There is a valley south of Jerusalem that was once famous for being a center of toxic religion—idolatry is the name the Bible gives to toxic religion. Seven centuries before Christ the place was called Tophet and a shrine was there, where the practitioners of various toxic religions sacrificed their children. Tophet was in a valley once owned by the son of Hinnom. Ge-ben-hinnom is “valley of the son of Hinnom” in Hebrew. Over time the name of the place was shortened to Gehenna.
King Josiah, the best king Judah ever had, destroyed the shrine of Tophet. After that, the whole Hinnom valley was used as a garbage dump. Jesus used the imagery of Gehenna, the rotten, smoldering, stinking center of toxic religion, as a warning. Those who prey on children, those who slander others in their arrogant self-righteousness, are in danger of ending up in Gehenna.
Matthew 24 and 25 tell about the Day of Judgment, using several parables. These parables give several disturbing images of the fate of those who fail the judgment. In one parable a servant who got drunk and beat his fellow servants is punished by being “cut to pieces” and given a place with the hypocrites, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. That one is puzzling. If he is cut to pieces, it sounds like he is dead–but there is wailing, so it sounds like the hypocrites being punished there are still alive.
In another parable the punishment is being excluded, shut out. Those who are not prepared miss out on the joy of the wedding. They show up too late, the gates are closed and locked, and they are left outside in the darkness. In another parable a lazy slave is thrown out into “outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then in the parable of the sheep and the goats, the goats are thrown into the eternal fire, the place prepared for the devil and his angels, the place otherwise called Gehenna.
Jesus used imagery and he used hyperbole to make a point. The point was always serious. C.S. Lewis said we should be careful about being too certain about the geography of heaven or the temperature of hell.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s revivals swept across the frontier. There were tent meetings that lasted for days and weeks. And in the preaching there were always vivid descriptions of hell. And people were terrified. And worse, many of the preachers had a theology that said, “You are probably going to hell and there might not be anything you can do about it,” because God has already chosen those who are going to heaven. Some people got saved and others just got scared.
In the 1800 hundreds, several new religions arose as a way of dealing with the revivalist teaching of Hell: The Seventh Day Adventists teach extinction. Those who are not saved are just dead forever. The Mormons teach there are several different degrees of afterlife, some get to live on the earth, and then there are lower and higher heavens that others go to. The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that a few will go to heaven, many will be resurrected to a good life on earth in the Kingdom of God, and those who refuse to repent will be destroyed.
The Disciples taught nobody has to go to hell, anyone can be saved. You are not saved by belonging to the right church but by trusting your life to Jesus. He has given us easy ways to tell if we belong to the elect or not. If you are willing to turn from your sins, declare your faith in Christ, and be baptized in his name, you can have confidence that you are saved and on your way to heaven.
Many today are still disturbed by the idea of hell or eternal punishment after death. What is most disturbing is that it sounds cruel and it seems arbitrary and unfair.
C.S. Lewis said “the Bible is meant for grownups,” by which he meant people who knew how to read literature. Lewis was troubled by the idea of hell, but he also believed it was important. He believed it was important to say that the choices we make in this life have consequences that extend throughout this life and beyond, even into eternity. One of Lewis’s influences was G.K. Chesterton, who taught that “hell is a tribute to the dignity of man.” Another influence was George McDonald, who was a universalist. McDonald believed that Hell is a devise God uses to bring the lost to repentance. It is like the pigsty the prodigal son found himself in.
C.S. Lewis was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature. He also loved the Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy, is a depiction of hell. It is a place God in his mercy prepared for those who chose to reject God’s love. Sinners get the choices they have made. The sin one chooses is the punishment for sin. Those who chose in life to be swept away by passion and lust, are swept off their feet forever in the Inferno, driven by relentless cold winds. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, again, hell is the result of human choice, God’s gift of freedom. Satan describes himself as one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same?
C.S. Lewis wrote his own book on heaven and hell, called the Great Divorce. It is a dream about a visit to the “gray world,” a joyless, lifeless place that is either Purgatory or Hell, depending on how long one stays. A tour bus takes a group of the residents to heaven, which is a beautiful, joyous place; but they don’t like it. It’s too real. They are too used to their own alternative reality, they can’t handle true reality. All but one of the tourists voluntarily get on the bus and go back where they are comfortable.
I think we have to say a few things about Jesus’ parables of judgment. First, they use imagery. The imagery points to something real and terrible: exclusion, missed opportunity, living in the land of toxic religion, fire, pain, and weeping. The imagery points to end result of a life of blind self-indulgence as well as a life deceived by toxic religion. Hell is “a place with the hypocrites.” Judgment begins in this life. The choice of sin is the punishment for sin. The punishment for selfishness is loneliness, self-imposed exclusion from the joyous celebration God invites us to join.
Second, judgment is a reality. We are responsible for how we live and we will be required to give an accounting. The choices we make in life are serious, and we have no guarantee of a second chance.
Third, God desires the salvation, the well-being and joy of all people. God is love. There are several ways Christians have tried to reconcile the biblical imagery of hell with the Love of God. One way is that hell is the most gracious accommodation God can make for those who refuse his grace. Hell is the painful refuge. Rather than destroy his creation, God gives them a place where they can continue in the existence they have chosen.
Another way is to say hell is redemptive punishment, meant to bring lost souls to repentance. It is a second chance. Is there a hint of hope in Jesus’ words, “you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”
Another way is to say hell is a warning. It is a picture of what the hard-hearted deserve, but God has already provided the alternative. Hell was not created for any human being, God does not desire anyone to be lost in this life or in eternity, and God has provided a way anyone can have the assurance that they are God’s children and nothing can separate them from his love.
There is one more issue that may trouble us. What about those who have never heard of Jesus?
The parable of the Sheep and the Goats gives us an answer if we reframe the question. Make it, “What about those who have never met Jesus?” And the answer is surprising.
There is no one who has never met Jesus. It’s just that he comes to us in disguise.
He comes to us in the form of those we consider least important. He comes to us disguised as the hungry person we meet, or one who is thirsty, or in need of clothing, or homeless. He comes to us as the refugee, the immigrant, or the one in prison.
You have probably heard that if you want to go to heaven, you have to accept Jesus. It’s true. But what if he already came to you and you rejected him or ignored him? You’ll meet him again.
Jesus is so gracious, he comes to us in many forms. He comes to us in the word, the word in the Bible or in the sermon. He comes to us in the form of his body the church. He comes to us in the bread and the wine. And he comes to us in the people we meet in the street. But make sure we understand: If we have prayed to accept Jesus into our hearts–we are missing something if we don’t accept him when we see him in the street.
When the King comes he will separate the people of all nations into two groups: the sheep and the goats. The sheep are those who welcomed Jesus when he came to them in disguise. They will have a wonderful surprise. The goats are those who rejected Jesus when he came to them in disguise.
I don’t want to be a goat.