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“What Might Be True About Hell?”
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
As you may have noticed, this morning’s gospel lesson, from Mark, chapter nine, is home to more appearances of the word “hell” than any other passage in the entire Bible.
The word “hell” appears only thirteen times in the Bible, three of which are clustered, together, here, in today’s gospel reading.
Which, I suppose, explains why, every time the lectionary places, in our path, that passage, it never fails to make me wonder what might be true about hell.
I know, of course, what popular Christianity says is true about hell; that those who do not respond with faith, to Jesus, will, for their refusal to believe in him, spend eternity in the perpetual punishment of hell.
(Remember, I am the one who, in the summer of my eighteenth year, got myself re-baptized, after being convinced, by an evangelist at Camp Zion, in Myrtle, Mississippi, that my previous salvation experience may not have been sufficient to spare me from hell. And, I am also the one, who, that same summer, left a revival meeting at Log Cabin Baptist Church, late one night, went straight to my grandfather’s house, and promised to give him the entire two hundred and eleven dollars I had saved from my summer construction job, if only he would ask Jesus into his heart, because, otherwise, according to the revival preacher, he would burn in hell forever.)
But, while many millions of truly wonderful people have built their belief system around that way of thinking about hell, and look to it as the most important incentive for people to convert to Christianity, and, thus, see it as central to the success of institutional Christianity, in general, and Christian missions, in particular, other equally serious Christians have, across the Christian centuries, found that way of thinking about hell difficult to reconcile with what they see in scripture, and, more importantly, with what they believe about God.
For example, while John 3:16-18 and John 14:6 are often turned to, to support the idea that those who do not believe what Christians believe about Jesus will be eternally separated from God in hell, in other passages, such as today’s gospel lesson, plus Matthew 5:22, Matthew 25:46, Luke 16:24 and Revelation 21:8, people go to hell, based, not on what they believe, but on how they live. So, in the Bible, who goes to hell, and why, is not nearly as simple as it often sounds in popular Christianity.
And, then, of course, there is the question of how to reconcile a perpetual punishment, in which people are endlessly in agony, with the Bible’s vision, in Revelation 5:13, of every creature, and person, in all creation, singing praise to God, forever and ever, which is not unlike Isaiah’s vision of a great far-off someday when all people will sit down at the banquet table of God, a vision Paul embraces when he says, in Ephesians 1:10, that God’s plan, for the fullness of time, is to gather up all things, in Christ.
All of which is to say that if anyone is in hell forever, then that would mean that the ultimate will of God will never be done, which is what prompted John Calvin, once to say, that Christians are obligated to pray for the ultimate salvation of all.
Which would be a way of thinking about hell which would actually be true to the most, and best, that we know about God; a hell where judgement is in the service of redemption. Hell, not a place of torment for people to go to, but a path of purging for people to go through, so that every injustice gets confronted, every victim gets faced,every evil gets judged, and every person gets eventually, ultimately, redeemed, no matter how many millions of years it takes, because, on the other side of the grave, God has all the time in the world, to heal every soul God ever loved, which is every soul who ever lived; finally, eternally, redeemed, healed and home; a way of thinking about judgement which is more true to the best and most we know of God, than a hell with no point but perpetual punishment.
No one, of course, can speak of such mysteries with sure and settled certainty, but it does seem right to require what we believe about hell to match what we believe about God, instead of bending what we believe about God to match what we believe about hell. Amen.