He descended into hell
Two Canadians die and end up in Hell. Satan decides to pay them a visit, so he walks into their room and sees them talking and laughing. Confused, he asks them why they’re happy. They tell him, “Well, we’re so sick of the cold where we’re from, and this place is nice and toasty.”
Satan, annoyed, storms away and goes to Hell’s boiler room, where he turns up the temperature.
Satan goes back to the Canadians’ room, along the way being begged by all sorts of people to put the heating back down. He enters the room to see the Canadians having a barbecue. Furiously, he asks them what they’re doing.
“Well, we can’t pass up this wonderful weather without getting out the barbecue!”
Satan realizes he’s been doing the wrong thing. He goes to the boiler room and turns it down until it’s at a colder temperature than ever seen on earth.
Satan knows he’s won now, so he goes back to the Canadians’ room, only to see them jumping up and down in excitement.
He shouts at them in fury, “WHY ARE YOU STILL HAPPY?!?!?!”
They look at him and reply at the same time, “If Hell is frozen over! That means the Toronto Maple Leafs have won the Stanley Cup!”
Today we are going to talk about hell. Actually, I’ll do most of the talking.
When you think of hell, of what do you think? Do you think of a place bad people go when they die? Do you think it is a warm place, very hot, with flames? Do you think of it underground or down somewhere.
Do you think of Satan running it, in a red suit with a pitchfork?
Have you got images of it in your head?
I remember in the Bugs Bunny Cartoon, that Yosemite Sam would die and take a big elevator down to hell, where the devil would give Yosemite Sam a second chance if he would bring him Bugs Bunny.
I remember the movie Ghost when the bad people died the black little ghost demons would come and drag the bad person down to hell.
In Ghost the difference between going to heaven or hell was whether you were good or whether you were bad.
Have you learned that hell is a real place of torture for bad people when they die, or for those who haven’t accepted Jesus?
Do you think of it as physically down somewhere? Do you think of it as everlasting flames, or maybe everlasting punishment.
Most of us have a conception of hell, and what it is supposed to be like. And most of us grew up with that idea. Some of us have rejected that idea of a place of torture for all eternity for those who are bad, or for those who are not Christian. Some of us believe it. And some of us maybe believe in hell, but as darkness or separation, but maybe not flames and torture.
For the most part our images are not particularly biblical. They mostly come from the Middle Ages and the conception of hell as maybe depicted in Dante’s Inferno.
I cannot definitely say what happens after we die. I can tell you what the church has taught in the past. And certainly, the Institutional church both Protestant and Catholic believed in hell, as a place for bad people, or for non-Christians.
However, that was not the most common belief for the first three hundred years of Christianity. After Jesus died and the church got started, the most common belief was that when we die, we would all go to Jesus. That Jesus would reconcile all things and all people. That Jesus was actually saving the whole world and not condemning it. That one day at the name of Jesus, every knee would bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. Things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth, which is to day, those in hell, or those who were dead.
Jesus himself used words we have translated as hell. The problem when we see the word translated as hell, is that we mostly see in our minds the medieval version of hell. Fire, torture, everlasting punishment.
And to be fair there are some images in the New Testament that might lead one to this conclusion.
The word translated hell from Hebrew is Sheol. But if you look in the Old Testament there is no hint of afterlife. There is no heaven, or hell. And sheol basically meant the world of the dead, or the place of the dead, or basically dead. There was not the idea that these dead were living. They were dead.
A word that is translated hell in the New Testament is Hades. To the Greeks the word meant a Greek God, Lord of the underworld, or again the place of the dead. When Jesus used the word Hades he basically meant the world of the dead, or dead. One time he used it in a story about a Rich Man and a Poor Man Lazarus. When they die, Lazarus goes to Abraham’s bosom, and the rich man ends up in torment.
I believe this is an illustrative story, pointing out the dangers of forgetting about the poor. I don’t believe it is a literal understanding of heaven and hell.
Jesus believed, I think, as with most Jews in his day, that eternal life, was life here on earth, when the Messiah would come and the Kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven, God’s realm.
Jesus also used another word translated hell. The word is Gehenna, and Gehenna referred to a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem where garbage was burned. Historically it was considered a bad place where human sacrifice had been practiced. And this is the word that Jesus uses to talk about weeping and gnashing of teeth and outer darkness and punishment and torment.
There is one major piece of scripture that talks about fire and destruction and it is found in the Book of Revelation. It is the Lake of Fire where you will read that the devil and the false prophet and the beast end up.
Interestingly enough, death and hell, or death and Hades are put into the Lake of Fire.
Symbolically the Lake of Fire is the end of death and hell.
One must understand that the Book of Revelation is a highly symbolic and metaphorical book. Just because there is a Lake of Fire in Revelation does not necessarily mean a Lake of Fire is literal.
Nor does it mean that humans would necessarily end up in it.
Personally, I do not believe that the Lake of Fire is a literal representation of hell, for bad humans or non-Christian humans. You are free to disagree.
I believe that God will save all humans by the work of Christ on the cross.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in hell. Jesus certainly warned us about darkness, weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. He talked about being cast out. About fire…
And all this in reference to the soul. Do not fear those who can kill the body, but kill the body and soul in gehhena. Matthew 10:28
So, for our soul work today I want to think about that which kills the soul. I am not here to talk about what happens to you after you die, but to talk to you about hell here and now…
..because just as the kingdom can come on earth as it is in heaven…
… so too Gehenna can come on earth as it is in hell…
What is the worst thing that has ever happened to you?
I myself have been spared most of the awful atrocities that humans have visited upon other humans.
But I have sat with people in hell.
I have sat with parents whose child has died.
I have officiated at the funerals of those who took their own life.
I have heard 5th steps from those who lived the hell of addiction.
I have visited people who are in the hell of prison, and the hell of prison, is not just being incarcerated, but dealing with the hell of what got you there in the first place.
I have listened to the stories of those physically abused, and sexually abused, or mentally abused.
I know people who have been abandoned, rejected, despised, spit upon, because they were different. Different language, dialect, skin colour, sexual orientation, gender, clothes, theologies, politics or whatever.
I know hate. I know prejudice. I know violence.
We can look back in history to the hell of the holocaust or many other genocides in our past.
We can look back in our history to the institutional church as oppressor, dominator, torturer, and even killer.
We can look at the billions of poor in this world, who are poor because we humans don’t want to change the systems that make so many people poor.
“War is Hell”, said General Sherman of American Civil War fame. “War is cruelty” he wrote “and you cannot refine it.”
There are millions who live with violence as a daily threat.
On one level hell is the evil things that humans do to others.
On another level hell is the worst thing that can happen to a human.
But there is another way of experiencing hell. It is the experience of torment in your mind or soul.
It is emotional pain that never goes away.
It is the experience in your soul of hopelessness, or despair, or utter loneliness, or abandonment, or rejection, or worthlessness, or moral or ethical wilderness, or guilt, or shame.
Grief and loss can be like that for some people, an emotional pain that never goes away. And usually for those with whom the pain never heals, it is because the grief and loss are attached, to guilt, or shame, or hurt, or abuse, or something else that makes the wound septic instead of clean.
And yet there is another kind of hell that the soul can experience.
Both of my in-laws died of cancer. Cancer that according to the doctor grew inside for a number of years, although how long, one does not know.
They didn’t know the cancer was growing. They felt okay, but when the symptoms of the cancer started to be seen and felt, it was too late, the cancer had spread.
The soul can get a kind of cancer. It is the cancer of selfishness or greed, or power, or control or self-indulgence or meanness, or gossip or lies or any of a number of other ways of hurting others.
The thing is that is it like a cancer and eats away at the soul, but the person thinks they are okay, until one day it all comes home to roost and the soul is possibly beyond repair, in a terminal kind of condition. This is what I think the meaning of what Jesus says about cutting your hand off lest you might end up in hell. If you are doing things to others that cause them hell, it is causing hell in your own soul.
There is a story I think from our Aboriginal brothers and sisters that talks about the soul.
It suggests a solution to a soul in hell.
And the story in one of its many versions is simply this. A grandfather tells his grandson and granddaughter:
“There are two wolves fighting for dominance in your soul. One is darkness and despair and evil and self and hell and your false self. The other is love and light and kindness and goodness and heaven and your true self.”
“Which one wins, grandfather” they ask.
“The one you feed.” Grandfather replies.
- S. Lewis believed in hell, but he maintained it was a choice and that you could always walk right out of hell if you so chose.
It has a lot to do with what you feed your soul.
If you feel like you are in hell, the solution is to feed your soul, love and hope, and light, and goodness and compassion.
And that is not just surrounding yourself with those who love and care…
It is also being someone who loves and care.
One of the words used to describe how to be Christian is the word Praxis. Praxis means to exercise or practice.
So instead of thinking and believing as a way to find heaven and avoid hell in our souls, doing becomes the method.
Practice love. Practice hospitality, practice care and compassion. Feed the hungry. Visit the prisoner. Welcome the stranger and the different. Forgive the unforgivable and your faith will grow.
Let me tell you a parable from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
“Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: take now that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all of the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.”
This is a parable. Please do not take it literally. The point I want you to see is this. God can work with any small amount of goodness in your soul.
And what God wants to save is you. Not your status. Not your afterlife. God wants to save you from falling into a black hole of self-destruction brought on by a self-centered life. Jesus calls you to let go of yourself and be drawn into Christ’s saving orbit. Jesus is at work to save you from yourself. Jesus is at work to save your soul.
And strangely saving your soul is not about saving yourself, but thinking about others, because when you only think about self, the onion breaks and your soul drops down into self-destruction.
Jesus descended into hell so reads our apostle’s creed. One understanding of that is that Jesus died.
But another understanding is that Jesus knows the agony of the soul. As a human he understands violence, rejection, hate, exclusion and annihilation at the hands of others; and that is why he cried out, my God, my god why have you forsaken me. Jesus understands the torment of the soul.
One way to understand hell is not about what happens after you die, but what happens here and now, and we each have a lot to do with choosing. What will we feed our souls?
This is illustrated also in the story of the prodigal son.
The younger son, the prodigal tells his version of the story.
21 ‘Father,’ the son said, ‘I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.
The son says that he is a loser and a failure, that he is not worthy, that he is no longer worthy to be a son.
That is a common story that people tell. They talk about life like they are losers and failures, they blame themselves and can never achieve their potential, because they beat themselves up.
The elder son has his own version of the story.
‘Look, all these years I have worked for you like a slave, and I have never disobeyed your orders. What have you given me? Not even a goat for me to have a feast with my friends! 30 But this son of yours wasted all your property on prostitutes, and when he comes back home, you kill the prize calf for him!’
The elder son’s version is also a common story that people tell. It is the “life is not fair story” and I am the victim and everybody else is getting a better deal. It is story of pointing fingers and blame.
And the Father tells a completely different story.
The Father says that each of the two boys is his son; and that he loves them, cares for them, that they are precious and special and they are invited to share the wealth and joy and life of the father.
The difference between the stories is after all the difference between heaven and hell.
Whose story are you going to believe? The Prodigal’s
Are you going to live your life believing that you are a loser and a failure and that you are not worthy of anything, so you just should accept whatever comes your way?
Whose story are you going to believe? The elder brother’s
Are you going to live your life thinking it is not fair and it sucks and everybody else is always at fault and you have no responsibility for your own destiny or happiness? You are just another brick in the wall getting a raw deal.
Or will you believe the father’s story. That you were created in love, by love for love? …that you are loved and special, and important, and gifted; and that you were made to love and have joy in all the situations of life… That you were made to care for others and help others, no matter how difficult life is…
Heaven is being at the party, this party we call life and learning how to live in joy, and dance in love, and celebrate with all people, and invite people in and accept them and care for them.
Hell is being at the same party and being afraid and hiding in the corner and feeling not good enough to dance.
Or Hell is being at the same party and hating that others are there, that others have it better, that others don’t dance as well as you do, that others are eating too much, and that you are not getting the attention you deserve. And so, you find ways to put people down, to hurt by words, or to pick a fight.
Heaven or hell?
After all, it really is about which story you want to feed. Amen.