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Hell … and other stories

September 26, 2015

abandon-hope-all-ye-who-enter-here-e1285714292550Psalm 124           Mark 9:38-50

It has been a season of warnings. Warnings are acts of kindness. Today we have another warning.

Jesus has had people coming with their desperate needs, some are hungry and thirsty, some are not themselves (possessed) and they come to him for healing. And they also came to people who were not part of the close group of disciples. And Jesus had such a reputation that these people were also healing others in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. It seems they believed in the power of that name. He was the one to be associated with. And the inner circle of disciples didn’t like that. But Jesus says, whatever you do, don’t put a stumbling block in front of ‘these little ones who believe in me’. Whatever you do you need to be ready to help the ‘little ones’ who come in desperation and in need.

Or perhaps he meant those who reach out to the needy especially in Christ’s name should be encouraged, not discouraged. Whatever you do don’t discourage the ministry of newcomers, of beginners. Some people talk about the importance of being a ‘permission-giving’ church. A church that is not so much about controlling everything and making sure only what we, the leaders, approve of happens, as it is about encouraging people to get involved in the mission of Jesus and make their own mistakes along the way.

 

If that’s what its about Jesus has some serious warning for those who hinder the ministry of others… If you do it you’d be better dead, better if a millstone was tied around your neck and you were thrown into the sea – quite a gruesome image really.

 

But Jesus doesn’t stop with that gruesome image, he gets gruesomer. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off”. In the context he is still talking about things that undermine the ministry of the kingdom of God… things need to be eliminated at all costs. Things that stop the community of Christ focus on its true calling and mission…: Get rid of them! And if you don’t act quickly, if you don’t cut the hand off early on, or gouge out your eye… or whatever… you’ll go to hell.

 

That’s what Jesus says… simple as that… except of course what we mean by hell might be quite different from what Jesus does.

 

Perhaps I should have warned you… today is my sermon on hell. The door is that way.

 

Let me throw some Bible verses at you that you may not have thought about, to start us thinking about hell. Before we come back to this text and look at it again, hopefully with fresh eyes.

 

Romans 5:18-19 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 

How many people does Paul believe will go to heaven? 

Romans 11:32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

How many people is God wanting to be merciful to? 

1 Corinthians 15:22for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

Who will be made alive in Christ?

 1 Corinthians 15:28When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

What is the final state of creation? 

1 Timothy 2:3-4This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

What does God want? 

1 Timothy 4:10For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.

Who is God the saviour of? 

1 Corinthians 3:15If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.

How are we who build in the kingdom of God to be saved?

 

Let’s hold onto that thought that we will be saved ‘through fire’ for a moment.

It’s not actually a good idea to take bible texts like I just have… out of context… to prove a point. I haven’t looked at all the bible verses I haven’t at all attempted to look at the whole story, at the big picture and give a theology of hell. I’ll try and do a little bit of that in a minute. But it’s important to know that this view of “salvation for all” is actually is controversial stuff. In spite of in spite of what the apostle Paul believed, or at least hoped for, a lot of people still believe differently. They imagine, like St Augustine did, that in the end the world will be divided between two cities sealed against one another, heaven and hell. There have been many down the centuries, especially in Western Christianity who have grimly held onto the belief that hell is a place where God will continue to inflict conscious torture on the large mass of humanity forever. On the other hand there are fewer but still many, including famous Church Father’s like Gregory of Nyssa from the early few centuries of the church whose vision of the future is one of a movement of all creation into the glorious life of God. Not two cities but one. But for now let’s go back to our gospel reading.

In verse 45 Jesus says

“it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire”

 Literally what he says is ‘it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna’. Gehenna is the name of the rubbish dump outside Jerusalem that was constantly burning. The translators know that Jesus is not simply talking about people being thrown into that particular rubbish dump. They know that the dump has become a metaphor/symbol for something else, so they use a different word. The word is hell. But what does it mean? What is Gehenna (the dump) a metaphor for? Is Jesus warning them about eternal conscious torment after they die? Or is he talking about something else?

I think the most important clue is quite simple. In other places in the bible ‘fire’ (like the fire of the Gehenna rubbish dump) is a metaphor for purification, transformation, healing even. It is surely possible that Jesus is warning his disciples about the pain and difficulty of healing and purification that will result if we fail to take good care of the least among us. Our welfare hinges on how we treat the least.

Perhaps the bad thing (fire) is actually, in the end, a good thing… In the end it is redemption because it changes us. These are tough and scarey warnings… but if we a right about this, and if Paul is right about God’s commitment to redeeming the whole world… we need to ask ourselves one more question

So does Jesus actually believe in hell?… as we have come to think of it in the west? Does Jesus think like Augustine of two cities sealed off from one another, where some live in eternal torment and some eternal bliss?

Now let’s took at the next verse (Mk 9:49)

For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good

Everyone! Not some in hell and some not. Everyone will need some of the salty fire, or fiery salt… He’s mixing up his metaphors now. I guess he is warning his disciples because some actions require more fire than others. But in the end of the day, Jesus says ‘salt is good’. Just like the fire is good. Salt brings out the flavour, the goodness of the meat. Salt preserves the meat. Salt cleanses. From time immemorial they have put salt on wounds. It’s an antibacterial agent. It brings healing. There’s a sting in the healing. But in the end the salty fire is not hell – as we have learnt to imagine it.

Notice that the rubbish dump, Gehenna, is said to be unquenchable. What does that mean? I think it means that God’s desire to heal and transform his people is unquenchable. God will not give up on each of us or on this community until all people are saved and all creation is at one with God – whether that be in this life or the next.

 

Let’s look at the next for a minute then. I want to finish by turning you to the end of the Bible the last two chapters of revelation have fire too …. In the end, says John, God is calling and gathering all peoples.

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth… and I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying:

“See the home of God is among mortals. He will live with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away”

Then as the vision goes on it talks about a lake of fire…

The cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.

That’s a mysterious phrase – second death – maybe in the light of the purifying fire, it reminds us of what Paul talks about in Romans… the dying with Christ of the old self and the new life that follows. Maybe the lake of fire is a kind of baptismal death? Maybe?

But listen to the final image of the heavenly city with its gates open and a welcome call to those outside who are free to enter:

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Blessed are those who wash their robes so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood 

It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star. The Spirit and the Bride say “Come.” And let everyone who hears say “Come”. And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. Rev 22:13-17

 At the very end then… the vision is one not of two separated cities – heaven and hell. It is the vision of one city of God, gates open and an invitation to sinners of all kinds to come, to wash, perhaps even to be washed in the fire. It is a vision of movement and welcome, and finally (if Paul has understood this correctly) of complete redemption, where God is all and in all.

 

 

 

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