Harry Potter, Dentures, and Fracking: The Point of It All.
The following was given as an insert to our church’s bulletin.
Some Introductory Thoughts to Three Weeks in Hell
In my preparation for these sermons, I’ve realized that it’s not just a conversation about hell. It’s bigger than that.
It’s a conversation about God. Jesus. Spirit. Faith. Identity. Trust. Relationship. Church. Life… Us.
As we enter the conversation, here are 3 quick notes.
1) I could be wrong. And so you could you. We see through a glass darkly (1 Cor 13:12). But I do believe that if, as a community, we do our best to follow Jesus in loving God and loving our neighbours, we’re on the right track.
2) That being said, there are 4 ways to engage the conversation.
i) During the service, you can text me any questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them during the Q and Eh part (with thanks to the Winnipeg Jets and the Meeting House to stealing “Q & Eh”).
ii) We will continue the conversation over a cup of fair trade coffee as part of the Extending the Learning Conversation.
iii) Follow along at www.kylepenner.wordpress.com. Feel free to submit a comment or question there, and I’ll do my best to respond to you. You’ll also find my reading list there.
iv) Hellbound is a great movie exploring different perspectives on hell. If you’re interested in a movie night at Mel’s house, sign up on the back table in the foyer.
3) I’m not intending these sermons to be doctrinal statements for our church or academic essays. Without preaching for many hours (thank goodness we’re not), we can’t cover all there is to say. Rather, I’m hoping that with some different perspectives (and good questions) on hell, in a small way we’ll be able to better understand who God is and how we live in this world as followers of Jesus.
Picture a tiny town with a tight-knit community. The people share joys and concerns, woes and gossip. They keep a close and affectionate watch on one another’s business. They talk and talk and talk.
What an outsider would notice within minutes of listening in on conversations, are constant and slightly self-conscious references to Uncle Ben. A beautiful sunset prompts someone to say: “Isn’t Uncle Ben awesome?” Good news brings out how thankful and overjoyed they feel toward Uncle Ben. Even in tragedy, a local might say, in slightly nervous fashion, “You know, it just goes to show how much we all need Uncle Ben. I know – we all know – that Uncle Ben is good.” Uncle Ben is always on their mind.
At the beginning of each week there’s a meeting in the largest house in town. Upon arriving, people get caught up in good fellowship and animated discussion of the week’s events, with conversations straining in the direction of Uncle Ben. When a bell sounds, talk ceases. Everyone moves to the staircase and descends into the basement. Each person sits facing an enormous, rumbling furnace. Seated close to the furnace door, as if he were part of the furnace itself, is a giant man in black overalls. His back is to them.
They wait in silence. In time, the man turns around. His face is angry, contorted. He fixes a threatening stare of barely contained rage on each person, then roars: “Am I good?”
To which they reply in unison, “Yes, Uncle Ben, you are good.”
“Am I worthy of praise?”
“You alone are worthy of praise.”
“Do you love me more than anything? More than anyone?”
“We love you and you alone, Uncle Ben.”
“You better love me, or I’m going to put you… in here” – he opens the furnace door to reveal a gasping darkness, with sounds of anguish and lament coming through. Uncle Ben finishes, “Forever.” (David Dark, as found in the Love Wins Companion)
How does that story, courtesy of David Dark, make you feel? Ugh. Blah. Yrch. Uncle Ben isn’t good. He’s a monster. He’s terrible. Is God, like Uncle Ben? What kind of God would do that?
Good questions. Necessary questions.
In preparing to speak about hell, a number of you asked: “Why? Why should we talk about hell?”
Well, let’s start with a question.
What’s the point of faith? What’s the point of God? What’s God’s character? What’s the point of this all? Is it to get to heaven and avoid hell? One of you shared with me that you were told by a grade 3 classmate that you were going to hell because you were reading Harry Potter. I don’t blame the 8 year old. But where does the kid get this from? But then another one of you shared that your child was told that their dad is going to hell because he works on Sundays. And this was told not by a child, but by their religion teacher in school. Ah! So now we know where the 8 year old got it from. (Well, if reading Harry Potter and working on Sundays is a highway to hell, I guess I’m on my way). For the people telling kids that working on Sundays and reading Harry Potter leads to hell, I’m fairly sure that for them, faith is about avoiding hell.
Let’s just get right into it.
If you think that this whole Christianity thing is about avoiding hell and getting to heaven, I disagree.
I know that’s a fairly, strong, possibly arrogant statement, but I really mean it. The Christian faith is not a message of “turn or burn.” The Christian faith is not simply fire insurance. Go to an insurance broker for that (there’s a good one on Main Street that I know of). Being a follower of Jesus, I believe, is far better than that.
Let’s take a look at the words the first evangelists used to tell people about Jesus. Did any of them say this? “Accept Jesus as your personal saviour or you you’ll go to hell.” No! They didn’t. That means that the people who spent the most time with Jesus, the first people to share the news of Jesus outside of their borders, the first ones who said “Because Jesus died and rose again, something happened”, the first Christians who died for their faith… Not one of them made mention of hell as we know it. Declare Jesus as Lord and Saviour? Yes. Repent? Yes. Live lives worthy of the gospel? Yes. Do it because if you don’t, you’re going to go hell? No.
Let’s start with looking at what the Bible says about hell. (I know this is short (really short), but I don’t think you want to hear a 45 minute lecture on the words used for hell).
Whenever we read the word Hell in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word is actually Sheol.
Sheol is translated as “grave”, “pit”, or “abode of the dead.” It’s a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and unrighteous. If everyone goes there, it’s certainly not a traditional picture of hell.
Sometimes when we read the word hell in the New Tesament, it’s the Greek word Hades. Hades is actually just the Greek translation of the word Sheol, and also refers to the abode of the dead. The only passage that describes Hades as a really, really bad place is the story of Lazarus and the rich man, which we’ll get to that in future weeks.
And finally, most of the time that we read Jesus using the word Hell, he’s really using the word Gehenna. Gehenna is the name of the Valley of Hinnom, the ever-burning garbage dump southwest of Jerusalem. Its history in the Old Testament involved child sacrifice occurring there, and after King Josiah stopped that practice, it was an accursed garbage dump. Always on fire, always smoking, full of garbage animals, and often the bodies of the worst criminals were dumped there (Randy Klassen). When Jesus spoke of Gehenna, his hearers would think of the valley of rotting, worm-infested garbage, where the fire always burned, smoke always lingered, and if the wind blew just right, would sicken the senses of whoever smelt it. It was a place of total disgust and horror (Sharon Baker). Kind of like the Steinbach dump <smile>.
That was a lot. I know. To recap, the idea of hell being this place opposite of heaven where we are in eternal torment, is, I find, not biblical.
Where did this idea come from?
Well, the concept of hell as a place of torment for sinners was actually a concept more or less borrowed from other religions, especially the Persians, and used more or less as a tool to coerce and enforce behaviour, or, as some would say: Turn or Burn.
But Jesus does use the word Gehenna a lot. He actually talks more about hell than heaven. So what’s going on there?
Well, here’s a question for you. When Jesus did use the word hell, to whom was he speaking? He wasn’t speaking to the “sinners”, the bad people, the outsiders, the non-Christians… He was speaking to rich people and religious rulers. He was speaking to the insiders. To the good ones who didn’t smoke or dance or work on Sundays. He even told the Pharisees,
15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell (Gehenna) as you are.” Matthew 23:15
Ouch. He calls them seagulls who live at the dump.
But, what about the coming wrath that John the Baptist refers to?
Well, if you keep living like this, the Romans will crush you. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. And they did. In the year 66 CE, the Jews took up arms against the Romans, and in the year 70 CE, the Romans crushed them. Killed everyone. Lots of weeping and gnashing and teeth. Ground their city into dust. Nothing left. Nothing. Wrath and darkness.
But… what about the goats?!
Us Mennonites love Matthew 25, and the parable of the sheep and the goats. The sheep get eternal life and the goats get eternal punishment!
(Thanks to Rob Bell and Shane Hipps for the following).
The Greek work for eternal is Aeon, which doesn’t mean time never ending, as in thousands, and millions and billions of years from now.
Aeon means an intense present experience, that has a beginning and an end, like time slowing down. Your kid gets up on water skis the first time and is all smiles? Those 2 minutes last forever. Your kid is throwing food in a restaurant? Those 2 minutes last forever.
In the Old Testament, the word Olam is translated Eternal. Some people think it means forever. But it’s also the word used to describe how long Jonah was in the fish. So it could also mean 3 days.
And the Greek word for punishment here is Kolazo, which is rooted in horticulture. It can mean punishment. But it can also mean: A time of pruning, a time of trimming, an intense experience of correction. It’s not this torment that is going to last forever. It’s a time-out. And, if I may borrow an analogy from my 3 year old, when she is in time out, there is a lot of wailing, moaning, pain, weeping and gnashing of teeth. And then, 3 minutes later, it’s over. Unless she doesn’t listen again. Then it’s back into timeout she goes.
Taking Jesus’ words on hell literally also leads us to some funny questions.
How can there be total darkness where there is fire?
Are there places God can’t really be? Like, really? Pslam 139 speaks of us hiding in the depths, but God finding us there. 1 Peter 3 speaks of Jesus preaching to the dead spirits. Huh?
If there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, are people without teeth given dentures when they go to hell?
So maybe Jesus is speaking a bit more metaphorically than we sometimes give him credit for. And, given that none of the first disciples ever used hell as a motivator to consider the Christian faith, I think we need to rethink this whole God as Uncle Ben the monster thing.
There is so much to say. So much.
But alas, we don’t have time. Let’s go back to the gospels of Jesus.
(The following is from The Last and the Word After That, by Brian Mclaren)
The gospel of John never uses the word hell. Mark barely mentions it. Matthew and Luke mention it, but Luke softens much of Matthew’s statements. So really, Matthew has the most hellfire and brimstone in it.
If you go through every passage in Matthew that talks about hell or judgment, and take note of the Behaviour, Consequence and Point, what do you end up with it? What’s the biggest point of Jesus’ teaching, right?
“Many people would think that it looks like this:
Behaviour: Not accept Jesus Christ as a personal saviour, not being saved or born again, not asking Jesus into our heart so your sins can be forgiven, etc.
Consequence: Being sent to hell.
Point: Accept Jesus as your personal Saviour.
But, if we actually did the exercise and comb through the gospels, we’d find that not one of the passages in the gospel of Matthew says anything remotely like this.
If you do this, and please do, you might find this:
Be Fruitful. Now. Bear fruit now. Don’t just talk or say the right things, but live out the teaching of the Kingdom of God, especially in the area of compassion for the weak and needy and vulnerable.
It was clear that Jesus wasn’t saying anything goes, everything’s OK. He was telling people that they would be held accountable, that how they live now would count forever. Even his followers will face judgement. But he emphasizes this so that they’ll not be hypocritical or complacent now.” (Mclaren).
The point, is living in the Kingdom of God. The point, is the rule of God in our hearts and in our world. The point, is fruitful living now.
The point, is the fruits of the Spirit. Of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control. And that if we don’t bear fruit, we will be cut down and thrown onto the burn pile.
I think that Jesus uses such strong language because I think the consequences of not living fruitful lives are huge. The consequences really matter.
Have you talked to a police officer? Creating hell is a very real choice for all of us.
Have you ever talked to somebody who works for Child and Family Services? Creating hell is a very real choice in our world.
Have you ever been a victim of violence? Creating hell is a very real choice.
Have you ever been to a refugee camp? Or in a conflict zone? Have you lived with someone with a substance abuse problem? Or lived with someone who has an addiction? Do you know someone who doesn’t care about others, only themselves? Do you know an island nation or two that might literally disappear if the polar ice caps melt? Do you know someone who uses fear and shame to belittle or control others? Or a landlord who doesn’t fix holes in the windows or call an exterminator? Do know someone who has been the victim of abuse? Or someone who doesn’t give a rip about relationships? Do you know someone who has been disowned by their family? Or know someone who works two jobs and has trouble feeding their kids? Do you know a child soldier? Or someone working in the sex trade? Have you heard the stories of residential school survivors? Do you know someone who wants to work but can’t and has trouble feeding their kids? Or know someone who has to go to the hospital and doesn’t have a ride? Do you know a community whose water supply has been contaminated because of fracking? Do you know someone who is alone in this world?
Creating hell is a very, very real choice in our world. Some of it is personal. Some it is systemic. But it’s a very real option.
Rob Bell puts it nicely (Bell, in Love Wins):
“We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.
The choice of living in heaven or living in hell is very real. It’s just not about the afterlife. It’s about our lives, now. Because, if we don’t make the right choices, I think we miss out on something that could be beautiful.”
I think if we hang on to anger, I think it’s poison in our own soul, and we miss out God’s best for us.
I think if we choose to be selfish, we miss out.
I think if we choose violence, if we keep giving into substance abuse, if we don’t get help for our addictions, if we don’t apologize when we make mistakes, if we believe that we are insignificant, if we don’t work towards forgiveness when we’re wronged, if we don’t turn the other cheek, if we don’t walk the extra mile, I think we miss out on the beauty that can be found when we live the life Jesus invites us to.
If we don’t love our neighbours, if we don’t live in solidarity with the marginalized, if we don’t use all of our power and privilege for those who need it the most, if we don’t seek reconciliation and restoration for both the oppressed and the oppressor, if we don’t take care of God’s good earth, if we don’t try to love our enemies, if we don’t exist for the benefit of the other, I think we miss out on the beautiful life Jesus invites us to live.
This is the invitation before us. The choice. It’s not “turn or burn.”
It’s, “Do we trust that following Jesus leads to love?” Love for you, for me, love for the entire world? It’s a choice we have to make every day of our lives. It’s a choice to make when life is good and when life is hard and when our faith is strong and when our faith is weak. Do we trust that following Jesus leads to love? A love that transforms us? A love that transforms everything? Do we trust that following Jesus leads to love?
*To my internet readers. These are sermons I preached at a small Mennonite church in Steinbach. We have people with multiple university degrees, and people who haven’t finished high school yet. We have 88 year olds in the pews and 13 year olds in the pew. And I firmly don’t believe that sermons are academic essays. So I probably missed some stuff, or some scholars may disagree with me, or you think I should have gone deeper in some places, or you may even disagree with me. I get that. I ask for your grace. And your best bet would be to make the trip to Steinbach (I hear it’s worth the trip) for the next 2 Sundays and sit in on our life giving conversations about hell (that last little bit is ironic, isn’t it?).