Ask Us Anything 4: What the hell?
Sermon Delivered at The Local Church
September 4, 2022
Scripture: Matthew 25:36–41
It’s the fourth and final week of our Ask Us Anything series. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have, and if you’ve missed any, you can catch up on our podcast feed. But this has been a series in which we’ve leaned into hard and holy questions — creating space for conversation and giving you a chance to speak your deep wonderings about life and faith into existence.
In week two, we began the message with a quotation from recently deceased author and theologian Frederick Buechner about doubts being the ants in the pants of faith. I recently ran across another of his quotations that I thought was fitting. Buechner said:
“To be wise is to be eternally curious.”
And that’s our hope not only for this series but for you as a human being — that this would instill us a wisdom rooted not in certainty but curiosity as we seek together a deeper, richer, abundant life.
So before we get to this week’s question — which is the most upvoted of those submitted — I want to remind us of our ground rules for this series. Here’s the first one:
These aren’t answers. These are responses.
People have been grappling with many of these questions for a long time, so to say we’re going to answer them in twenty(ish) minutes or less would be foolish and arrogant. So these are responses — not answers.
Here’s number two:
This is one perspective, and you don’t have to agree.
We’re coming at this with a posture of humility. We might be wrong. This isn’t meant to be a period at the end of a sentence but a semicolon. This is a conversation, and we take that seriously.
Finally, here’s our third ground rule:
This is not about information; it’s about transformation.
We’re not just responding to these questions so you leave here smarter, but we also hope that we can take this information and integrate it into our daily rhythms so that it all might, by God’s grace, transform how we live and move in the world. This is not about information; it’s about transformation.
All set? Away we go.
Here’s our most upvoted question so far:
I’m trying to understand the conception of hell. If a truly horrible person — and I mean horrible — can ask for forgiveness moments before death, is he forgiven? I also struggle with having a hell at all, as God is loving and forgiving, and I can’t imagine God wanting a hell in the first place. I guess just the whole concept of hell is what I am questioning.
This is such a fantastic question — and clearly, many of you have this same question. And there’s a lot at stake here. Because behind this question are more questions with significant implications.
There are questions of salvation. Questions about the afterlife and what awaits us when we die. Questions about universalism and, as you heard, questions about how a loving God could justify something like hell. There are questions about whether hell even exists at all. Questions of what happens if someone doesn’t pray a particular prayer or profess Jesus as savior before they die. What about people who’ve never heard the gospel and had no chance to respond? And even beyond these questions, there are questions about the church’s troubled past of using the concept of hell for control, manipulation, and submission as a tool for power and influence — for its own sake and its own gain.
Ready for some more good news, bad news?
The bad news is that there’s no way we’ll be able to cover everything I wish we could today. So again, if you want to continue the conversation, you know where to find me.
The good news? That’ll come. We’ll get there; I promise.
But first, let’s talk big picture about hell. Because maybe you’ve been taught that it’s pretty clear. That things are pretty black and white. If you’re a good person and do all the right things, you go to heaven. If not, you go to hell. Maybe you’ve been taught that you have to say these particular magic words and, voilà, you’re in. And if not, well, that’s too bad. Maybe you’ve heard that it’s just about what you believe. You just have to believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior, and if you’ve checked that box, you’re set. And if not, or you’re on the fence or have some doubts, then there’s a good chance eternal punishment awaits you.
Maybe you have this picture in your mind of God, like a judge on American Idol, who can either send you to Hollywood or send you home. Heaven or hell — separating the sheep from the goats, as we heard in Matthew.
Or maybe you’ve been condemned to hell by someone who claimed to have it all figured out. Many of these ideas, situations, hypotheticals, and real-life experiences have left many not wanting anything to do with Jesus or the Christian faith. And some days, I don’t know if I can blame them. Shouldn’t the good news… be good?
So what I’m going to do this morning is trace the idea of hell from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible — the story of God and God’s people before Jesus — to the New Testament — the collection of narratives, stories, and letters about Jesus, his friends and followers, and the church — the body of Christ. We’re going to look at how the idea of hell is developed in scripture, how it’s described, and how it functioned for the ancient hearers and those who followed Jesus. And then once we do that, believe it or not, I think we’ll find some good news that’s actually good. Are you ready?
I’m going to offer three words this morning that the Bible gives us for hell. These are words the Bible uses specifically or ones that we’ve come to translate as hell. We’ll start in the Old Testament with Sheol. Most often, when we think of hell in the Old Testament, the word used is Sheol. You might also hear it described as “The Pit.” We heard Sheol mentioned in our grounding moment, Psalm 139. The psalmist writes:
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. (Psalm 139:8)
In Judaism, Sheol is the place of the dead or the realm of the dead. It has a connotation of being dark, dusty, shadowy, and overall… not great. Here’s an example from Psalm 88.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. (Ps 88)
And what’s important to understand is that there’s no bifurcated place where some go one place, and others go to Sheol. Instead, everyone ends up in Sheol. Everyone is brought to equal status there.
But what’s interesting is that in Judaism, there’s also this concept of biological death vs. qualitative death. Biological death is what we understand to be biologically and physically dead. But a qualitative death is a death that occurs while you’re still living. And it essentially means that you’re no longer flourishing. You are no longer thriving. Your quality of life is suffering, likely due to your own actions — your failure to follow the way of God and make wise choices.
And one of the things that we see happen is that in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, Sheol becomes a way of talking about that qualitative death. And so it comes to be used rhetorically. In other words, the concept of Sheol becomes a teaching tool to help choose between the way of life (following God and living a righteous life) and the way of death or Sheol (not caring for the widow or orphan, not loving God and not loving your neighbor).
So that’s Sheol.
Also, in the Old Testament, another word for hell is Gehenna. It also shows up in the New Testament, and we’ll get to that shortly. But Gehenna begins as a geographical place. Literally, it’s the Valley of Hinnom, a place in Jerusalem. In the 700s BC, the Valley of Hinnom was a place of child sacrifice and fire. We see that described here in Jeremiah 7:
And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. (31)
Because of how much of an abomination this was, Gehenna begins to develop in the Jewish consciousness as a place of abject evil — where not just those who participate in child sacrifice end up — but where anyone who is unrighteous ends up. Gehenna, too, began to serve rhetorically as a reminder, or a monument, of the sort of fate that awaited you were you not to live a life of righteousness and why you should be faithful to God.
Jesus, as student of Judaism and a rabbi, a teacher, would have known this, too. And that’s why Gehenna was also on his lips as we discover in the New Testament. Gehenna shows up twelve times in the New Testament — mostly in Jesus’ own words. Here’s an example:
But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you q say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
So what Jesus is saying if you insult another, if you call them an idiot, hell, or Gehenna, is what awaits you.
But Jesus also uses the term Hades for hell. This is the third of three words for hell in the Bible: Sheol, Gehenna, and now Hades.
Hades is the term for the realm of the dead in Greek and Roman literature, and it would’ve been familiar to hearers in a Roman-occupied context. Scholars believe that Hades and Gehenna become used interchangeably — which is how Gehenna also develops this connotation of being a realm for the dead, too, just like Hades. We see Hades feature prominently in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Jesus tells this story of a rich man with everything he could ever want. He feasts night and day. And there’s a poor man named Lazarus who, every day, sits outside the rich man’s gates longing for just a crumb from the rich man’s table, but he goes without. And Jesus describes how Lazarus dies and is lifted up, carried away by the angels to be with Abraham, the father of the faith. And the rich man dies, too, and he then finds himself in Hades — a place of torment. And then there’s this fascinating exchange between Abraham and the rich man — the rich man begging for mercy. And what’s important to notice here, is that again, a distinction is being drawn between righteousness and unrighteousness — and that unrighteousness for the rich man is rooted in the lack of care for his neighbor — his wealth and his unwillingness to share it.
So to recap: In the Old Testament, we have Sheol, where everyone goes, but also a way of describing a qualitative death in this life — and Gehenna, a monument and warning to the righteous. Both are used rhetorically to describe how to live well, wisely, and faithfully as God’s people. And in the New Testament, Gehenna is developed more and used interchangeably with Hades where, again, righteousness and unrighteousness are a matter of your faithfulness as evidenced by your love of God which is manifest in concern for neighbor.
Notice that it has nothing to do with saying specific words or whether someone ascribes to a different religion than you. Instead, it is, again, all about the love of God manifest in particular actions that demonstrate love of neighbor.
And that point is made even more apparent when we look at Matthew 25 — the most explicit we see Jesus describing who inherits eternal life and those for whom eternal punishment is reserved. Jesus says:
…for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life.” (42–46)
In other words, eternal punishment is reserved for those who didn’t welcome the stranger. Who didn’t feed the hungry or quench the thirst of those who were parched. Those who didn’t clothe the naked or visit the imprisoned. What we see here again is what we continue to see throughout the scope of scripture when looking at passages that have to do with hell: God is deeply concerned with how we treat one another, and our deliverance is bound up together.
For Jesus, he is trying to impress upon his disciples that to inherit eternal life is to be about kingdom work. It’s about working, by God’s grace, for a world where all have enough, relationships are put right, and there is justice and mercy in abundance. Where resources are shared, and the common good is prioritized. Just as I mentioned last week, it once again comes back to the greatest commandment — love of God and love of neighbor.
In the story of scripture, we see a picture painted again and again of hell as a realm or dimension or experience apart from God — where God’s will is not done. Where there is separation and disconnection and isolation from God and neighbor — which is often the same thing. That’s hell.
And when we look at the New Testament in particular, especially the passages lifted up this morning, we’ve got name-calling against a brother or sister — a friend. What does that do but create separation? It puts distance between you and another. It’s not an act of love; it’s a fracturing of relationship — of the kingdom.
There’s Lazarus and the rich man, where there was separation and distance created due to inequality, lack of concern for the poor, and a wealth that wouldn’t be shared. And that fractures the kingdom of God, too.
There’s a fracturing of the kingdom when the hungry go without food, the naked go without clothing, and the strangers can’t find belonging. That does nothing but create more isolation. More distance. More separation. It’s the opposite of kingdom living.
It becomes clear the more you read and dig into the story of scripture that heaven has everything to do with moving toward God’s desire for wholeness and the restoration of all creation — and hell has everything to do with resisting that — moving away from or creating separation between God and neighbor.
In our daily lives, chances are good that we regularly fall short of loving our neighbor well. Maybe we talk smack about a brother or sister. Perhaps we spend more time counting pennies than giving them away. Maybe we think of another as a means to an end rather than an end in and of themself. Or perhaps we become so self-absorbed that we fail to see the needs of another. Maybe we fail to give someone the benefit of the doubt or fail to give our time and energy to someone who could use it. Perhaps we find ourselves complicit in systemic injustice. In each of these instances, we move away from beloved community, away from the kingdom of God. In each of these instances, we are literally running like hell toward hell. In fact, we can catch glimpses of hell on earth here and now.
But God doesn’t want anyone there, so here’s the good news. Jesus doesn’t give up on us. I take heart that, as we read in Psalm 139, even as we make our beds in Sheol, God is there. And as Paul says in Romans 8, nothing — not even death — can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. And though we might resist it and default to self-centeredness and separation, moving away from God’s love and God’s will, the Spirit never stops pursuing us and turning us outward. Jesus never stops forgiving us — working in us and on our hearts to, again and again, turn us back toward God, to live a life worthy of the calling we’ve been given, and raise us to eternal life, which is life abundant.
The person who asked the question asked why God would want a hell, and the truth is God doesn’t. I believe God doesn’t want anyone there. But God also loves us enough not to force us. That wouldn’t be very loving. As C.S. Lewis once quipped, “The gates of hell are shut from the inside out.” In other words, the doors are locked from the inside. And God has given us all we need to unlock those doors. Jesus comes to conquer hell and show us what that life of restoration, healing, wholeness, and beloved community looks like — and how to move toward it.
I still have so many questions. Maybe you do, too. Does a literal hell exist? What about people who are separated from God by no fault of their own? And so many others. I’ve mentioned this quotation from one of my favorite theologians: St. Anselm, in the 11th century, who said, “Ours is a faith seeking understanding.” May it be so as we keep asking questions together, an eternally curious community — finding life by leaning into the mystery of faith — all by God’s grace.