Archives For Hell

We continued our Lenten sermon series, The 7 Deadlies & the 7 Ways Jesus Us, by looking at the disciples’ envy in Mark 10.35-45 and what’s sometimes called the Ransom Theory of the atonement.

You can listen to it here below or download it in iTunes. Better yet, get the free mobile app.

When it comes to the act of writing, writers sometimes have strange habits.

James Joyce wrote with a blue crayon on pieces of cardboard while wearing a white lab coat and lying down on his stomach. jamesjoyce_whitecoat

 

penn02Truman Capote could not write if there were more than 3 cigarettes in any nearby ashtray; meanwhile, while Stephen King forces himself to write 2,000 adverb-less words every day.

 

Ernest Hemingway, the author of A Farewell to Arms, bid adieu to his clothes every morning. He wrote completely naked and forbid anyone to return his clothes to him until he’d written his requisite number of words. ErnestHemingway

 

When it comes to the act of writing, writers can have odd habits.

I’m no Hemingway but when it comes to writing sermons my habit is to get up first thing in the morning, get right out of bed, go straight downstairs, put on a pot of coffee, sit down at the dining room table and immediately start writing.

     In my boxer shorts.

     And nothing else.

     It’s a habit I started in seminary and it’s served me well.

For the most part.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was busy writing my sermon.

As is my habit, I was sporting boxers and bed-head and nothing else. My wife and sons were gone, getting breakfast before going shopping.

I was alone, and I was writing and I was approaching that ethereal, Aha moment where I knew what I wanted to say and what I wanted the sermon to do when I heard a knock at my front door.

I got up from the table and I walked unsuspecting to the front door. I didn’t ask who it was. I didn’t look through the window to see.

I just assumed it was my wife and kids needing to be let inside. So without thinking (and without putting any clothes on) I opened the front door.

     Just so you can picture this in your mind’s eye:

     This is my front porch. photo

    photo copy

This is what I typically look like in the morning.

 And these are the boxers I had on on that particular morning. photo 2

 

And standing in front of me were 2 elderly women, African American, both of whom wore stern-looking glasses and had sterner-looking buns in their hair and were wearing long, mournful black coats.

     Assuming they were there to sell me some thing or some cause, I went into my standard evasive maneuvers: ‘Yo soy el señor Dennis Perry. No hablo Inglés. Sólo Español. Buen día.’

But I hadn’t rolled my ‘r’s’ properly on Perry. So they squinted at me, not buying it.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘my wife has the checkbook. I can’t buy whatever it is you’re selling.’

The lady at the top of my stoop widened her eyes and said ‘We’re not here to sell you anything, dear.’

And the woman on my bottom step said ‘Or you might say we’re selling the most important thing there is.’

As she spoke she opened up this fake leather Trapper Keeper and pulled out a piece of paper.

She handed me the paper and asked: ‘Did you know that if you died tomorrow there’s chance you could suffer eternal punishment in Hell?”

     I looked down at the piece of paper.

They were Jehovah’s Witnesses. images 9.36.08 PM

 ‘Did you know that if you died tomorrow there’s chance you could suffer eternal punishment in Hell?”

‘That’s funny,’ I said, ‘I was just thinking I must’ve died yesterday.’

‘What was that?’ the one on the top step asked.

‘Oh nothing, never mind.’

She adjusted her glasses, looked down at my boxers and then bent her eyebrows in to a frown. ‘You look cold so we’ll be quick. When was the last time you read the Holy Bible?’

‘Um, actually you just interrupted me.’

‘Oh really? So then you already know that Jesus Christ was punished for your sin so that you can leave this fallen world and go to heaven when you die?’

‘That’s 1 way of putting it I guess.’

‘1 way? Oh no honey, that’s the only way! That’s the Good News: God punished Jesus Christ in your place so you can be forgiven and go to heaven. It’s just like the signs say.’

‘What signs?’ I asked.

‘You know, the ones that say ‘1 Cross + 3 Nails…’

I finished the equation for her: ‘Equals 4-given?’ images 10.51.35 PM

 

If I were to ask you about the Cross, then you might say there’s only 1 way of putting it too. You might answer with the same sort of Jesus Equation:

God punished Jesus for you sin

so that God can forgive you

so that you can go to heaven when you die.

It’s not that that’s the wrong way of putting it.

It’s more like- if the question is how does Jesus save us on the cross, there’s more than one right answer.

The language we most often use about the cross- about Christ suffering for our sin- that’s just 1 way St. Paul has of speaking about the cross.

But, even more importantly, its not the language Jesus chose to use.

The meaning we so often give to Jesus’ death- it’s not the meaning Jesus himself ascribed to his approaching death.

Jesus knew he was going to die.

As soon as John the Baptist gets executed, Jesus had to know he would get killed too. And the closer Jesus gets to Jerusalem, the more he alludes to and predicts his Crucifixion.

You probably already knew that.

But you might not know that Jesus only makes sense of his death, he only uses scripture to reflect upon his death, he only interprets his death twice.

Just two times.

He does so at the Last Supper.

And before that, he does so here in Mark 10, when James and John, the sons of Zebedee, reveal just how captive they are to envying the world’s brand of power and glory.

An envy that quickly ensnares the other 10 disciples too.

     It’s their envy that provokes Jesus to tell them that he’ll give his life as a ransom for many.

      Last Supper.

     Ransom for many.

     Those are the 2 times Jesus interprets the meaning of own death, and both connect back to the Passover.

To the story of the Exodus.

The word ‘ransom’ Jesus uses- in Hebrew the word is ‘padah‘

פָּדָה

‘Padah’ means release and rescue from captivity.

‘Padah’ in the Hebrew scriptures refers exclusively to God’s rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt, to their exodus from suffering, to their liberation from bondage.

So what Christ says to the disciples about his life being a ransom for many is exactly what Christ says to them again at the Last Supper.

In both cases Jesus casts his death as a Passover. As an Exodus.

And that can only have one meaning.

For Jesus, his death will mean our deliverance from captivity.

His death will mean our freedom.

 If it was all about our guilt and sin, if it was only about Jesus suffering punishment so that could be forgiven and go to heaven, then why would Jesus interpret his death- why would Jesus schedule his death- light of Passover and not Yom Kippur?

After all, Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, the day when the people’s sins are covered over by the blood of another.

Yom Kippur is the day when the guilt of your sin is taken off you and put on a scapegoat.

Yom Kippur is the day when your sins are washed white as snow and you’re forgiven.

But Passover-

     Passover’s not about forgiveness.

     Passover’s not about atonement or guilt or punishment.

     Passover’s about liberation from captivity.

     Passover’s about being ransomed into freedom.

 

The woman at the top of my stoop shot me a warm smile when I finished my Jesus Math for her: 1 Cross & 3 Nails = 4Given.

But I was cold. My aha moment- whatever it might’ve been- had vanished, and I was irritated.

So I said: ‘If that’s the only way of putting it, then how come Jesus never talked about it that way?’

Their countenance darkened.

The one on the bottom step said: ‘Honey, I’m not sure you know quite what you’re talking about.’

The other, the one on the top step added: ‘Maybe you’d like to talk to a pastor sometime?’

‘Actually…uh…I’m a pastor.’

And like IRS auditors, they examined the toothpastey drool  at the crook of my mouth and my polar bear boxers and, after an awkward silence, announced the obvious: ‘You don’t look like a man of the cloth.’

‘Yeah, I get that a lot.’

‘Well, since you’re a pastor,’ the one on the top stoop said after another awkward silence, ‘maybe you could give us some advice.’

‘What kind of advice?’

      ‘Going to door to door like this,’ she said, ‘so few people read the Bible. Do you have any advice for making Jesus seem relevant to people in their lives?‘

     And I thought about it and I said:

     ‘Maybe instead of treating Jesus like fire insurance for eternal life you should show people how Jesus frees us for this one.’

It could’ve been the polar bear boxers but what I’d said- I could tell- it didn’t compute.

Their polite but vacant expressions told me that what I’d said about Jesus made as much sense as saying that 1& 3 adds up to 5.

 

When Jesus uses a loaded, story-saturated word like ‘ransom’ about himself.

And when Jesus takes the Passover bread and says not ‘this is the body of the Passover’ but ‘this is my body.’

And when Jesus picks up the cup and says that the blood of the passover lamb is his own.

     He’s saying something very different from what we usually say

when we talk about the Cross.

 

When we talk about the Cross, we make it about escaping from this world.

But when Jesus talks about the Cross, he makes it about our rescue in this world.

 

When we talk about the Cross, we make it about going to heaven when we die.

But when Jesus talks about the Cross, he makes it about his dying so that we can live on earth as it is in heaven.

 

When we talk about the Cross, we make it about God’s forgiveness of our sin.

But when Jesus talks about the Cross, he makes it about God freeing us from Sin.

Freeing us not just for heaven but for the here and now.

 

When Jesus picks up the bread and the cup, when Jesus says his life will be a ransom for many, he’s telling his disciples that his death will be a New Exodus.

 

That just as Israel was set free and given a new identity and delivered to a promised place-

So too will we be set free from captivity

So too will we be given a new identity

So too will be delivered to a whole new place in life

A place where will live the promised Kingdom in the present.

When Jesus picks up the bread and the cup, when he says his life will be a ransom for many, he’s telling us that just like Israel in the Exodus, God rescues us not to wait around for another world but so that we can be a light to this world.

That’s why the Gospels, go out of their way to tell you:

That Jesus was without sin and was innocent of the charges against him- just as the Passover lamb is to be perfect and without blemish.

 

That Jesus was flogged before he was crucified- just as the Passover lamb is to be bled before it is hung.

 

That Jesus’ bones, despite the soldiers’ intentions, were not broken- just as the Passover lamb’s bones are not to be broken.

 

And it’s why the Gospels tell you that darkness covered Jerusalem for 3 hours as Jesus died- just as darkness stretched across Egypt for 3 days before God freed his people.

 

It’s why the Gospels tell you that when the soldier pierced Jesus’ side, water rushed out just as God led Israel to freedom through the Sea.

 

     The Gospels want you to see that the cross isn’t just your ticket to heaven or hell.

     It’s your exodus to a new life.

 

A friend of mine found out what I’d planned to preach today, and she asked me if I’d share part of her story.

And I said no.

I said ‘no, why don’t you share your story.

So here it is. I only wish I’d had this to play when the Jehovah’s Witnesses asked me for advice on making God relevant in people’s lives:

 

Did you hear what led to her being a prisoner to addiction?

     Not liking herself.

Not thinking she was good enough.

Wanting to be someone, anyone, else.

What the Church calls envy. The first sin of the fallen world.

And did you catch what words she used to describe her addiction?

     Life Sentence.

     Captivity.

     From Bondage into Blessing to be a Blessing.

     Freedom.

It’s not on the recording but at one point she told me that her Rescue wasn’t something anyone could do for her. And it wasn’t anything she could do by herself.

     Rescue, she said, is what God does.

     It’s what God does.

 

When we talk about the Cross, what we so often miss is that sin isn’t just something we commit.

Just like the Israelites in Egypt, just like the Jews under Rome, sin is something that captures us.

Sin isn’t just something we’re guilty of; it’s also something that binds us.

And so it isn’t just something we need to be forgiven of.

Just as much- if not more- it’s something we need to be freed from.

ALG195548When Jesus talks about the Cross, Jesus chooses Passover- not Yom Kippur- because Jesus wants you to look at the Cross and see that God is in the rescue business.

When Jesus talks about the Cross, he doesn’t say ‘This is my body…this is my blood’ so that you’ll come up to the communion table with grim faces and remember a punishment that should’ve been yours. No.

Jesus says ‘This is my body…this is my blood’ so that you’ll march up here, joyful, like Pharaoh’s army just got swallowed up by the sea.

And your chains?

They’re broken.

When Jesus talks about the Cross he says ‘I’m your Passover’ because the good news of the cross is that you have been set free.

From whatever binds you.

That means- for Jesus, salvation isn’t something you wait for until after you die.

Salvation is here and now.

    Salvation is people in bondage being rescued by God and delivered to a new place in their lives.

And just ask my friend- that journey isn’t easy and it might take as long as Israel wandered in the wilderness after the First Exodus, but it doesn’t mean you’re not free today.

You see when we talk about the Cross we get the math all wrong.

     We say the equation is 1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4Given. 

But Jesus-

     When Jesus talks about his Death, it’s 1 Cross & 3 Nails 4Freedom.

 

hand-over-the-money-sirThis week we kick off our annual stewardship campaign, that time of year when people who give to the work of the Church say ‘It’s about time the preachers are talking about money’ and the people who do not give to the work of Christ complain ‘There they go again, always talking about money.’

The theme of our sermon series for the campaign is Enough, which could be taken as a double entendre given that a good many people just want to scream ‘Enough!’ over any mention of money in church or any suggestion that discipleship manifests itself through sacrificial generosity.

Oddly, United Methodists have made it impolite to talk about, much less preach about, two things that any honest reading of the Gospels shows consumed Jesus the Preacher:

Hell

&

Money

Just take this old sermon from 5 years ago. The text is Luke 16.19-3. Proving why we eventually crucified him, Jesus delightfully combines both those taboo topics, money and hell, into a disarming parable.

Last weekend I officiated at the wedding of a friend of mine in Farmville, Virginia. After the marriage ceremony was over, I was standing on the sidewalk outside the church, shaking hands with people, when this middle-aged woman with horn-rimmed glasses rushed up to me, thrust her hand out and began pumping my arm up and down.

“Reverend, that was so wonderful!” she said.  “Your sermon was so warm, lovely and uplifting. Most of the preaching I’ve ever heard is either about money or its all fire and brimstone. Do you know what I mean?” she asked.

I didn’t say anything one way or the other.  I just smiled and moved on to shake the next hand, but I could’ve said: ‘Excellent! You should come to my church next weekend- Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria. Next weekend we’ll be talking about money and hell.”

Did you know:

Jesus talks about Hell more than Paul, Peter, Isaiah, Daniel and Ezekiel combined?

Did you know:

In St. Luke’s Gospel Jesus is constantly talking about money?

Now that I can see that you’re totally pumped about today’s sermon, let’s get started.

To understand this morning’s parable you need to know that it’s not told in a vacuum. This isn’t just an isolated, independent story. It has context. You need to know who Jesus is talking to here. You need to know that Jesus tells this story to the Pharisees, the wealthy religious leaders who have been standing on the sidelines, sneering sarcastically. By the time you get chapter 16, they’re openly mocking and ridiculing Jesus.

Now, to really hear this parable you also need to understand how the Pharisees read scripture. For the Pharisees, wealth and possessions and material prosperity were signs of God’s blessing and favor. Today we call their way of thinking the ‘prosperity gospel.’ If you can picture the Pharisees as a bunch of grumpy-faced Joel Osteens- minus the capped teeth- then you’ve got the right idea.

For the Pharisees, if you HAD it was because God gave it to you…because you deserved it. So if you didn’t have it was because, well, in God’s eyes you didn’t deserve it. In other words, for the Pharisees money was not a means to some other good, it was a good in itself. It was a possession. It was a sign that God had found favor with you. Money was not a means to further God’s Kingdom it was instead a sign that God’s Kingdom had blessed you over others. And, as you can do for anything else, the Pharisees found plenty of scripture to justify themselves.

And then this Jesus comes along, and he doesn’t conform to what they think a religious person does or what a rabbi looks like. And they hear this Jesus say things like:

  • “Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God will be yours, but woe to you who are rich for you have already received your consolation.”
  • “Whoever would follow me, first go and sell all that you own.”
  • “Do not worry about your wardrobe or your budget or you house or your groceries. Worry only about furthering God’s Kingdom and God will take care of everything you need.”
  • “If your wealth’s not serving God’s Kingdom, then you’re serving your wealth. You can’t serve both of them, Money and God.”

And that’s when they start to sneer. You see, for the Pharisees, Jesus wasn’t just different, he was dangerous. It’s not simply that Jesus didn’t conform to their expectations; it’s that he would change everything about the way they lived their lives. Jesus would invite God into parts of their lives where they didn’t want him.

So in verse 14 of today’s chapter, the Pharisees start to mock Jesus, ridicule him, hoping to diminish him in the eyes of the crowd. And Jesus, since he’s Jesus, responds by telling a story.

I normally hate people who explain stories, but today Jesus’ parable is too pregnant with subtlety and meaning to do otherwise. So, humor me and pull out your bibles and turn to Luke 16.19 and I will try to unpack this for you.

Verse 19- “There was a rich man…”

The parable Jesus tells is actually a storied version of what he preached in his sermon on the plain: ‘Blessed are you who are poor/Woe to you who are rich…You’ll get the Kingdom/You’ve already gotten your reward.” Jesus begins his parable by laying a trap for his hearers. He says: there was a rich man who wore the kind of clothes you can’t find in a store, clothes only Paris Hilton can afford. This rich man ate extravagantly every day.

And already Jesus’ listeners- the Pharisees- already they don’t know where Jesus is going with this. They would hear Jesus describe this man’s threads and his dining table and, just based on that, they would say: ‘This guy has made it made. This man is blessed. This man is righteous.’

Verse 20: “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus…” 

Like many wealthy people, this man has isolated himself from the rest of the world, from the needs of others. Jesus says the rich man lives in his very own gated community. Outside the rich man’s gate, lay a poor man. The word your bibles translate as ‘lay’ actually in Greek means ‘dumped.’ This poor man outside the rich man’s gate was dumped there by someone else. So not only was he poor, he was probably crippled too.

You will see that Jesus sets up the poor man as a mirror contrast to the rich man. The rich man is covered with fine linen, the poor man is covered with open sores. The rich man feasts opulently every day, the poor man begs for what falls from the rich man’s table- and Jesus doesn’t just mean scraps of food. In Jesus’ day, the wealthy would eat with their hands and then, rather than a napkin, they would wipe the grease off their hands with a piece of bread. Then they would dump the piece of bread onto the floor. The poor man’s not begging for leftovers or scraps. He’s literally begging for the rich man’s trash. Instead Jesus says dogs from the alley treat him like garbage, licking his open wounds- which, just to add insult to injury, makes the man ritually impure. Evidently, the poor man is too weak to even scare off the dogs.

The poor man is a contrast to the rich man in every way. As much as the rich man has, the poor man lacks that much more. Just as the Pharisees would’ve assumed that the rich man was blessed, this poor man- they’d say- was cursed. He must have done something to deserve his life.

But Jesus sets up an even more striking contrast. Notice: the rich man doesn’t have a name, but the poor man does. Lazarus. The poor man’s name means ‘God is my helper.’ You can even translate it: ‘God is on my side.’

In all of Jesus’ parables, in all four of the Gospels, Lazarus is the only character with a proper name. The rich man has everything, but he doesn’t have a name. The poor man has nothing, but he does have a name. What’s Jesus getting at?

The rich man is nothing more than his possessions; what he has is all that he has. He’s built his identity around his possessions so that he has no identity apart from them. This is Jesus saying that if you don’t build your primary identity around God, you don’t really have a ‘you.’ You’re defined instead by your stuff, success, things, title, job, or rank. Like any story, Jesus wants you to wonder who you are in the story. Do you have a name? Do you have an identity rooted in God? Is there a you beneath your material life? Are you about something bigger than you?

Verses 21-22: “The poor man died…” 

Death comes to both men, Jesus says. No one tries to save Lazarus’ life, but neither can the rich man’s wealth protect him from death. The rich man is buried because he can afford it. Lazarus is not because he cannot. Probably his body just lay abandoned in the alley until it was scavenged by dogs, burnt or carried off to a dump. In Jesus’ day, not to receive a burial was considered a mark of shame, a sign of being cursed by God.

Instead of shame, Lazarus is carried off by angels while the rich man, Jesus says, goes to Hell.

Verse 23- “In Hell, where he was being tormented…” 

I imagine this is the point in the story where Jesus really had the Pharisees’ attention. Dennis begged me this week not to say anything at all about Hell- especially given that it’s the stewardship campaign and we’re running a deficit- but I just want to look at what Jesus is getting at here, and Dennis can plug his ears for the next few minutes.

Sometimes people will ask me: ‘You don’t believe in a literal Hell, do you? With literal flames and physical torment?’

And to be surly, sometimes I respond by saying: ‘Oh no, I think Hell is much worse than that.’

Today’s parable gets at what I mean when I say that. Probably, most of you all have in your minds a caricature of Hell. Hell, you probably think, is a place God sends people against their will for some sin or lack of faith they committed. Hell, in other words, is where God sends such people and shuts the door and closes off any chance for them to repent. And maybe you even think God enjoys the justice of it.

Now compare that to Jesus’ parable. According to scripture, no one’s trying to get out of Hell- that’s what makes it Hell. According to scripture, you’re only in Hell as long as you choose. Hell according to Jesus isn’t a place God sends people. Hell is us holding onto our freely chosen but false identities. Look at verse 24 to see what I mean.

Verse 24- “Father Abraham have mercy on me, and send Lazarus…” 

So, he’s in Hell. Notice what the rich man doesn’t ask for:

  • He doesn’t ask to get out.
  • He doesn’t ask for forgiveness.
  • He doesn’t ask for God’s presence.

What does he do? He says: ‘Father Abraham, it’s kind of hot here. Send Lazarus to bring me some water.’ Those of you who are perceptive, close readers will notice something: the rich man knows Lazarus’ name. It’s not that Lazarus was hungry and begging outside the rich man’s gate and the rich man was ignorant of his need. No, he knows his name. The rich man ignored him. It’s not that he didn’t know. He didn’t see Lazarus as someone worth the expense of his time or his wealth.

‘Father Abraham,’ the rich man says, ‘send Lazarus to bring me some water.’ Even in Hell, the rich man still sees Lazarus as an object, as someone who should serve him. In other words, he doesn’t see Lazarus at all because, even in Hell, the rich man still clings to his false, material identity. He still thinks his stuff makes him something above others.

Verse 27-28: “…send Lazarus to my father’s house…” 

Skip down to verse 27. The rich man still shows no repentance. He still doesn’t ask to leave. He still sees Lazarus as someone who exists only to serve him.

“Send Lazarus to my father’s house,” asks the rich man, “send Lazarus to warn my brothers so that they won’t end up here too.” Now the rich man is worried about his brothers, but he has yet to realize that his problem, his sin, is that he never saw- still doesn’t see- Lazarus as his brother. The rich man goes to Hell not because he’s rich but he’s let his wealth pull down the shades on his brother’s need.

Actually, the rich man’s not really concerned about his five brothers either. Look again at what the rich man says in verses 27-28: “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers so that this doesn’t happen to them.” What’s the implication of the rich man’s request? He’s saying: ‘I didn’t know this was going to happen to me. This isn’t fair. My judgment’s unjust.’

Verse 29: “They have Moses and the prophets…” 

In effect, in verse 29, Abraham replies to the rich man: ‘You don’t need special signs from God to know what God wants with you in the world. What are you waiting for? God has told you again and again, in Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Amos and Hosea and Micah and Zephaniah and Malachi and Isaiah and Jeremiah. God has told you over and again that you’re to care for the poor. You’re to lift up the lowly and bring your brother to the Table. That’s what the Kingdom of God looks like.’

Verse 30: “…if someone goes to them from the dead…” 

But the rich man doesn’t give up. He says: ‘Still, if you send Lazarus back from the dead, then you will get my brothers’ attention and they’ll repent.’

Verse 31: “…neither will they be convinced…” 

You know…some people are scared of fire and brimstone. But scares me…what’s terrifying about the way Jesus ends his story is his warning that we can believe more in the worth of our material lives than we believe in what God finds worth in.

What scares me is Jesus suggesting that we can get so caught up in ourselves, in the importance of our stuff, our possessions, our self-made, false identities- we can get so caught up in our material lives that not even a message from someone who died and rose again will get us to change. That, sounds like Hell.

How We Go to Hell

Jason Micheli —  August 20, 2013 — 3 Comments

rich_man_and_lazarusIn my church, we’ve got a steady stream of people who come in off the street, asking for ‘assistance.’

Money.

A lot of times- maybe it’s the time I spent working in a prison- my cynicism gets the better of me and I sense a shakedown.

Other times- maybe it’s the time I’ve spent in Guatemala learning both the damage of charity and the value of empowerment- I rationalize that ‘helping’ in this case won’t really help at all. It’ll just perpetuate the problem.

And 9/10 I’m probably correct in both those former thoughts, which would be fine if I wasn’t stuck dealing with Jesus on a daily basis.

Because my work makes it impossible for me to ignore Jesus- try as I may- I’m haunted texts like this:

‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.* The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.* He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’ – Lk 16

 

Did you know: Jesus talks about Hell more than Paul, Peter, Isaiah, Daniel and Ezekiel combined?

Did you know that in St. Luke’s Gospel Jesus is constantly talking about money?

To understand this parable you need to know that it’s not told in a vacuum. This isn’t just an isolated, independent story. It has context.

You need to know who Jesus is talking to here. You need to know that Jesus tells this story to the Pharisees, the wealthy religious leaders who have been standing on the sidelines, sneering sarcastically. By the time you get chapter 16, they’re openly mocking and ridiculing Jesus.

Now, to really hear this parable you also need to understand how the Pharisees read scripture. For the Pharisees, wealth and possessions and material prosperity were signs of God’s blessing and favor. Today we call their way of thinking the ‘prosperity gospel.’ If you can picture the Pharisees as a bunch of grumpy-faced Joel Osteens- minus the capped teeth- then you’ve got the right idea.

For the Pharisees, if you HAD it was because God gave it to you…because you deserved it. So if you didn’t have it was because, well, in God’s eyes you didn’t deserve it.

In other words, for the Pharisees money was not a means to some other good, it was a good in itself. It was a possession. It was a sign that God had found favor with you.

Money was not a means to further God’s Kingdom it was instead a sign that God’s Kingdom had blessed you over others. And, just like Joel Osteen, the Pharisees found plenty of scripture to justify themselves.

And then this Jesus comes along, and he doesn’t conform to what they think a religious person does or what a rabbi looks like. mark-burnett-and-joel-osteen-an-epic-meeting

And they hear this Jesus say things like:

  • “Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God will be yours, but woe to you who are rich for you have already received your consolation.”

  • “Whoever would follow me, first go and sell all that you own.”

  • “Do not worry about your wardrobe or your budget or you house or your groceries. Worry only about furthering God’s Kingdom and God will take care of everything you need.”

  • “If your wealth’s not serving God’s Kingdom, then you’re serving your wealth. You can’t serve both of them, Money and God.”

And that’s when they start to sneer. You see, for the Pharisees, Jesus wasn’t just different, he was dangerous. It’s not simply that Jesus didn’t conform to their expectations; it’s that he would change everything about the way they lived their lives. Jesus would invite God into parts of their lives where they didn’t want him.

So in verse 14, the Pharisees start to mock Jesus, ridicule him, hoping to diminish him in the eyes of the crowd. And Jesus, since he’s Jesus, responds by telling a story.

I normally hate people who explain stories, but Jesus’ parable is too pregnant with subtlety and meaning to do otherwise.

Verse 19- “There was a rich man…”

The parable Jesus tells is actually a storied version of what he preached in his sermon on the plain: ‘Blessed are you who are poor/Woe to you who are rich…You’ll get the Kingdom/You’ve already gotten your reward.” Jesus begins his parable by laying a trap for his hearers. He says: there was a rich man who wore the kind of clothes you can’t find in a store, clothes only Paris Hilton can afford. This rich man ate extravagantly every day.

And already Jesus’ listeners- the Pharisees- already they don’t know where Jesus is going with this. They would hear Jesus describe this man’s threads and his dining table and, just based on that, they would say: ‘This guy has made it made. This man is blessed. This man is righteous.’

Verse 20: “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus…” 

Like many wealthy people, this man has isolated himself from the rest of the world, from the needs of others. Jesus says the rich man lives in his very own gated community. Outside the rich man’s gate, lay a poor man.

The word your bibles translate as ‘lay’ actually in Greek means ‘dumped.’

This poor man outside the rich man’s gate was dumped there by someone else.

So not only was he poor, he was probably crippled too.

You will see that Jesus sets up the poor man as a mirror contrast to the rich man. The rich man is covered with fine linen, the poor man is covered with open sores. The rich man feasts opulently every day, the poor man begs for what falls from the rich man’s table- and Jesus doesn’t just mean scraps of food. In Jesus’ day, the wealthy would eat with their hands and then, rather than a napkin, they would wipe the grease off their hands with a piece of bread. Then they would dump the piece of bread onto the floor.

The poor man’s not begging for leftovers or scraps. He’s literally begging for the rich man’s trash. Instead Jesus says dogs from the alley treat him like garbage, licking his open wounds- which, just to add insult to injury, makes the man ritually impure. Evidently, the poor man is too weak to even scare off the dogs.

The poor man is a contrast to the rich man in every way. As much as the rich man has, the poor man lacks that much more. Just as the Pharisees would’ve assumed that the rich man was blessed, this poor man- they’d say- was cursed. He must have done something to deserve his life.

But Jesus sets up an even more striking contrast. Notice: the rich man doesn’t have a name, but the poor man does. Lazarus.

The poor man’s name means ‘God is my helper.’

You can even translate it: ‘God is on my side.’

In all of Jesus’ parables, in all four of the Gospels, Lazarus is the only character with a proper name. The rich man has everything, but he doesn’t have a name. The poor man has nothing, but he does have a name. What’s Jesus getting at?

The rich man is nothing more than his possessions; what he has is all that he has. He’s built his identity around his possessions so that he has no identity apart from them.

This is Jesus saying that if you don’t build your primary identity around God, you don’t really have a ‘you.’

You’re defined instead by your stuff, success, things, title, job, or rank. Like any story, Jesus wants you to wonder who you are in the story. Do you have a name? Do you have an identity rooted in God? Is there a you beneath your material life? Are you about something bigger than you?

Verses 21-22: “The poor man died…” 

Death comes to both men, Jesus says. No one tries to save Lazarus’ life, but neither can the rich man’s wealth protect him from death. The rich man is buried because he can afford it. Lazarus is not because he cannot. Probably his body just lay abandoned in the alley until it was scavenged by dogs, burnt or carried off to a dump. In Jesus’ day, not to receive a burial was considered a mark of shame, a sign of being cursed by God.

Instead of shame, Lazarus is carried off by angels while the rich man, Jesus says, goes to Hell.

Verse 23- “In Hell, where he was being tormented…” 

I imagine this is the point in the story where Jesus really had the Pharisees’ attention.

Sometimes people will ask me: ‘You don’t believe in a literal Hell, do you? With literal flames and physical torment?’

And to be surly, sometimes I respond by saying: ‘Oh no, I think Hell is much worse than that.’

Today’s parable gets at what I mean when I say that. Probably, most of you all have in your minds a caricature of Hell.

Hell, you probably think, is a place God sends people against their will for some sin or lack of faith they committed. Hell, in other words, is where God sends such people and shuts the door and closes off any chance for them to repent.

And maybe you even think God enjoys the justice of it.

Now compare that to Jesus’ parable. According to scripture, no one’s trying to get out of Hell- that’s what makes it Hell. According to scripture, you’re only in Hell as long as you choose.

Hell according to Jesus isn’t a place God sends people. Hell is us holding onto our freely chosen but false identities. Look at verse 24 to see what I mean.

Verse 24- “Father Abraham have mercy on me, and send Lazarus…” 

So, he’s in Hell. Notice what the rich man doesn’t ask for:

  • He doesn’t ask to get out.
  • He doesn’t ask for forgiveness.
  • He doesn’t ask for God’s presence.

What does he do? He says: ‘Father Abraham, it’s kind of hot here. Send Lazarus to bring me some water.’ Those of you who are perceptive, close readers will notice something: the rich man knows Lazarus’ name. It’s not that Lazarus was hungry and begging outside the rich man’s gate and the rich man was ignorant of his need. No, he knows his name. The rich man ignored him. It’s not that he didn’t know. He didn’t see Lazarus as someone worth the expense of his time or his wealth.

‘Father Abraham,’ the rich man says, ‘send Lazarus to bring me some water.’ Even in Hell, the rich man still sees Lazarus as an object, as someone who should serve him.

In other words, he doesn’t see Lazarus at all because, even in Hell, the rich man still clings to his false, material identity.

He still thinks his stuff makes him something above others.

Verse 27-28: “…send Lazarus to my father’s house…” 

Skip down to verse 27. The rich man still shows no repentance. He still doesn’t ask to leave. He still sees Lazarus as someone who exists only to serve him.

“Send Lazarus to my father’s house,” asks the rich man, “send Lazarus to warn my brothers so that they won’t end up here too.” Now the rich man is worried about his brothers, but he has yet to realize that his problem, his sin, is that he never saw- still doesn’t see- Lazarus as his brother. The rich man goes to Hell not because he’s rich but he’s let his wealth pull down the shades on his brother’s need.

Actually, the rich man’s not really concerned about his five brothers either. Look again at what the rich man says in verses 27-28: “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers so that this doesn’t happen to them.”

What’s the implication of the rich man’s request? He’s saying: ‘I didn’t know this was going to happen to me. This isn’t fair. My judgment’s unjust.’

Verse 29: “They have Moses and the prophets…” 

In effect, in verse 29, Abraham replies to the rich man: ‘You don’t need special signs from God to know what God wants with you in the world. What are you waiting for? God has told you again and again, in Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Amos and Hosea and Micah and Zephaniah and Malachi and Isaiah and Jeremiah.

God has told you over and again that you’re to care for the poor. You’re to lift up the lowly and bring your brother to the Table. That’s what the Kingdom of God looks like.’

Verse 30: “…if someone goes to them from the dead…” 

But the rich man doesn’t give up. He says: ‘Still, if you send Lazarus back from the dead, then you will get my brothers’ attention and they’ll repent.’

Verse 31: “…neither will they be convinced…” 

You know…some people are scared of fire and brimstone. But scares me…what’s terrifying about the way Jesus ends his story is his warning that we can believe more in the worth of our material lives than we believe in what God finds worth in.

What scares me is Jesus suggesting that we can get so caught up in ourselves, in the importance of our stuff, our possessions, our self-made, false identities.

We can get so caught up in our material lives that not even a message from someone who died and rose again will get us to change.

That, sounds like Hell.

2007_resurrection_icon Scot McKnight has this sermon of mine posted today over at his Jesus Creed blog.
Eastertide is often a season in which the lectionary guides us through texts in Revelation and on reflecting upon how the Cross and Empty Tomb really has once and for all settled what separates us from God. Here’s a reflection from a few years ago on those very themes.

Going to Hell on an Airplane with Sam Harris: Revelation 22.14-20

It was my fault. I knew I should’ve carried on something by John Grisham or David Baldacci or maybe, like everyone else on the plane, The Kite Runner. Instead I’d fallen asleep with the evidence right there on my lap: a theology book, thick and unambiguous, with an unexciting orange cover that plainly, if obscurely, said Church Dogmatics II.1 by Karl Barth.

I’d just woken up after almost an hour not sure if we’d landed already or if we’d not yet taken off. I was out of sorts, my clothes were disheveled and drool was running in a thin, clear line from the corner of my mouth. The motionless plane was as hot and still as a subway car and damp from the rain that was still pelting down on the wings and the runway outside. I was hot and thirsty and stressed, knowing that I would now definitely be late, and, on top of all that, there was this question: ‘So, are you a priest…or a professor?’

It was my fault. I’d initiated conversation. I was the one who made first contact. ‘When she comes by again can you ask her for some water?’ I’d said. And the man in aisle seat said‘Sure’ and then pointed with his eyes at the boring-looking book that had slid off my lap into the buffer seat between us and with a raised brow he asked: ‘So, are you a priest…?’

I was not long into my ministry when I first discovered that there were simply some occasions in life that my job changed irrevocably for the worse, certain occasions when the disclosure ‘I’m a Methodist minister’ either stops conversation cold or else starts other unwanted conversations.

At parties, for instance, no one wants to find out you’re a minister. People don’t know how to talk to a minister or what to talk about and everyone looks painfully awkward when the minister sees them with a drink in their hands.

And when you’re a minister getting a haircut can be more time-consuming and far less predictable than it is for the rest of you. It’s not uncommon that before my sideburns are trimmed or neck shaven, I’m hearing a confession or offering consolation or sinking into the quicksand of some philosophical bull session.

One such haircut at my last church ended up with me sitting there in the barber’s chair with the apron around my neck and little clipped hairs stuck to my nose and forehead and eyebrows and with the barber sitting in the chair next to me, leaning over with his hand on my knee while crying and telling me about the wife who’d left him years ago.

It happens all the time.

On such occasions I’ve considered that it would be easier if, when asked what it is that I do, I instead, like George Costanza, simply made things up: ‘I’m an architect’ I could say. ‘I’m a marine biologist’ I could tell the woman at the Hair Cuttery. And that would be that. To this list of awkward occasions, I can now add Riding on Planes.

‘So, are you a priest…or a professor?’ It was my fault. I was flying Southwest so I’d chosen my seat. I had no one to blame but myself. I’d chosen to sit next to him: a business-looking type, someone with lots of files and a laptop and blackberry, someone who wouldn’t want to pass the time making conversation with a stranger.

On that weekday flight he looked like half of all the other passengers: forty-fifty, graying neatly-parted hair, blue suit and red tie loosened around his white collar. It was last October and I was flying from Baltimore to Ohio for a conference that concerned Aldersgate’s ministry in Cambodia.

‘I’m a Methodist minister’ I said, kicking myself for not buying a copy of the The Kite Runner. ‘Really,’ he said in a less than impressed tone, ‘my sister-in-law’s still a Christian.’Thus implying that he’d been inoculated against whatever superstition still infected his sister-in-law.

From there the conversation began as these conversations always do: ‘You look so young to be a minister’; ‘How did you decide to do that with your life?’; ‘Did you always know or did you have an experience?’

And after these questions were answered, those parts of my story vaguely answered, he asked me if I read the recently released book Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. I said that I had not but that I knew of it. I’d read a review or heard some NPR chat about it. With sudden vigor, he told me what a ‘powerful’ book it was.

Then, in the urgent rhythms of a beat poet, he told me how effectively Sam Harris’ book documented:

· all the abuses committed in the name of religion

· how it catalogued the many sins of the Church

· skewered Christianity’s historic fear of science

· revealed the inconsistencies in scripture and the often violent portrayals of God.

For what seemed like forever and with judgment in his voice, he shared these ‘insights’ with me. At some during his diatribe I realized that he was actually angry at me- that I was to him not a person but a symbol, a reminder of something he’d closed the door on long ago.

When he finished his book review, he took a breath and cast a glance down at my book,Church Dogmatics, and he said in a woebegone way ‘But you probably wouldn’t like it. My sister-in-law didn’t.’

‘Actually, I’m an architect’ I thought about telling him.

‘It’s not that I’m an atheist’ he said almost like a peace offering, ‘I just couldn’t believe in a god who sends all but a few of his creatures to Hell.’

‘Neither could I’ I said.

The captain’s voice crackled over the speaker, informing us that our delay would last a bit longer. ‘Do you though…believe in hell?’ he asked. And what I thought was: ‘Yes, I do. Hell is being asked questions like these while sitting captive on a hot, motionless plane.’

But I said was: ‘I don’t preach much about it or the devil either. They always end up sounding more interesting than God. And that can’t be true.’

He looked at me skeptically. ‘At my parent’s church, growing up, that’s all I ever heard,’he sighed, ‘fire and brimstone, judgment and hell, that sort of thing.’

To be honest, I didn’t really believe me at first. It sounded too cliché.

‘When I was finally done with all that,’ he said, ‘we had a youth rally at the church one night. We were supposed to invite all our non-church friends. The pastor came and he told them that if they were all to die that night all of them would be going to hell forever. The pastor said the ultimate question was whether you would spend eternity in heaven or in hell. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I just decided then that I couldn’t believe in a god who would do that.’

‘When I was in college I was rejected as a Young Life leader,’ I told him, ‘the director made that same sort of comment in my interview, and I questioned him on it.’

The man in the aisle seat looked at me, like I had surprised him. It was quiet for a few moments. ‘We’re not all like that you know, fire and brimstone’ I offered.

‘But it is part of your bible’ he hit back, waiting for a response.

‘Well, if the universe is moral, if God is just, then it makes sense that God punishes sin’ I argued, proud of my fortress-like logic. ‘But eternal punishment seems excessive don’t you think? Even for the worst of sins.’

‘Christians have different understandings’ I said. ‘Some think hell is a finite time of punishment or refining. Others think of it as annihilation- you just cease to exist.’

‘But what I’ve never understood… if God is all-loving and all-powerful why would things turn out differently than he wanted?’

That’s when I began to suspect he was a lawyer and not a businessman.

I didn’t answer him. I was too tired.

Tired of being put on the defensive

Tired of having to represent all of Christianity-good and bad

Tired of fielding arguments he’d obviously decided before he ever sat down on the plane

And I was tired of trying to wrap my mind around what the bible says about judgment and what it says about the love and mercy of Christ.

He just shifted his legs and took a breath, and I could tell he wasn’t finished yet.

One of the other things I learned early in my ministry is that the fastest way to shut down these sorts of conversations is for me to start talking like a pastor, in a probing, overly empathic way. ‘Tell me,’ I said, ‘what does give your life meaning? Are you satisfied? Is your life worthwhile? Or is just for you?’

And all of a sudden he look frightened- like I was about to proselytize him.

And that could’ve been the end of our conversation.

But instead I sat up in my too-small seat and picked up my orange theology book, and I explained to him that the mistake preachers and others make is thinking hell is God’s last word on sin. ‘The Cross is God’s last word’ I said, ‘the Cross really does reconcile everything that’s wrong between God and each of us.’

He was about to argue with me, I could tell. But I didn’t let him. I went on and told him:

• that whatever distance there is between God and us that it’s distance we put there ourselves

• that ‘Hell’ is the Church’s name for that distance and that you can suffer that in this life as easily as in any other

• that ‘Hell’ is not so much God’s unchanging decision about us as much as it is our self-imposed exile from the life that God makes possible.

And he looked at me as you all do when I’m preaching: a bit dazed and not quite tracking.

So I told him:

That when Jesus talks about hell, he does so by comparing heaven to a wedding feast to which everyone is invited. The problem isn’t with the party or the party-giver or the number of invitations sent. It’s with our unwillingness to come.

And even at the very end of the bible, in the very last chapter, after the Last Judgment has already happened and all the wicked and sinners and unrighteous and unbelievers have all supposedly perished in the Lake of Fire, even after all that- the bible gives us this last picture of the saints of God staring through heaven’s open gates at those still on the outside and along with the Holy Spirit they sing: “Come.”

Hell’s not so much a place we’re sent; so much as it is a place we refuse to leave when we’ve been invited to something more beautiful.

He smiled slightly, and I knew he thought that I was soft-selling the whole fire and brimstone thing. ‘My parents’ preacher would say the ultimate question is whether you’ll spend eternity in heaven or hell’ he countered.

I told him that actually I tend to think the ultimate question is: ‘Are you thirsty? Or, are you hungry? Are you lost? Or, are you empty? Because God doesn’t just offer eternal life, he invites us to live this life abundantly.’

I thought that was that, that he was done, that I’d left him tired or confused or disappointed.

He turned to face forward and he looked up at the air vent and the seatbelt sign above him.

And after a few moments he told me that he was divorced. That at first he was just trying to build a career but that his work had killed his marriage and that now he let it keep him from his children too.

He told me that he traveled all the time but that his life had no direction, that it was true that he no longer believed in his parent’s faith, but that he hadn’t found anything else in its place either.

‘I guess you’d say I’m lost’ he said.

He then looked over at me as if for a response. ‘Maybe, but if Jesus really is the beginning and end of everything, then his mercy is everlasting and he’ll never stop looking for you.’

‘Thus endeth the sermon’ I said and closed my eyes.

And he didn’t say anything for a long while.

And somewhere, the Spirit and the bride said: ‘Come.’

Scot, who was our Scholar in Residence, a few years ago gave a nice note of praise for my sermon on Hell at his Jesus Creed blog: click here to check it out.

imagesWe finished up our January sermon series, Razing Hell, this weekend, talking about the Second Coming. It’s been a great series from my end. I’ve gotten a ton of emails from folks at church and from around the world via Tamed Cynic.org. It’s reaffirmed for me that people, Christian or not, really do want to think theologically in a way that’s honest, respectful and practical to how they think about their everyday lives.

Case in point:

This weekend Dennis Perry did a masterful job of framing the Second Coming of a promise made by God. God’s made the promise to come again and set things right. Faith isn’t just believing ideas or signing on the dotted line. It’s believing God will keep that promise and orienting our lives, relationships and actions in the world accordingly. That’s a more biblical, I think, and certainly a more relevant way of thinking about the Second Coming than Hal Lindsay getting caught up in trying to read the ‘signs of the times.’

The series is over. We’ve talked about Heaven and Hell and Judgment and the Parousia. And already I’m getting a steady trickle of emails asking me the bottom line question:

Will everyone be saved? Or will some not be?

I’m flattered people think it’s a question I’m in a position to answer since presumably it’s a question only God can answer. My sermon on Hell (Hell is for Real) indicates that ‘No, not all will be saved…because we can freely choose to reject God.’

But admittedly that skirts the issue a bit. How do we think about the issue from God’s end? If no one chooses to reject God, then will everyone be saved?

Here’s my final answer.

It’s a question fraught with tension and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar (or not a very smart theologian). After all, inherent in the question is the tension between God’s gracious omnipotence and God’s merciful refusal to coerce love from his creatures.

Right- if God were willing to coerce the relationship he wanted with us, then the story of scripture could’ve been a hell of a lot shorter. What God wants though is authentic love and relationship and that can’t be forced. Can it be forced after this life ends?

But there’s the tension- logically if God desires love and relationship from us- salvation- then God will get what God wants. To say there is one of us God can’t save makes that person more powerful than God. If God desires loving relationship and God is all-powerful, then God could turn even the most resistant heart towards him.

Which is it?

We’ll have to wait and see.

Not having an answer for everyone else doesn’t change what God wants from you.

It doesn’t change how God made you: to love and desire him and his Kingdom.

Put it another way, Karl Barth’s (one of my Theo-Jedi Masters) way of putting it.

Scripture clearly tells us God came for everyone (John 3).

Scripture clearly tells us God died for all.

Scripture does not tell us that all will be saved.

We can’t say more than what scripture says.

But we can pray for it.

20121222_XHE004_0Some of you asked me that very question after my Hell sermon for our Razing Hell series. I didn’t have time to write up a response and, lucky duck, Scot McKnight beat me to it:

———————————–

The almost universal traditional view of hell in the Christian church is that it is a lake of fire, that it will last forever and ever and that the wicked will be conscious and tormented endlessly. So Edward Fudge, in his Hell: A Final Word , sketches what we find in the lake of fire text in Revelation.

The Lake of Fire in Revelation in Revelation 20:14-15

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

First, the lake of fire is probably related to Daniel 7′s river of fire, a fire that destroys evil world leaders (the Beast and the False Prophet).

Second, in Revelation the Beast, the False Prophet and Satan/Serpent are thrown into the Lake of Fire. The place for the unholy trinity of evil. They are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10). Only they are said in the Bible to be tormented endlessly.

Comment: Yes, Fudge is right; no one else is said to be tormented forever. But wicked humans are tossed into the same Lake of Fire in the next chapter. But Rev 14 has humans with much the same finality — humans, the smoke of their torment, endless.  More importantly, God is thereby now theologically and logically connected to endless torment. The unholy trinity may be upgradings of sin and evil and wickedness but they are still said to be tormented endlessly. Fudge appeals next to a human — Hanns Lilje — but this is an argument from a human or an authority or an experience. It doesn’t for me wipe away the glaring reality of an endless torment administered by God. The problem of endless torment is now officially connected to a theological problem.

Death is tossed into the Lake of Fire (20:14). Hades is tossed into the Lake of Fire (20:14).

The Lake of Fire is the Second Death. The death of the age to come. Lake of Fire is defined by Second Death, meaning that Second Death is the ruling image.  The two options are life (eternal, city of God) and death (final, second death, Lake of Fire). Humans enter the Lake of Fire, the Second Death: Rev 21:8.

So for Fudge all texts dealing with endless torment are explained, destruction is seen as the ruling image, Death is the outcome, and the absence of life is the outcome for the wicked. For Fudge the emphasis — undeniable — in the Bible is a fire that consumes or destroys, not a fire that purges or that torments. Edward Fudge makes the best case of anyone alive today for the annihilationist viewpoint.

We’re winding down our sermon series, Razing Hell, this weekend talking about the Second Coming.

When many people think of the Christian belief in the eschaton, last things, it’s the last judgment they have in mind. Many Christians have Michaelangelo’s grave depiction of the last judgment, in which an irate Christ rejects the damned at his feet and the martyrs surrounding Christ seem to delight in their torment, seared in to their minds.

Michaelangelo’s painting is evocative and beautiful in its way but biblical it is not. It’s true imagery of the last judgment populates a number of Jesus’ parables. Jesus speaks of judgment coming like thief in the night. He speaks the faithless being cast into darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Still, the sense of resentment, self-righteousness and revenge that animates much Christian preaching on judgment is antithetical to Jesus’ own preaching on it. Judgment in Jesus’ parables isn’t about what will happen one day. It’s meant to compel faithful behavior in the here and now.

Jesus’ judgment is not vindictive.

Yet neither does scripture give us a God who is smiling, doting old man. For as many Christians who erroneously espouse a resentful, vindictive God there are as many Christians who act as though God is not entitled to judge us.

God is, as Hebrews says, a consuming fire (12.28).

What gets lost too often is that the fire of God is the fire of loving judgment- a purifying fire. God’s judgment is not a closure on relationship with us; God’s judgment is the means by which God opens relationship with us. The Last Judgment is no different, theologically, than the judgment preached by the prophets or worked on the Cross. It’s a judgment in which our Sin- that which separates us from God- is burnt away.

As Gregory of Nyssa understood it, there’s no actual difference between the fire of God’s judgment and the light of God’s glory. It’s one and the same. It’s only our perception and experience of it that changes.

This is what separates the inhabitants of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The spectrum is marked by the extent people can stand to be in the light of God’s glory.

When it comes to belief in the Last Judgment is that at the end of time, all of us will be held to account (1 Corinthians 3). There is no distinction between believers and unbelievers, between the saved and the not-so-much. There is no easy, get-out rapture before the judgment. All of us will be held accountable for the mercy shown to us based on whether we too have been merciful to others (Matthew 25). Have we returned grace with grace?

The Christian hope is that we will all be judged but that the Judge is the Crucified Christ. The King who judges us is the one who died for us while we were sinners. This is a Judge determined not lose us.

 

This week we close our Razing Hell sermon series by talking about the Second Coming, probably the Christian doctrine most burdened by fanciful, unhelpful interpretations of scripture. Here’s NT Wright’s take:

We’re finishing up our Razing Hell sermon series this weekend talking about the Second Coming, a doctrine that’s gotten muddled and weighed down by the silly (and not very old) idea that God’s faithful will be ‘raptured’ and whisked off to heaven before Christ comes back ‘to judge the living and the dead.’ Apparently the Creed should have an asterisk there: *except the faithful who have a rapture ticket out of here.

Here’s NT Wright explaining why so many self-professed biblical literalists, literally lose the plot when it comes to rapture theology.