Preaching hell

October 28, 2013

Lazarus and Dives, illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

Lazarus and Dives, illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

Yesterday, during the last Sunday of our three-week stewardship emphasis, I preached a sermon on Luke 16:19-31, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. I joked that visitors in yesterday’s services had chosen a perfect Sunday to attend: I would be talking about both hell and giving money, two favorite topics rolled into one!

I mentioned briefly that, having been to seminary, I’ve heard plenty of creative reinterpretations of hell as depicted in the parable. The most popular goes something like this: Jesus’ point wasn’t to say anything about hell at all, or even that hell was a real place to which God sends souls after death. His point was to say something about social justice, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and preaching good news to the poor.

[But even that’s not quite right: hell was hardly Jesus’ point, since, according to this stream of thought, we know very little that was said by that barely literate, itinerant peasant-teacher Jesus. Rather, the parable reflects Luke’s evangelistic concerns. These commentators always make Luke seem like a much more interesting fellow than Jesus himself. According to these scholars, we know that it’s really Luke speaking, not Jesus, because he has Jesus use the word Hades (translated from the Hebrew sheol) rather than gehenna (translated into English as “hell”). This is the giveaway, they say: Luke is importing Greek philosophy into the parable, portraying an immaterial afterlife rather than the embodied afterlife of traditional Jewish thought.]

This is all silly, of course. Modern liberal scholars rarely get so creative about the parables of Jesus that they “agree with,” like the ones from Luke 15.

Besides, as I said in my sermon:

The point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is not that the highway between Jerusalem and Jericho is a dangerous, crime-ridden place; the point is to say something about loving our neighbor. But just because the highway isn’t the point doesn’t mean the highway didn’t exist, or that it wasn’t filled with bandits who wanted to rob you. Just as the Jericho highway was real, so hell is real.

Regardless whether it’s called hell or Hades, Jesus depicts a two-tiered afterlife immediately following death, a Paradise on the one hand and a place of torment on the other. As for the question of whether the afterlife is embodied, orthodox Christian thinking has always understood that the afterlife consists of two stages: a disembodied intermediate stage followed by general resurrection, final judgment, and resurrected life in a newly re-created world (for the redeemed). Since the rich man’s five brothers still walk the earth, it’s clear that Jesus is describing the intermediate stage.

As I said in my sermon, many Christians object to the idea that a loving God could send people to hell. These same Christians believe that God is a God of love in the first place mostly because of what Jesus revealed. Yet most of what we know about hell comes from the lips of Jesus himself. How is this not a classic case of picking and choosing?

A worse alternative to believing that we misunderstand what Jesus says about hell is saying that Jesus—limited in his understanding, a victim of his time and place—was wrong about hell—as if we’re now the moral geniuses who know better than Jesus what a “God of love” would and wouldn’t do. I’ve made this point about Satan, but it also applies to hell: If Jesus is wrong about a doctrine as central to his teaching, why do we trust him when it comes to doctrines that we agree with? If Jesus is wrong about hell, how do we know he’s right about God’s love, mercy, and grace?

So I appreciate that “new atheist” writer (I can’t remember which one) who strongly disagreed with many of his colleagues that Jesus was the proverbial (if condescending) “great moral teacher” because he found Jesus’ teaching on hell barbaric and bloodthirsty. Good for him! Unlike so many well-meaning Christians among us, he didn’t try to separate one part of Jesus’ teaching from another.

No, a far better alternative (to say the least) is to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt: if we can’t reconcile our understanding of love with Jesus’ words about hell, then let’s assume our understanding of love is wrong.

And here, as in so many other places, C.S. Lewis helps us out. Yes, hell poses a challenge to us, he concedes. If the Bible is our primary authority—not to mention the words of Jesus himself—we can’t simply dismiss the doctrine. But if we think about it, the doctrine is also reasonable, and reason is the cause that Lewis takes up in his chapter on hell in The Problem of Pain (my all-time favorite book, by the way):

There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies ‘How if they will not give in?’[1]

We may respond, “Yes, but who wouldn’t ‘give in’ if the alternative is an eternity in hell?” Lewis answers this question. In a nutshell, if we can’t see how that’s possible, then we’ve misunderstood the nature and power of sin. I also like Lewis’s saying that while “no one can make that surrender but himself,” many can help him make it. This gives urgency to evangelism.

I’m not persuaded (and Lewis isn’t, either) that everyone gets a second chance to respond to the gospel after death, because God knows that often a second chance, or even a millionth chance, may not avail. What we know for sure is that we have the opportunity right now to respond to the gospel. Again, our evangelistic task is urgent!

I agree with Notre Dame professor Jerry Walls that everyone, in the interest of justice, will get a sufficient amount of grace (which may differ from person to person), to decide whether or not to receive God’s gift of salvation in Christ. How or when this happens we can’t say.

I especially like this (which I quoted yesterday):

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.[2]

1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 119-20.

2. Ibid., 130.

3 Responses to “Preaching hell”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I like what you say, “if we can’t reconcile our understanding of love with Jesus’ words about hell, then let’s assume our understanding of love is wrong.” I think this applies “across the board”–if we can’t reconcile our understanding of ANY action of God with love, then our understanding of love is likely the problem.

    So, I would suggest that this warrants a belief in the “conditional” as opposed to “unconditional” nature of love. In fact, I would suggest that hell itself is the chief example of this. God freely offers us his love and grace; if we reject that, then we lose that. (As C.S. Lewis suggests, God can’t “force” us into a loving relationship.) Heaven and hell wait in the balance.

    I particularly note that those of the Church Body who believe in falling from grace, as the Methodists do, are in an especially weak position to argue that love is unconditional, even for believers, since hell is still possible for them should they too ultimately reject. “Since you ignored all my advice and would not accept my rebuke, in turn I will laugh at your disaster; I will mock when calamity overtakes you…. Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me.” Proverbs 1:25-32 (NIV) (selections) (including “did not choose to fear the Lord”). What, after all, is the “absence” of a “love relationship” which God does not, and cannot, force upon us?

  2. Amy Daniel Says:

    I really enjoyed your sermon, which emphasized both hell/sin, and giving money.

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