Level Ground: A Universalist Preaches on Hell

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I heard a remarkable story a few years ago, about a series of events that took place on and around September 11, 2001. Unlike many of the stories that captured our attention that week, this one went largely unnoticed at the time, and took place far away from the cities of New York and Washington.

Many of us remember that all airplanes were grounded for several days after the attacks. This created quite a crisis for those who happened to be traveling. Many planes were diverted away from landing at American airports, and landed instead in the tiny town of Gander, in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. Waiting on the Tarmac for some kind of resolution, many were stuck on their planes for almost 24 hours.

Gander has a population of about 10,000 people. The number of passengers from 39 flights stranded there on September 11 was 6,500, well over half the size of the town. No one would have blamed the people of Gander if they had said, “Listen, we’re very sorry, but our town is just not set up to receive this many people at once.” But that’s not what happened…

The people of Gander opened their hearts and homes to the stranded travelers. They came with food, supplies, and offers of housing. The life of their town was disrupted for the next five days as citizens accommodated the needy travelers. They went out of their way and over the top to care for strangers in need.

Toward the end of their time in Gander, one of the stranded passengers had an idea. He spoke to his fellow passengers on Delta Flight 15 and took up a sizable collection. This money went to establish a university scholarship for the people of Gander as thanks for the generosity shown during a time of crisis. To this day, that scholarship continues to provide assistance for people of Gander to attend college and university.

There is nothing that binds people quite like coming through a crisis together. I hear this frequently from combat veterans and emergency responders. I have experienced it myself among my colleagues in ordained ministry. We may not have much else in common, but we share this one experience, and that binds us together as one forever.

In today’s gospel, Jesus describes a similar crisis that binds people together and erases the lines we tend to draw between ourselves in daily life.

We continue to hear from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount this week. The section we read today is called ‘the Antitheses’ because Jesus is reinterpreting many of the commonly known laws of the Jewish Torah. He follows a certain formula, starting with, “You have heard that it was said…” and ending with, “But I say to you…”

At first glance, it appears that Jesus is overturning the old commandments, but in reality, he is deepening them (or “fulfilling” them, to use his words). Specifically, he addresses the commandments surrounding murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing oaths.

Jesus invites his followers to move beyond keeping the letter of the law to examining the spirit of the law. He does this because we humans have a strong tendency toward self-justification in morality. We like to set ourselves against one another in battles for superiority. Our spiritual life is no exception.

Examining my life according to the Ten Commandments, it seems at first that I am doing pretty okay (sort of). Sure, I haven’t always told the truth, rested when I needed to, or been grateful for what I have. If my parents were here today, they could give several examples of times when I did not honor my mother and father. But I can honestly say that I’ve never worshiped a pagan deity, robbed a bank, murdered another human being, or cheated on my spouse. So, at first glance, I’m scoring about fifty or sixty percent on God’s ‘Top Ten List’ of commandments. But when I listen to Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel, my score drops dramatically.

I have never killed anyone, but I have harbored hatred and bitterness in my heart toward my fellow human beings from time to time. I have never committed outright adultery, but I have had a wandering eye and nursed unhealthy fantasies that would destroy my family, were I to act on them. I have never renounced the worship of God, but I have pledged my allegiance to things that are not God and allowed other concerns to take precedence over my baptismal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The same could be said by any of us, if we are willing to be honest with ourselves.

What this means is that none of us has the right to set ourselves up as morally superior to another person. As St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans:

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23)

An honest consideration of the spirit of the law reveals that everyone stands on level ground at the foot of the cross. As sinners, saved by grace, we simply have no time to stand around in judgment over one another. We are all going through this crisis together.

So, what then is this crisis that we find ourselves in?

Jesus tells us repeatedly in this passage: it is hell.

Jesus talks about the evil one and the fire of hell no less than four times in this short passage.

Now, many of you may find it odd that I bring this particular detail up. Many of you have heard me say, on numerous occasions, that I tend to lean toward the theology of universalism, meaning that I believe God will save all people in time. For me, the belief in universal salvation is not born out of political correctness, liberal idealism, or a desire to avoid the harsher parts of the Bible I don’t like. I have several sound biblical and philosophical reasons for believing this, mostly relating to the character of God. However, I recognize that not all Christians agree with me. In the history of the Church, faithful Christians have devised many different ideas and interpretations about who and how many people will be saved for eternity. In the end, the decision about that will be made by the only one who is qualified: God, who judges the world with absolute fairness and absolute mercy. Hence, it is not for human beings to set limits on how far the redemption won for us in Jesus Christ can extend.

I am a universalist, but that does not mean that I can simply ignore Christ’s teaching about the very real danger of sin and hell.

When Jesus talks about hell in today’s passage, the word he uses is Gehenna. This is a reference to a real, physical place: the Valley of Hinnom on the southwest side of Jerusalem. We read in 2 Chronicles that this is a place that ancient Israelites used for human sacrifice to the Canaanite god Moloch in Old Testament times. The descendants of these Israelites were horrified by what their ancestors had done there. They kept the site from being used for any other purpose. Like the Auschwitz concentration camp, where Nazis sent countless Jews to their death, Gehenna stood as a perpetual reminder to history of what must never be allowed to happen again. By Jesus’ day, it had become the city dump of Jerusalem, where people would bring their trash to be burned. The sin of Israel had caused the Valley of Hinnom to become a stinking, perpetually burning pile of garbage that was good for nothing else. Our English translations have rendered his word Gehenna as hell.

I see hell, not as something that God will do to us in the afterlife, but as something that we do to ourselves in this life. I have sat at the bedside of addicts going through the shivers of withdrawal, and it is hell. I have spoken with parents who have seen their children gunned down in front of them by police, and it is hell. I have been to the overcrowded orphanages of Romania, and it is hell. I have listened to LGBTQ youth left homeless by self-righteous parents and pastors, and it is hell.

Jesus directs our attention to Gehenna as a warning about the very real and observable consequences of sin. If we occupy our lives with the relentless pursuit of property, pleasure, and power, we put ourselves in danger of becoming something disgusting and worthless. We develop ingrown souls that don’t care about being part of God’s plan for the world. If I were to translate Jesus’ warning in modern terms, I would say that those who despise and degrade their fellow creatures are in danger of “the ovens of Auschwitz.” Even as a universalist, I would say to you this morning that hell is real and the dangers of sin are real. This is the common crisis in which we all find ourselves as human beings on planet Earth.

But God has not abandoned us in this crisis. Even though we have turned away from God, God has never turned away from us. In Jesus Christ, the Word of God took on flesh and dwelled among us. He broke bread with outcasts and sinners. He healed the sick, opened blind eyes, and raised the dead. He challenged the status quo and called the people to move beyond the letter of the law to the spirit of the law.

When we humans, in our selfishness, could bear no longer to hear this message of grace and truth, we tried to silence Jesus by nailing him to the cross. But even then, after all hope was lost, the power of love overcame the love of power: God raised Jesus from the grave, in the words of an ancient Orthodox hymn, “Trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb, bestowing life.”

This risen Jesus invites us now to respond in faith by coming to his table, to share his broken body and shed blood in the Eucharist, to become one with him in body and spirit, and one with each other in the common loaf and cup. In this Sacrament, we receive Christ into ourselves and look forward to the day when hell will be conquered and emptied forever, our sins and sadnesses will cease, and all people will be made one in Christ.

Like those stranded travelers on September 11, we are bound together by the common crisis we have endured, and look forward in hope to the common destiny that awaits us in Jesus.

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