September 30, 2012
18thSunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 21
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“…to be thrown into hell where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.”
If we rarely speak about sin in Episcopal churches, we never speak about Hell. I have been thinking about Hell a bit recently. It came up at the youth confirmation class, briefly, nothing to be concerned about, but it was there. And it came up on the retreat I was on two weeks ago. We were thinking about themes for a preaching year and one I am considering was “Come to church or go to hell.” Or, “Come to our church or Go to hell,” something like that. We’ll be talking about it at vestry next week…
The doctrine of hell evolved poorly from antiquity to the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment to Modernity. Threats of hell generally fail to bring us closer to God and/or each other, which is the essential test of any theology. However, we need to be careful dismissing the whole notion of Hell out of hand in our modern, enlightened condition. Hell is part of our ancient heritage, our inheritance as Christians, and I am afraid to say, is part of our reality, a condition within the fabric of existence.
Why do we have to deal with Hell besides the fact that it is real? First, historically, there is the Sheol of damnation. The Pit as spoken of by the writer of Psalm 30. “O Lord you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the pit… What profit is there in my death if I go down to the Pit? Will the Dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” This is our heritage, we pray the psalms, daily, some of us, we need to account for the Pit.
Then there is the Gehenna of Jeremiah, the unquenchable fire. This refers to an abomination of Israel whereby folks would sneak off to a valley called Hinnom and perform banned rituals, including sacrificing children to Baal on a fiery altar. Even the venerable Isaiah ends his (their – there were at least a couple of authors of Isaiah) even Isaiah ends his incomparable work with the words, “And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
And if the Psalmist, Jeremiah and Isaiah’s attention to this matter does not convince you that we need to talk about it, then we have to look to Jesus and his teaching, in particular our passage from St. Mark this morning. In colorful and unequivocal language, Jesus warns His disciples not to scandalize the little ones, the believers. Scandalize comes from the Greek to trip up along the way, to create a stumbling block. If you do that, Jesus says, it is not going to work out; you’d be better off dead, a mill stone around the neck being the 1st century equivalent of cement shoes. Likewise, if a part of your body causes you trouble, remove it, for it is better to lived maimed in this life than to be cast into Gehenna, the burning pit, the world of the worm and fire, Hell.
And if the teaching of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior does not convince you that we need to think about hell every once in a while, maybe the fact that Heaven and Hell are about the most commonly cited church doctrines in our society, cited most frequently by the unchurched and others who have no idea what they are talking about. The popularly construed idea that all good dogs, people go to heaven and the naughty will burn in eternal hellfire, well, the naughty and the unbaptized… this is not Biblical Christianity. It is not part of our religion. If we are to take our show on the road, carry the unabridged Good News in our community through word and works, we need to understand what we are doing. Thinking about Hell we might learn little more about the true nature of things, about God in Christ with the Holy Spirit, about our relationship to that eternal mystery, to life, the universe and everything.
A mature notion of the doctrine of hell arises “…in light of the real possibility of eternal failure and to recognize revelation as a claim of the utmost seriousness.” That definition is from John Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict the 13th. I don’t make it a habit to quote Popes; in particular this Pope, but here, the Vicar of Christ is right. Our own existence is the eternal consequence of the union of our mother and father. The act of giving life has eternal consequences. Giving life to a child, to the plants and animals whose reproductivity is subject to our whim, to what and whom we choose to eat or displace due to our needs and desires… these all have eternal consequences.
More obviously, the choice to end a life, an enemy’s, a condemned prisoner’s, a civilian bystander on a battlefield, an unborn baby’s… killing has eternal consequences. I am not saying that all killing is wrong, or that some killing is right; I do not know if or when it is ok to take another’s life, but what I am saying, what Ratzinger is saying, is that in the freedom given to us by God in the form of choice, there is the possibility of failure. We can fail to make the right choice and sometimes we can fail so badly as to have eternal consequences that are quite terrible. We as human beings we have to make sure we are choosing well.
One of the ways that Jesus Christ offers us salvation is revealing to us that yes God loves us absolutely and unconditionally, andthat there are things we need to do to make sure we are being and acting in accordance with God’s will. The world is changed, sometimes forever, by the life and death decisions we make hourly. And when it comes to choice there are at times good choices, better choices and wrong choices, some of which are very wrong choices, so wrong that we can have eternal and actual failures.
As most of you know, in another life I am also a farmer. A farmer is one who has a real and active relationship with living communities, the soil-food web, the dynamics of herd or flock life, forest or prairie or river bottom ecosystems. Everything a farmer does is a life or death decision. Deciding which turkey gets the seat of honor at Thanksgiving. Which pig will be bred and which will be slaughtered. Which virgin ground is to be plowed and which will remain in a pristine condition. The great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner writes that hell should only be discussed when it comes to choices, decisions in which there are irrevocable consequences. Plowing unbroken prairie is an irrevocable consequence. It will never be the same. Cutting old growth forest is an irrevocable consequence. The ecosystem is changed forever. Deciding which turkey dies and which is left to perpetuate the species is an irrevocable consequence, particularly for that one bird. It is not always a bad irrevocable consequence, but irrevocable, un-undoable, yes it is. And while we all constantly make decisions that cause the life of some to continue and others to end, the farmer, like the fisher and the logger, like the soldier and the police officer, they are the ones carrying out those decisions, the ones doing them, as our confession goes, “on our behalf.
It all comes down to freedom. The freedom we have been blessed with by God all comes down to the “will and possibility of positing the definitive. It is not the possibility of constant revision of decisions.” The notion of hell has nothing to do with vindictive punishment, a consequence assigned by another in light of our actions. Hell is the making of our own free will, be it through ignorance or malice, we can choose something other than God, we can chose something in oppostion to the true nature of things, to the way things are supposed to be, God’s will. In making those choices, in rejecting the path of Grace we are freely and constantly offered, in ignoring the call to love one another, to turn the other cheek, to be the servant of all, to hold as precious the least of these… in choosing to reject these things we become more and more likely to make bad decisions with irrevocable consequences, decisions you cannot recover from physically, psychologically, emotionally, or spiritually. And living like that, living outside of God’s will for us and the world is a “contradiction of the abiding and perfected world, and this contraction will be a torment.” The dissonance, the static the turmoil of living outside of the kingdom of God, outside of God’s influence, that is the torment of hell.
Remember Hell refers not so much to a place, nor even to a time after death, but to the condition of being “finally lost and estranged from God in all dimensions of existence.” Dante’s Inferno, or the paintings like Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, “The Last Judgement” by Angelica or the one by his contemporary Lochner, these are graphic representations of what a life estranged from God must be like. The barrenness and pain of that separation, the separation from all that is good and dependable, the knowledge that you are so far down the wrong path that God in God’s self can’t reverse the path you have gone down on your own… that is a picture of hell that resonates in our modern world.
So what is the use of the doctrine of Hell to us in the here and now? Is it to scare us straight? To put the fear of God in our soul that we all be good boys and girls? No, but it is to remind us of the eternal and actual forces we are subject to. To remind us that what we do, who we are, how we decide to conduct ourselves in the world, with each other, with God, matters. Our lives are irrevocable consequences of decisions others have made, and now we are making those decisions not only for ourselves but for others, our children and for generation upon generation to come. We bear the burden of freedom, so it is imperative that we pray on, study, listen and learn the will of God, and do and be what that will calls us to do and be. That is the Christian Way. That is the Gospel truth.
So, we have to decide if we’ll put a sign outside that says “Come to church or go to hell.” Is that truth in advertising? Who am I to say? I’m leaving that up to the vestry. AMEN