Sunday, January 30, 2011

Hell

Mark 9:41-48

January 30, 2011

It’s a good thing I didn’t preach this sermon last week. Last Sunday, when I pulled into the parking lot, the thermometer on my truck read -13. At that temperature, some of you would be thinking hell is a good place to be. Last week, I told you that I’d been asked by a couple of folks to preach on the subject. I can assure you, no one has asked me to preach on hell. But it seems fair; if you’re going to talk about one, you should talk about the other. As a child growing up in the South, I’ve heard sermons about hell. I’ve heard preachers talk about how hot hell is going to be, basing their information not on scripture but on physics and the temperature to melt metals. Such sermons would make a Stephen King’s horror story seem tame. I’m sure the preacher’s hope was to get us to repent and convert. Sometimes, in our zeal to achieve, we play loose with the rules. We think everything goes as long as we win or achieve our goal. Such an attitude is wrong in life, in sports, in business and certainly in religion. The ends do not justify the means.

Don’t expect to hear a hell-fire sermon from me. Ultimately, hell is the place totally cut off from God and that, in and of itself, should be horror enough. I like how N. T. Wright, the British theologians I quoted last week, began a sermon of his on hell with the statement that if we find ourselves wanting to believe in hell, we’ve got a problem. “The desire to see others punished—including the desire to do the punishing ourselves—has no place in a Christian scheme of things,” Wright wrote.[1] “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord.[2] So it is with humility that I approach this subject, along with a lot of uncertainty as we’re again talking about the future of which we’re vastly ignorant. My text today will be from Mark 9:41-48.

###

I must have been around 11 or 12 years old. My brother and I were staying with our cousins on their farm; the four of us were sharing the same bedroom. We’d been joking around for much of the night, when we should have been sleeping. It wouldn’t be long before Frank, their dad and our uncle, would be in the room and when he was present in the disciplining mode, he was frightening. But that would come later. At this point, as we were all in the room supposedly trying to go to sleep, we found ourselves talking quietly and saying things boys shouldn’t but do. It was then that I called one of them a fool. I don’t even remember who it was, but Tim, my youngest male cousin immediately said that I was going to burn in hell. That was a sobering thought, and I couldn’t believe it was in scripture. Tim swore it was. He got out his Bible and I think we put the lamp on the floor between the beds so that no one outside the room could see that we had a light on and Tim started looking. He kept thinking it was here or there, but he couldn’t find the passage and soon we went on to other topics. Everyone forgot about it, except for me. But then, I was the one being threatened with hell-fire; this was serious business in my world. Then next day, at my grandparents, I got out a Bible and with the help of a concordance, I searched and was shocked to find the passage.[3] I didn’t share my new discovery, but I’d heard enough about hell in my short life that I made a change. Just in case I wasn’t too late, I stopped calling other people fools. And to this day, I am bothered by that word.

Before I get into our text, let me say a bit about the words used for hell in Scripture. There are two words in the Greek that are often translated as hell, but they have different meanings. The first word is Hades. In the Old Testament, in the Hebrew, this is Sheol, the place for the dead. It’s not always seen as a place of punishment.[4] But it is believed to be in the underworld. In Isaiah, we ready about a sign of God being as “deep as Sheol and as high as heaven.”[5] In the Psalms, we read about God even being there and it being a place to which we all go, sooner or later.[6] In the New Testament, this place goes by the Greek name Hades, which in Greek mythology was the place of the underworld.[7]

Yet, there is another word in the New Testament that gets translated as hell. Gehenna was the name of a valley south of Jerusalem. It was the place of idolatrous sacrifices, including human sacrifices, which were done under two of Israel’s renegade kings. The place later became the city dump and trash fires burned there continually.[8] In the New Testament, there are twelve references to this place, all referring metaphorically to the place of fiery judgment or, what we now know as hell. The popular version of hell as a place of fire that is under the earth comes from a merger of these two words—the Hebrew Sheol and the Greek Gehenna, along with some references in places like Revelation to a lake of fire.[9]

Jesus, in this passage, is discussing how we relate to one another. In verse 41, he promises a reward for doing things in his name. A cup of water given to someone thirsty, in Jesus’ name, is commendable. But then, in the next verse, Jesus moves on to actions that we do that cause others to stumble (or to lose their faith). To cause “little ones” (be they children or new followers of Jesus) to fail to grow into the faith is a serious crime against Jesus. We’d be better off dead, is what he’s telling us. Jesus then, using hyperbole, tells us that if we find something keeping us from moving into the Christian life, we should get rid of it. Now, do I think Jesus really intends us to cut off a hand or foot or pluck out an eye? No, I don’t. The body, in and of itself, is not bad. We’ve been created by God and our bodies are the temple in which we worship the Almighty.[10] Instead, I think Jesus is emphasizing the seriousness of that which creates a barrier between us and God. If something causes us a problem and we can’t let go, if we can’t get rid of it, we’ll be doomed.

You know, we often think of hell as a place for the unbeliever, but in this story told by Jesus, he’s not talking about those who do not believe. He’s discussing believers, those who should know better but don’t change and who lead others astray. In this way, the meaning of the passage is strong and twofold: don’t cause someone else to stumble in their walk and get rid of those things that cause us to stumble. We can’t hold on to our cherished sins and enter heaven!

Mozart’s classic opera, Don Giovanni is a retelling of the Don Juan story.[11] At the end of the opera, the deceased father of one of Don Giovanni’s many lovers drags him into hell. As the flames are seen on stage, the character is pulled down among a chorus of demons. As he descends, he refuses to repent of his hedonist lifestyle, a life filled with rich food, good drink and many women. He could have renounced his sinfulness and humbled himself and lived, but he was too proud and accepted hell. Pride does that to us.

In C. S. Lewis’ fable, A Great Divorce,[12] which is about heaven and hell, we’re told that there is a bus that goes daily from hell to heaven. Lewis describes hell in a way that sounds a lot like winter in England (or West Michigan for that matter). The place is always damp and cold and dreary. But few ever take the bus out of hell because to go to heaven, you have to give up everything. You’re not allowed to bring any baggage with you. And people can’t give up stuff, they want to hold on to it, and therefore they don’t make the journey.

I think Jesus is saying the same thing here. Get rid of that which may cause you to fall, that which has the power to keep you out of paradise. Such things will not be found in heaven.[13] Such things cannot be in heaven, or heaven will cease to be. Leave them behind and come, follow me!

For the last three weeks, I’ve been dealing with three important theological concepts: judgment, heaven and hell. We’re not yet privy to all there is to know about any of them. Judgment, heaven and hell belong to another realm. As a way to help us get our minds around these theological concepts, I have placed in the bulletin for the last three weeks helps from our Book of Confessions. Hopefully, these have been useful to you. Today, I have both a question from the larger catechism about hell, as well as John Calvin’s thoughts on the place. I must say that I like how Calvin deals with hell.

Now, because no description can deal adequately with the gravity of God’s vengeance against the wicked, their torments and tortures are figuratively expressed to us by physical things, that is, by darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth, unquenchable fire, and undying worm gnawing at the heart. By such expression the Holy Spirit certainly intended to confound all our senses with dread: as when he speaks of “a deep Gehenna prepared from eternity, fed with fire and much wood; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, kindles it.” As by such details we should be enabled in some degree to conceive the lot of the wicked, so we ought especially to fix our thoughts upon this: how wretched it is to be cut from all fellowship with God.[14]

What is hell really like? I can’t give you an exact description. Scripture doesn’t provide us with one. Much of what is said about hell is in parables, which are stories to illustrate something deeper, or in apocalyptic literature which is shrouded in mystery. The imagery of hell in Scripture is often symbolic and there are no true first hand accounts. But that said, I can promise you this: the prospect of being cut off from God is so horrible that we should all come to God begging and pleading that we might be made new. Yet, that should not be the primary reason for us to seek out God. We should not come to God out of fear, even though God is to be feared, but out of love and gratitude for the love God has shown to us.

I often like to end a sermon by giving you something to do or to think about… Today, let me say that I don’t think it is good for us to spend too much time worrying about hell and what it’s like. It would be like us spending time worrying about an illness for which we could easily be vaccinated. Instead of worrying about hell, we need to be vaccinated, we need to look at and follow Jesus. He’s our Savior; he’s our Lord; he’s the way to the Father in heaven.[15] Amen.

©2011 Jeff Garrison and First Presbyterian Church, Hastings, MI



[1] N. T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 92.

[2] Deuteronomy 32:35. See also Leviticus 26:25 and Romans 12:19

[3] Matthew 5:22

[4] This is not always the case especially in Proverbs. See Proverbs 23:14; 15:24; and 30:16

[5] Isaiah 7:11

[6] Psalm 139:8, 15:24

[7] See the article by Richard Bauckham , “Hades, Hell” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume III, 14-15.

[8] Duane F. Watson, “Gehenna,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume II, 926-928

[9] Revelation 20:14

[10] 1 Corinthians 6:19

[11] Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Don Giovanni (1787)

[12] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (1945).

[13] Revelation 21:8

[14] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion III.xxv.12

[15] John 14:6