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I recently heard about a Pastor who challenged any member of his congregation to come forward and, in return for $100.00, hold one of their fingers in the the heart of a candle flame for a full fifteen seconds. As would likely be the case in many congregations, a cocky young man immediately raised his hand and came up to the front of the church. He placed his finger into the flame but soon flinched and was only able to keep it there for six seconds. The Pastor smiled a satisfied grin and then looked straight into the eyes of the young man, in front of the entire church, and asked him if he could imagine that fiery pain not just in the tip of one finger but over his hand, arm and indeed his whole body. He asked him to imagine such pain, over his entire body, lasting not just six seconds, but an hour, a day, a year, ten-thousand years! And then in a solemn voice this Pastor told the young man that even after ten-thousand years, it would be just the beginning of eternal burning pain that an unforgiven sinner would experience in hell. If the young man wanted to save himself from such a terrible fate, he could repent of his sins and accept Jesus Christ as his savior then and there!
As much as I disagree with such persuasive tactics, this was simply a demonstration of what many world religions teach about the existence of hell. During this month of Halloween, when thoughts turn to scary things as a way to laugh at our fears, the idea that hell exists as a real place is perhaps the ultimate fright we might face. What rational person would choose to horribly suffer forever, or wish to think of family and friends experiencing the same? Indeed, I have heard many Pastors half jokingly say their real occupation is to sell fire insurance. The famed evangelist of the early twentieth century, Billy Sunday, even said that if hell does not exist, then he and many other preachers were taking money under false pretenses. And Billy Graham, not to be outdone by any hellfire and brimstone preacher, once shouted that the problem with many churches is that because there is not enough hell preached from the pulpit, there is too much hell in the pews!
And, so I will take Billy Graham’s advice. You will get your fill of hell from me today. To be very blunt with you, hell is real.
While Judaism, Islam and Christianity all have similar beliefs on the existence of hell, such views of divine punishment are seen by some theologians as coming from an ancient view of justice. Ideas about second chances, rehabilitation, personal change and mitigating circumstances were unknown in many ancient cultures. In a world where only good and evil could exist, there was no room for grey areas. Wrongdoing and evil must not only be punished but must be done so with extreme and final measures. While we can argue the same notions are true in our own nation, the idea of an eye for an eye, death by stoning for immoral behavior, crucifixion and a sentence to eternal hell were seen as fair and just in past cultures. Humans must work to ruthlessly eliminate evil. The idea of hell served that purpose.
Many religious historians believe the fiery image of Hades originated from the Jerusalem trash dump. Just over the south wall of that ancient city was a long valley into which all of that city’s waste was dumped. The bodies of executed criminals were placed there as fires were kept perpetually lit in order that trash and accumulated filth would be consumed. A portion of this area is traditionally held to be the Potter’s field where Judas was hung and buried. Ribbons of smoke continuously wafted up from this stinking, fiery valley. If there was anywhere on earth that ought to be avoided, it was this spot. It was easy to imagine hell as just like that very real place. Indeed, writing in the Biblical Book of Revelation, John saw a vision where the dead stand in front of the throne of God as the book of life is opened up and read. All who are not written in the Book of Life, the list of persons eligible for Heaven, are cast into the lake of fire, an image perhaps borrowed from the Jerusalem trash heap. That is where all evil resides forever.
Halloween, for us, is a playful holiday to laugh at and even make fun of things that scare us. Ghosts and goblins are frightening but to dress up as one is to mock it and reduce it. It is interesting to me, however, that many still find the religious concept of hell to be so threatening. On the one hand, we are called to worship and honor a gracious and loving God who created us and has our best interests at heart. But this same God supposedly uses coercion and threat to bully us into loving him or her. “Believe in me, love me and obey me or else I will condemn you to hell. My justice cannot be questioned. I am God after all.” And if we do choose this God, is that really love of such a deity or merely fear of his or her threat?
Even in the backs of some of the most skeptical of minds, this form of divine justice rings true. Evil is bad and so there must be a place where final justice awaits. The Hitlers, Ted Bundys and other thoroughly nasty people deserve punishment, we tell ourselves. An eternity of burning pain seems fair for someone like Hitler. Even if he did make the trains run on time and he was good to his dog, his evil outweighed his good. Too often in our own minds we consciously weigh the sum of our own life actions – the good on one side of a scale and the bad on the other. Our hope is that good will outweigh the bad and our souls will avoid eternal hell. Even as some of us don’t believe in hell, we hedge our bets, we figuratively buy fire insurance by keeping a running balance sheet of our good and bad deeds.
My problem with this religious approach to eternity is its ultimately selfish outlook. Love of truth, justice, compassion and goodness in that perspective is often simply a way to avoid eternal hell. Even a belief that Jesus was the Christ and is our Savior is often just a free ticket to avoid hell. And such views are myopic as well. The same mindset that hopes for the promise of Heaven and fears the horrors of hell, often overlooks the very real horrors of garbage dumps around the world where children and families are forced to live on, and scavenge within, to survive. It ignores the tortured life of young gay boy, daily harassed and bullied so that the only way for him to avoid that pain is through suicide. Blind eyes are turned away from children in our city who are immigrants or homeless and whose only place of refuge is a clean school with breakfast and lunch. We can save the salary of an administrator or cut school budgets if we forget about those children.
We also know the evils that exist in the minds of many – us included – hatreds, subtle prejudices, violent speech towards those with whom we disagree, anger at loved ones, unforgiving attitudes, selfishness, depressions, arrogance, addictions, etc, etc. There are nursing homes full of ignored and dying elderly; orphanages full of unwanted and unloved kids; homeless shelters full of unwashed and untreated men and women; overcrowded jails where there is no hope, rehabilitation or redemption; wartime morgues in which death is simply a daily count of bodies.
I remember one of my trips to Haiti when I visited even that nation’s most notorious of poor neighborhoods. Into “Cite Soleil” as it is called, City of the Sun, we ventured. I gasped in horror at the actual sight of a bloated, dead human body lying in a gutter, people simply stepping around it. Pigs rooted in mounds of garbage, homes were plywood and plastic sheet shacks, endless streams of people wandered with no seeming purpose. The streets were hot, narrow, and strewn with trash. The gutters were open sewage streams. One relatively clean building in this warren of poverty housed young children piled two or three to a crib. They suffered from terminal tuberculosis and AIDS. Sisters of Charity nuns tended them until they died. It might be a cliche to say this, but I’ve seen hell. I’ve been to it. You have likely visited it too. Such a place is found all around the world. Oh yes, hell is real.
Oscar Wilde once said, “We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.” Adding to that thought, Tennessee Williams remarked, “Hell is yourself and the only redemption is when a person puts himself or herself aside to feel deeply for another person.” Hell is all around us and we have each helped to create it.
My friends you have heard me say before that God is not an outside force controlling our lives and our destiny. He or she is us and it is our duty, therefore, to help build heaven on earth. That is the only spirituality that has any meaning for me. That is the only reason for this church to exist – for all of us to be here today, to volunteer and to give. The Gathering does NOT sell fire insurance. As long as I am Pastor, it never will. We’re here to be fire-FIGHTERS putting out the flames of hell in our own lives and in the lives of those in the community. We practice and believe in a spirituality of the here and now. Jesus began his public ministry claiming the kingdom of god – heaven – is at hand. It is here and available for us right now, he said. As small “g” gods and goddesses, it is ours to create, build and sustain – in our minds, in our hearts, and in the lives of those who need it the most.
There are numerous religious and theological reasons for denying the existence of a supernatural hell – the one of eternal suffering and torture. Indeed, one of the most compelling arguments against a religious view of hell is that logically it makes the existence of heaven impossible. How could heaven be a perfect place of joy, love and eternal happiness if it is populated by persons who know friends and family are burning in a perpetual lake of fire – hell? Indeed, that supposedly heavenly existence, for me at least, would be worse than hell. I cannot fathom an eternity of knowing that people I love are suffering forever.
Another compelling argument against a supernatural hell is that it is inconsistent with the loving and all gracious God most religions describe. That God is one of mercy and love who would never eternally punish his or her creation for their momentary and weak lapses. This loving God would also never stoop to forcing people to love him or her. The threat of hell is inconsistent with that God. Such a threat does not represent a free will choice on the part of humanity, but a blatant way to coerce belief.
Whatever ways one might choose to refute the possibility of eternal hell, that is not my primary concern today. We confront very real hells that can exist in our own minds and in our world.
We have the power to fight those hells and even defeat them. In the hell of our own suffering, our own negative attitudes, our own subtle prejudices and hatreds, we can change. Indeed, heaven and hell are often a state of mind. John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, wrote in that book, “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of hell……..and a hell of heaven.” Truer words were never spoken.
With my firm belief in the power of cognitive therapy, the private depressions we experience, the pain of hurt feelings, the stabs of bitterness and the lonely hopelessness we can all feel – these are very real hells in our own psyches that we can defeat. Turning our minds toward the blessings we do have, toward the good we can help build in other lives, toward the gifts we receive from friends and family – all these are ways to create heaven in us and in others.
When we as a congregation work at the Freestore, prepare a meal for Inter-Faith Hospitality families, serve a homeless teen at Anthony House, or work to raise money for them, we are creating a vision of heaven. When we think about the words of a Sunday message – as I often do – and then go home and seek to change the way we think and act, we are building heaven. Fighting the very real hells in our own lives and in the world is our mission, our passion and our purpose. We give money, serve, love one another, show up here on Sundays – all to eliminate the hells of here and now.
In the Book of Revelation, John also wrote of his vision of a new earth where every tear will be wiped away with no more mourning, crying, sickness or pain. The streets will be paved with gold and all humanity will share in earth’s bounty. It is that vision of heaven on earth that I seek. It is not here yet. It may never be. But we can and must see the beauty that is available to us. We must capture the joys and pleasures of life no matter how difficult or hopeless it may sometimes seem. We must make it our life purpose to work for that experience and possibility in each and every life. Hell is indeed real but it need not be allowed its victory. In our own lives, in our own minds, in the lives and minds of those who do hurt and suffer, let us fight hell and build heaven. Into whose life will you help build heaven today………tomorrow………and for countless tomorrows ahead?
I wish you, one and all, much peace and even more joy.