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Well, I am not a masochist nor do I have a pastoral death wish, but I am not content with giving you pablum. I hope you are not content to be fed with it either. I hope you are ready to be challenged to think and not simply rely on past understandings.
The question this morning, "Would a loving God really let anyone go to Hell?" is one to which almost all of you already have an answer. Whether that answer is truly reflective of the Biblical witness is what we will deal with. Let us hear the word of the Lord:
Would a loving God really let anyone go to Hell? Our parable seems to indicate the answer is Yes. The righteous will be rewarded with an eternity of comfort and peace and the sinners are going to burn. Some of you, I am sure, would be content to leave it at that, get out of here and beat the Methodists to the golf course. After all, that is what you learned years ago. Others of you will not be content with that because you cannot imagine God being unforgiving, even of the most heinous sin.
Note one thing about the lesson here: the story does not say that Lazarus was particularly righteous, only that he was dirt poor. And it does not say that the rich man was a particularly vile sinner, only that he failed to notice and do anything about Lazarus' need. Jesus' emphasis here is NOT on the fate of people after death, but the absolute imperative of caring for the needy while we are still alive. If folks took THAT as seriously as they do the picture we get of the punishments of Hell, poverty would have long ago been wiped out.
But poverty is not the focus of our attention this morning, even though that really IS the primary focus of the parable - more about that another time. Rather, it is this picture we have of divine punishment. This one story has done more to influence our long-held concept of eternal damnation than any other in scripture. The question I raise is "How are we to understand it in light of what we have come to know about God?" Would a loving God really let someone, anyone, go to a place of endless torment?
The tradition, of course, is clear. Our Westminster Confession of Faith says, "...the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and punished with everlasting destruction..."(1) In the Shorter Catechism, the answer to Question 29 concerning the penalty which sinners can expect is "The punishments of sin in the world to come are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell fire forever."(2) That is pretty clear.
But these days, we do not hear that very often. Quite frankly, many people believe Hell does not exist. In the minds of many, Hell is only an expletive: Hell, yes; Hell, no.
But is that legitimate? The tradition surely says that there is a literal, awful, fiery place where unsaved sinners will spend eternity. But what about the Bible? What does that say?
To be honest, not a great deal. In the Old Testament, there is nothing about a place of eternal torment for the damned, nothing. Life after death for everyone - good or evil - is seen as some sort of shadowy existence in a place known as Sheol but not much more. There are a number of Old Testament references like that but nothing about unending torture, even for the worst of this world.
Actually, the first time we run into a place of after-death misery is in the literature of Persia (modern-day Iran, of all places). There we find a belief that says the wicked will ultimately be judged by being placed in a stream of molten metal.
By the time we get to the New Testament, we find something new. There are three different Greek words that are used to talk about the afterlife. One is Hades which is basically the New Testament equivalent of Sheol - the place of the dead. This is where the rich man and Lazarus of our parable are. The only difference between the Old and New Testament concepts is that there is now a division there between the good and the bad.
Another is Tartarus. We run into that only once (in II Peter(3)) in describing a place to which fallen angels are condemned.
The third word is Gehenna. Gehenna was the name of a ravine south of Jerusalem. Children had been sacrificed to the god Moloch there during the days of Ahaz and Manasseh. But when King Josiah ascended the throne, he ordered that it be desecrated. It was turned into a rubbish heap where fire burned continuously. Everything there had been consigned for destruction. Thus, the "city dump" came to be identified in the Jewish mind as the perfect symbol of God's final rejection of wickedness. This was Jesus' description. Of the twelve times in the New Testament that we run across the word Gehenna, eleven of them are on the lips of Jesus.
The Lord was right vivid in his descriptions of the afterlife for the unrepentant. In Matthew 8, Jesus calls it "outer darkness."(4) In Matthew 13, he calls it "the furnace of fire [where] men will weep and gnash their teeth."(5) In the ninth chapter of Mark, he describes it as a place "where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched."(6) In Luke's gospel, he tells the story that we read a few minutes ago. The rich man cries that he is in torment in the flame and he begs for Lazarus to come and dip his finger in water so, with just a drop, the man's tongue might be cooled. Not pretty pictures.
The final description of Hell in the New Testament is found in Revelation 21. Hell is pictured as "the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death."(7) How much of that description or the descriptions Jesus gave are meant to be taken literally is an open question. After all, the pictures are self-contradictory - complete darkness and burning flame are mutually exclusive. The language is symbolic, symbolic of a fate which no one would want.
Obviously, there are people who are living in situations in the here and now which no one would want. Did you happen to see this week's Time magazine about the plight of Christians living in Iraq?(8) Things are far worse for them now that their nation has been invaded by another so-called "Christian" nation. Now the Islamic fundamentalists, who had been in check under the previous regime, can operate openly and have been targeting professing Christians for elimination. Despite what the administration says, Christians in Iraq are absolutely not better off than before. I am sure they would agree with the old Welsh woman who, when asked if she were looking forward to life after death, replied, "If it's anything like this life, I want no part of it." That, I guess, is why some want to say there is no literal Hell. We have enough Hell already.
The problem is that words about Hell ARE there in Holy Writ, and if we take scripture seriously, we cannot simply pick and choose among the teachings we like and the teachings we do not like. The best we can do is try to interpret those teachings faithfully, even the teachings about Hell.
Then what DOES the Bible make of Hell? Scripture is simply not definitive. There is an indication that there will be different degrees of punishment,(9) and of course, simple justice would demand that - the punishment has to fit the crime. Perhaps Dante had the right idea in The Divine Comedy. He portrays sinners living in Hell in circumstances designed to show the nature of their sins: gluttons must lie in the filth of a pig sty; hypocrites go about in heavy cloaks that are gilded over; traitors (who coldly planned their treachery) are more or less encased in ice. You get the idea. They have effectively made their own punishment, their own Hell.
To be sure, there are times when punishment is helpful, and every decent parent knows it. But NO decent parent would say that punishment that does not have correction and finally restoration as its aim has any redeeming value. And it surely can have no value for the God whose very purpose for a fallen world has been, since the beginning of time, the redemption of creation. What I am leading up to should, by now, be obvious. The more I study, the more I dig, the more I become convinced that the God of love whom we have come to know in Jesus would not condemn someone to the kind of Hell our tradition has always described.
Then what would God do? Obviously, I cannot say for certain but I am rather drawn to the idea of punishment with a purpose, a concept of Hell that would allow for final restoration. That would seem to make sense, not to mention justice. A friend of mine describes it as a "period of adjustment." Some will require more than others, and for a few, it will be a HELL of an adjustment.
Would a loving God allow something like that? It surely sounds more reasonable to me than the traditional concept. How long will it last? Again, the tradition says forever. But the tradition also said at one time that human slavery was God-ordained, and in some churches even today that women are second-class citizens. Concerning our understanding of unending Hell, it makes more sense to me to say it probably depends on the situation. Again, the punishment would fit the crime.
In preparing for this message, I checked every New Testament reference to Hell to see if ANY of them say it will last forever, but the best I could come up with are references in the English Bible to "everlasting punishment."(10) But something must be understood here: the Greek word rendered as "everlasting" - aionios - literally means "belonging to the ages." There is only one entity to which aionios can be applied - God. There is far more in aionios than simply a description of that which has no end. Punishment which is aionios is punishment which befits God to give and punishment which ONLY God can give. Aionios indicates quality, not quantity.
Does that mean that there is a possibility that everyone will eventually be saved? Our tradition wants to say ABSOLUTELY NOT. But the scripture seems to speak with two minds on the subject. There are places where it seems to indicate YES,(11) and there are other places where it indicates NO. And if scripture is not crystal clear, we had best not be making any absolute statements. However, if we take seriously the freedom of choice God has given us, it seems we are forced to conclude that there is a possibility that some will continue to reject God, to hang on to their sins, no matter how much "adjustment" has gone on. As C. S. Lewis has written, "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'THY will be done.'"(12)
I have seen Gehenna. It was on a trip Christie and I took to the Holy Land some years ago. We were on a tour bus driving by the wall of the old city of Jerusalem when our guide pointed our attention to an area out the window to our right...Gehenna. I was surprised. I would have figured it to be an awful, smoky, smelly dump, but it was a park: tall trees, green grass, playing fields for youngsters' ball games. The fires have long since gone out. Unending Gehenna? Apparently not.
What does that do to the church's efforts at evangelism? In years past preachers used the concept of escaping from unending torture in Hell to motivate folks to accept Christ and do right. I would suspect that we could have done it better. After all, if the gospel is the good news we claim it is, we should have emphasized the LOVE of God and God's desire that all humanity be saved. Instead, we have tried to SCARE people into the kingdom. And, let's face it, that has not worked.
If our witness is to include the reality of Hell at all, perhaps it would be better explained like this: God, in divine love, wants EVERYONE, but God will force no one. And because that love is so great, God refuses to condemn someone to the Garden of Heaven who is allergic to flowers.
But allergies can be cured, even spiritual allergies. And THAT is our word of evangelism; THAT is our good news. The medicine is there. The remedy was carefully and lovingly prepared almost two thousand years ago...on a hill outside Jerusalem called Calvary. All that is necessary now is to have enough faith in the doctor to come to Him. His name? Jesus Christ. How much does it cost? Nothing. It is paid for by insurance...Wooden Cross, a subsidiary of Eternal Life. And the premium has already been taken care of by the agent. It is guaranteed non-cancellable. It is the best plan on the market today.
The doctor even makes house calls. He says, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in..." Would a loving God really let anyone go to Hell? I think the answer is the same one we came up with after we read our lesson - Yes, even though it might not be the kind of Hell we have tended to picture. But even that is not necessary. Thank goodness! Thank God!
1. "Westminster Confession of Faith," XXXV:2, Book of Confessions, (Presbyterian Church, USA), 6.181
2. BOC, 7.139
8. "Iraq's Persecuted Christians," TIME, 9/27/04, p. 44
9. Matthew 23:14
10. Matthew 25:41, 46; I Thessalonians 1:9
11. John 12:32; Rom. 11:32; I Cor. 15:24-28; I Tim. 2:4-6; etc.
12. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, (New York; MacMillan, 1946), p. 72