“Jesus’ Theology of Hell”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 23, 2015
University Baptist Church
At the end of the service on Sunday, Paula Moyer pulled from the grab bag a piece of paper that read: “I would like to hear a sermon about Jesus’ Theology of Hell.” Immediately, someone mused, “well that’s going to be a low-attendance Sunday.”
I told my concession stand-mate Karole Graham as we fled the thunder and lightning for the second time at last night’s Vikings game, “I need material for Sunday’s sermon, but this is a bit vivid.”
I thought of the comic that I have on the door to my office from Opus. Opus says to his friend Lola Granola:
Opus: Lola Granola…Nice to have you back from your last spiritual quest!
Lola: Alas. They never did warm to the idea of nude yoga.
Opus: The Amish are like that.
Lola: But they sure like heaven. I like heaven too.
Opus: Do you think all people go to heaven, Lola?
Lola: Every single one.
Opus: Liberals? Evolutionists? Feminists? ACLU Lawyers?
Opus: Kennedy Democrats? French people?
Manly women who don’t shave…They’re all there?
Opus: With Jerry Falwell?
Opus: (After a long pause) Goodness, must he be annoyed!
Heaven and Hell are concepts that are fraught with disagreement. A lot has to do with the meaning of life. Is your life’s work to get a reward in heaven and to avoid punishment in hell? Do we believe that we can pass “Go” collect $200 and get our “Get out of Hell Free” card if we say the magic words? That’s Paul’s theology, not the theology of the Gospels. In fact, today’s passage says that it’s not what you believe that saves or condemns you, but what you do.
What about the concept of God being so mad at our eternal sin that God sent God’s own offspring to die in our place? Is God really that small-minded and monstrous so as to require blood sacrifice? All of these are important questions that surround the grab bag question. Many of us are persuaded that we live in enough hell that an afterlife of heaven is enough to make us believers. But the question was about Jesus’ theology of hell. There is very little to find in the Gospels about the afterlife. Jesus was pretty focused on this world and living right with each other.
Marcus Borg wrote in his book, The Heart of Christianity, “It’s clear that his message was not really about how to get to heaven. It was about a way of transformation in this world and the Kingdom of God on Earth…But Jesus wasn’t very concerned with life beyond death, either his or that of others.”
Jesus does talk about hell in Matthew, Mark and Luke, not in John, though. But there are two words translated as hell and the nuance of them is instructive. The most often used word is Gehenna. This is an actual place. A valley at the base of the walls of Jerusalem. Some of the ancient battles were held in this place. It was the worship center of Baal and Molech. You remember Baal from Elijah. Baal was a god worshipped by the Canaanites who opposed the Hebrews. Their god was a god of fire. And Elijah famously staged a battle between YHWH and Baal. It was all about who could start a fire. YHWH won. And the prophets of Baal were slaughtered.
The fire-god Molech was the deity of the children of Ammon, and essentially identical with the Moabite god Chemosh. Fire-gods were common to all the Canaanite, Syrian and Arab tribes, who worshipped the destructive element. According to Jewish tradition, the image of Molech was of a brass calf, hollow within, and was situated outside of Jerusalem. Many instances of human sacrifices are found in ancient writers, which may be compared with the description of the Old Testament manner in which Molech was worshipped.
Jeremiah wrote of the Canaanites: "They built high places to Baal in the Valley of Beth-hinnom and immolated their sons and daughters to Molech bringing sin upon Judah; this I never commanded them, nor did it enter my mind that they should practice such abominations.” (Jeremiah 32:35)
The main worship site for Molech was the valley of children also known as the valley of Hinnon or transliterated as Gehenna. It was often portrayed in such a way because it was a place of child sacrifice and coming through the fire was a sign of holiness and blessing. I think of places in Washington State and northern California that must feel like Gehenna right now. Hell on earth.
When Jerusalem was destroyed, the dead bodies were thrown into the valley of Gehenna. It literally was a valley of death. It smoldered with hot ash, rot and stink. People couldn’t imagine a worse place.
The concept of an afterlife developed rather late in Judaism and plays a pretty small role. It’s traced to the Hellenistic period where you start to hear about eternal reward. But if you have eternal reward, you have to have eternal punishment. The fiery judgment place was often referred to as a lake or an abyss. Nothing better than Gehenna could symbolize that.
Jesus hardly ever talks about hell. When he does, he uses it to drive home his point. And it’s almost always about what we do and how we treat each other. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it said to those of ancient times: You shall not murder, and whoever murders shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You Fool’, you will be liable to the hell (Gehenna) of fire.(Matthew 5:21-22).
In the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel Jesus invokes Gehenna three times (Mark 9:42-48):
42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell,(Gehenna) to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.(Gehenna) 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,(Gehenna) 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”
Someone who enters this pit, this hell, is ritually unclean and is cut off. It is as if they had died.
But then there is Hades, that unseen world—the opposite of heaven. This is what shows up in Revelation. Matthew 11:23 talks of the juxtaposition of Heaven and Hades. Jesus says later in Matthew that Peter will be the rock on which the church will be built. It will be so strong that the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
In Luke, Jesus tells the parable about Dives. The rich man in is Hades being tormented and tries to get Abraham to have his former slave Lazarus tend to him. But true to form, it’s a hell of a place and Dives never gets relief from Lazarus, because he ignored poor Lazarus in this life.
It seems that the theology of hell in the synoptics is that it exists and that people are warned to be kind and generous lest they receive the torment of hell. Jesus’ theology seems to say that it’s our kindness, our generosity, our welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry that grants us salvation and saves us from hell. While we’re at it, we save others from the hells of hunger, nakedness, loneliness, sickness and dysfunction.
Paul’s theology of heaven and hell has very little to do with what we do. It has everything to do with what we believe. It’s believing in God, taking the Romans road, believing that Jesus died for our sins and that we if we confess our faith in him, we will have eternal life, and by extension, not have an eternal torment in hell. That’s all well and good, but it’s not Jesus’ theology of hell. It’s Paul’s. And we often see theology through the lens of Paul and not the Jesus we meet in the Gospels. Jesus doesn’t care so much what we believe. He cares about what we do. That will show what we believe.
So we have today’s scripture, the great criteria. The famous separating out of the sheep and the goats. And we are evaluated by how well we have fed the poor, visited the prisoner, clothed the naked. The reward for the righteous is eternal presence with God. And the punishment for those who ignore their neighbor is eternal fire. Sounds like hell to me. God is everywhere, watching and needing our response. It’s not just in church. It’s in the neighborhood, it’s in the community. It’s in the family. We are responsible for one another. The rewarded sheep are the ones who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison. “Whenever you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me,” says Jesus.
The punished goats on the other hand are the ones who are so self-absorbed that they ignored the people who needed help: who might see charity as weakness; who are concerned about their image and their standing; who are like the preacher and the Sunday school teacher in the Good Samaritan story. The foreign Samaritan saved the Hebrew neighbor from the hell of indifference embodied by the supposedly holy people. The punished goats are like the candidates who throw red meat to their voters saying, vote for me, I will never raise your taxes. I will make you prosper. And I will send the poor back to the hell from whence they came.
Not helping others condemns us and others to hell. Selfishness is a kind of hell on earth.
The great theologian Stephen Colbert put it this way: “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”
Here’s the rub with today’s scripture, because the great criteria is all about what we do, nonbelievers can be sent to heaven and hell because of their actions. Some will end up with being on God’s side without knowing it, maybe until they get to the eternal reward.
Was Jesus speaking metaphorically? Is this Jesus’ theology or is it Matthew’s theology? We don’t know.
But the implication is very clear. And it’s consistent throughout the life of Jesus that we find in the Gospels. How we treat each other is essential. That’s how we will be judged. For the incarnation of God is not in some heaven light-years away, but here in this place. God is alongside the poor and destitute. Jesus is speaking against the Ayn Rand god of selfishness which demonizes helping others. The result of that is a hell of fire in this world. And we are responsible for each other.
So Jesus’ theology of hell is about this world and how we treat each other. It says, don’t throw yourselves or other into the sinful valley of Gehenna. It’s so close that we can taste it. It gets in our nostrils and we become accustomed to it. But our work as followers of Jesus is about helping our neighbors. In so doing, we avoid the valley of Gehenna, a hell on earth. That’s what Jesus was about. And that’s what we are about.
One day, we might well poll the congregation about heaven and hell. Do you believe they exist? And I bet we get dozens of different perspectives. But ask what Jesus wants us to do in this world, and we will get near unanimity with the great criteria in today’s scripture. When did I see you hungry or in prison, or naked or homeless? When you did it unto the least of these you did it unto me. Come receive your reward.
And we all work to do that, but we don’t do it for the eternal reward, necessarily, at least I don’t. We do it because it connects us with the closest thing we have to Christ alive today. The continued presence of God in the needy. As we accompany those, we are accompanying Christ. And that’s Good News. It’s heavenly connection. Anything else, just feels like hell. So let’s not go there.