Evangelical Pastor and author Rob Bell begins his extraordinary 2011 book "Love Wins," with a story about an art show at his former church. "I had been giving a series of teachings on peacemaking," he writes, "and we had invited artists to display paintings, poems, and sculptures that reflected their understandings of what it is to be a peacemaker. One woman included in her work a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, which a number of people found quite compelling. But not everyone," he writes. Bells wrote that some blessed anonymous soul, at some point in the exhibition, attached a post-it note to the painting that read: "Reality check: he’s in hell." 1
There are few topics that will get Christians, or anybody else, as riled up as much as any kind of bold statement about who is in heaven and who is in hell. As Bell writes in his introduction:
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus.2
The Creed says that Jesus "descended into hell"? What in the world does that mean?
Not surprisingly, scripture speaks with many voices about this thing we refer to as ‘hell’. There isn’t an exact word or concept in the Hebrew Scriptures for hell other than a few words that refer to death and the grave. Sheol, a dark, mysterious place people go when they die appears a number of times in wisdom literature, particularly in the psalms, like in verse 8 of psalm 139 today. There are other references to a place of the dead, the valley of the shadow of death that we know by heart from psalm 23. Most of these references, as I see them, make a point that has far more to do with God’s love than about anywhere people end up. I am always suspicious about Christian writers explaining what they think the ‘Jewish worldview’ is, so I called our friend John Friedman, rabbi at Judea Reformed, and asked him what he thought about Sheol. He said that we (Jews) don’t know what the word means; it is the place where all souls, go after death. In the later rabbinic period and into medieval times sometimes people are consigned to hell, but this was not something Jews were particularly concerned with. It remains something they aren’t really concerned with.3 The Hebrew Scriptures keep our eyes focused on our love of God in this world. It is nuanced, of course, but the point is that God’s love transcends creation, that God’s love and power is bigger than all we see, bigger than our experience of life and death.
The New Testament is, as you would imagine, a bit more complicated. The main Greek word that gets translated this way is the word gehenna – it is used 12 times, 11 of those by Jesus. Ge means valley and henna means hinnom. Gehenna, the valley of Hinnom, is an actual valley on the south and west side of Jerusalem.4 Its history was notorious – during the monarchical period, between King David around 1000 BCE and the Exile, some renegade kings of Judah engaged in forbidden religious practices there, including human sacrifice.5 Jeremiah calls it the Valley of Slaughter (19:6). King Josiah destroyed it, and it gained a sort of mythic reputation for a place of fiery destruction and judgment. In Jesus’ day, it was the town garbage dump, where people threw their waste of all kinds, fires constantly burning, wild animals fighting over scraps of food and flesh.
My sister spent a year in the Philippines through a volunteer in mission year for the PC (USA), living in the slums of Manila. We went and visited her sprawling neighborhood, concrete block and scrap metal as far as the eye could see. As we left the alley that was her home, we walked through a low area that flooded every time in rained. Dead rats floated by. A child was electrocuted there the week prior when a power line someone had rigged up dropped in a puddle he was playing in. Around the corner was a massive pile of trash down below us in what was supposed to be a massive drainage culvert. The government didn’t come here to pick up trash, so people just threw everything – food scraps, clothing, plastic, human waste, down there. Gehenna, the valley of Hinnom. Hell. Hades, roughly the Greek equivalent of sheol, is used in Luke, II Peter and 3 times in Revelation to refer to the murky underworld, the place of the dead.
That rather tedious background is only to go to show that the biblical portrait of hell is not entirely clear. I fear that we have allowed cultural assumptions, from Dante or Greek mythology or silly cartoons, to creep into the way we think about what hell is, or who it is for. Our understanding of hell – or heaven, for that matter -may also tell us more about US than about God. Who, fundamentally, do we believe God is? What is God’s posture towards us? I, for one, am unwilling to assert that a newborn baby who dies, that a 14 year-old who claims to be an atheist, that a person on the other side of the world who hasn’t been disrupted by a Christian missionary, if they happen to die, that they will be assigned to this place of fire for eternity because they haven’t prayed a pre-set prayer accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior. If that is how it works, I am not on board.
Too often the word hell is used by our brothers and sisters in the Christian family as something to hurl at non-Christians as a threat. If you don’t believe what we believe, agree with what we say, then we have a couple of verses that say where you’ll end up, lakes of burning fire. But what Jesus does is a bit different. In the Sermon on the Mount, right after the Beatitudes, he tells the crowds that those who are angry or insult others will be liable to the gehenna of fire, or also if you right hand causes you to sin, you should cut it off rather than your whole body end up in gehenna. Mark’s 3 instances are these same verses. In Matthew 23 Jesus tells the Pharisees that their hypocrisy is leading others to gehenna.6 There is one appearance in James warning us to watch our mouths. In Luke 16 Jesus tells a story about Lazarus, very poor, and a rich man. The rich man ends up in Hades because he doesn’t see and care for the poor right in front of him. Like in Matthew 25… judgment, according to Jesus, is about how you care for the poor. There is a great quote from Shirley Guthrie in your insert, which also give us some guidelines for thinking about this life and whatever is in the next. As Bell puts more succinctly, "Jesus did not use hell to try and compel ‘heathens’ and ‘pagans’ to believe in God, so they wouldn’t burn when they die. He talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love."7
That is not to say that hell isn’t real, simply that the ways scripture speaks of some place of judgment beyond this life is not as clear as we might like to think. Sometimes it is a place for all who die; sometimes it has to do with judgment for this life. Sometimes that judgment has to do with belief; just as often it has to do with what we do, how we live, the way we take care of each other, of those who are hungry and sick, poor and alone. Like with most topics, what we think about hell gets at the core of who we believe God is. I also think it can reflect on who we are, as well.
I also bet there are some neighborhoods outside Aleppo, Syria, right now who understand, though, that hell is not some antiquated idea to be dismissed. Hell exists in places in Africa where children are slaughtered, in quiet rooms where children and spouses are abused and who suffer in silence, in places of utter separation. Places of deep depression, in hospital rooms, in solitary confinement. I bet you can imagine some of those places; maybe you have been there. There may well be, too, a place of suffering beyond this world. But, what I believe the Creed is trying to tell us – beyond any examination of the mechanics of the afterlife – is that Jesus’ sacrifice was real, and that there is nothing, not even death itself, that God has not redeemed. Jesus himself has been to hell, whatever and wherever it is, to prove to us that God’s love is without limits, unbound, magnificent and free.
All praise be to this God, who has been into the heart of the worst of it, and comes out, to us, with love. Amen.
1. Rob Bell, Love Wins, (New York: HarperOne, 2011), p 1. This book informs much of this sermon and I would highly recommend to those interested in engaging this topic more fully.
2. Bell, viii.
3. I am grateful to my friend Rabbi John Friedman at Judea Reformed Congregation for his insights this week.
4. Bell, 67.
5. HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, ed. by Paul Achtemeier, (New York, HarperCollins, 1996), p 365. Biblical references to these practices are found in II Chronicles 28:3 and 33:6. Jeremiah spoke of judgment for this in 7:31-32 and 19:6.
6. With search help from bible.oremus.org
7. Bell, 82.