are plenty of Christians who recognise, quite rightly, that if you go all-out for a doctrine of predestination then you are left concluding that God predestined a vast multitude to hell. So they never had a chance! How can this possibly tally with our declaration that God is love?

Well quite simply it can’t. We also need to be aware that as well as the letter to the Romans which included that passage on predestination, St. Paul also wrote this to Timothy when writing about how to live a quiet and godly life:
This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 1 Tim.2:1-4

So clearly God wants people to be saved, and that desire, it seems to me, stands in opposition to the idea of God predestining anyone to hell or, for that matter, to heaven. Yes, I’m afraid I don’t agree that you can take what St. Paul says in Romans about predestination at face value - but that’s another sermon for another time, and I promise I will deal with that in due course.

What we do have to acknowledge, though, is that this parable of Jesus and many other places in the New Testament indicate that there are some who, through their actions in this life, will be excluded from God’s presence, and that is primarily what hell is. The absence, entirely, of God.

But that throws up a philosophical question. Acts 17:28 quotes a sermon from St. Paul where he refers to God saying:
‘In him we live and move and have our being.’
So if God excludes people from his presence because of choices they have made, can there be any existence apart from him?

This, I think, is where the images of the flames of hell come from. Our word for hell comes from the Greek, Gehenna, which means the Valley of Hinnom. This was a valley just outside Jerusalem where once the practice took place of child sacrifices in fire being made to the god Molech, a practice utterly condemned by God.

By Jesus’s time this accursed place had become the rubbish tip where a fire permanently burned and the rubbish from Jerusalem was tipped in and burnt, and I think that this is actually what Jesus was getting at. I do not believe that hell is a place where God sends people to be burned in eternal torment.

Instead, and this is where hell becomes a great sadness, I believe it is a place where those who, however many chances they are given, both this side and the other side of the grave, refuse to be a part of the kingdom of God. I believe God may give many opportunities, and I believe that those who, through chance, have never been in a place to have encountered God or heard about God in this life will be given that chance after their earthly death.

But the weight of scripture seems to suggest that, whatever lengths God goes to out of the love that he has for us to draw us into his family, there will be some who reject him, firmly and finally. If they will not be in God’s presence, and if we only have our existence because we are in God’s presence, what can there possibly be that is left to them?

St. Paul wrote these words to the church in Philippi
For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction... Philippians 3:18-19

Hell is destruction. The reason it is eternal is not that it goes on forever, but that its effects do. What I’m saying is that God, in his mercy, rather than condemning people to live forever without him, brings their existence to an end. They simply cease to exist. The theological term for this is annihilation.

I don’t think the Bible gives us a clear enough teaching about hell to say conclusively from scripture that it’s this or it’s that, but scripture, reason and experience make it absolutely clear that God’s love goes beyond anything we can imagine. Ultimately though, there may be those who refuse to accept that love.

For them there can only be a complete cessation of being. I think the reason we get this picture of flames is because a valley outside Jerusalem where the rubbish was burnt until it was burned up and ceased to exist was the best picture Jesus could come up with for hell.

I realise that this is not going to satisfy everyone, but for me it is the only picture that seems to make sense of what scripture says about the love of God and about the eternal choice he lays before all of us. We can only exist because we are in God’s presence. If we choose, finally, that we will not be with him, then there can be no where else to go. In his absence nothing can exist, and that, finally, is hell.

So if you have lived all your life fearful that God is looking for how you mess up so that he can justify sending you to hell, then maybe this is a time to breathe easy. It’s quite the reverse. God is love, and love is about togetherness, not destruction. Destruction is sadly the final option when every single other option has been tried.

If we refuse to be with God, there is nowhere else we can be, and God knows that eternity spent in his absence would be far more cruel than anything else that could be imagined. In the end hell, annihilation, is about mercy for those who refuse love. Amen.

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