Jesus and Hell

I preach the good news of Jesus, including Jesus’ way of radical, nonviolent love. As one might expect, I get some pushback on this. “What about sin?” I hear frequently. “What about God’s judgment?” “What about God’s wrath?”

“What about hell?”

Yes, what about hell? After all, Jesus mentions hell more than anyone else in the New Testament. There’s this handy bit of practical advice, for example: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” Or this lovely bit of encouragement: “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?”

I’ll admit that my first thought when I hear these kinds of questions is that if anyone thinks my idea of love doesn’t include ideas of sin and its consequences, they aren’t listening. More on point, though, is this: if we want to understand Jesus on hell, we need to read these Gospel teachings carefully, in context, across the Testaments.

Most of the time in the Gospels, the “hell” Jesus mentions is “Gehenna.” The other times when Jesus refers to a hellish judgment, ideas of “Gehenna” are probably still in the background.

“Gehenna” is a reference to a very particular place—and it’s not some location under the earth run by the devil and staffed by his demons. “Ge-henna” refers to the “valley of Hinnom,” a small valley running along the south and west of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Gehenna today

I’ve been there—there’s nothing hellish about it at all. Nor was there in Jesus’ day.

Sometimes you’ll hear that in Jesus’ day there was a perpetually burning garbage dump in the Hinnom valley. But that’s not the case. This idea seems to have originated from a Rabbi centuries after Jesus. In Jesus’ day there was nothing hellish about Gehenna at all.

What was hellish about the valley of Hinnom was its history. There are several Old Testament passages that describe the hellish history of Gehenna. They’re all similar, but to get a taste of hell let’s focus in on one of these—Jeremiah 7, starting with 7:31:

And they [the people of Judah] 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 [Yahweh, the Lord] did not command, nor did it come into my mind.

Here we learn three key points about Gehenna, the valley of Hinnom.

1) The fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God.

In fact, 2) God abhorred the fires of Gehenna.

And why did God so despise the fires of Gehenna? Because 3) they were the epitome of senseless human violence, particularly violence against the most vulnerable.

But there’s more to the story of Jeremiah 7. The people of Judah are appealing to their own special status before God, hoping this will save them from foreign invasion. “The temple of Yahweh is here!” they cry—as if that will help them. “Look,” they say, “we offer all the proper sacrifices!”—as if that will make a difference.

But any special status they think they have is an illusion, all their acts of righteousness are irrelevant, because they are “oppressing the alien, the orphan, and the widow, and shedding innocent blood.” They are committing grave injustices against the most vulnerable among them—of which burning their sons and daughters in the fires of Gehenna was the most horrific.

All this explains why the tables turn at the end of the chapter:

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.

Gehenna back in Moloch’s day

It’s a soul-shuddering reference to Jerusalem’s impending doom, the city’s destruction at the hands of the ruthless Babylonian armies. The people’s religiously righteous acts and supposed special status aren’t going to save them.

And all their injustice, all their oppression, all their senseless violence against the most vulnerable? It’s going to rebound against them in equally horrific fashion, until the valley of Hinnom becomes an enduring symbol of God’s judgment on the self-righteous strong who oppress the marginalized weak.

To our three points about Gehenna’s fires above we can now add three more:

4) Gehenna symbolizes God’s judgment, but this divine judgment is not an “angry God directly inflicting violence upon sinners for eternity” judgment.

It’s a 5) “reap what you sow” judgment—if we sow violence, injustice, and oppression, we will reap that violence, injustice, and oppression upon ourselves, in very human, very natural, ways, within human history and not beyond it.

It’s a 6) judgment specifically upon the powerful, those with social or economic or political or religious clout, for the ways in which they oppress and commit violence against the weak, those on the bottom rungs of our social and economic and political and religious hierarchies.

With this background on Gehenna in mind, we can now fully appreciate Jesus’ words on hell in the Gospels.

Jesus isn’t talking about a “literal hell” where unrepentant unbelievers go after they die to be tortured in God’s inferno for all eternity.

He’s talking about the violent consequences of our own violent actions, right here in our lived lives, right here in human history.

He’s talking about such consequences especially for those who use their power to oppress the weak, who live in wealth in indifference to the poor, who have the means to care for the sick and clothe the naked and feed the hungry but refuse to do so, who rest secure in their status and privilege while committing grave injustices against the vulnerable and the marginalized.

And he’s talking in particular to the uber-religious, the people who think they’re on God’s side because they believe the right things or do the right rituals—but they burden others with moral demands while doing nothing to help them, they focus on minor moral issues while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy and allegiance to God above all other powers that be.

These are sobering words, serious warnings, for every age and certainly our own. But all this is right in line with the good news of Jesus and Jesus’ way of love.

After all, there’s nothing more loving, nothing more like Jesus, than standing in solidarity with the powerless, the stepped-upon, the pushed-to-the-side, and standing up to the oppressive powers that be—whatever the cost to ourselves.

And it is this hell of our own harmful actions and their destructive consequences—our sin and all its death—that Jesus has come to save us from. Jesus calls us to leave behind our damaging, violent ways and follow him in his path of compassionate, inclusive, forgiving, self-giving love. If we don’t do this the result will only be death for ourselves, for others, for the world. But if we do this we will find life, full and flourishing life for all.

This is love. This is Jesus. This is good news indeed.

The (S)Word-Wielder

Jesus, coming as a divine warrior to slaughter God’s enemies.

How do we make sense of this vision of judgment in Revelation 19?

Let’s sharpen the question: How can we reconcile this Jesus with the Jesus of Revelation 5, where Jesus the Lion reigns not by slaughtering his enemies but by being the Lamb slain by his enemies? Or the Jesus of Revelation 12, where Jesus the King comes not as invincible and all-conquering but as a vulnerable child?

SeraphOr, to sharpen the question even further: How can we reconcile the Jesus of Revelation 19 with the Jesus of the Gospels? What happened to “Love your enemies” and “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”? Does God get to the end of human history and say, “Just kidding!”?

Keep these questions in mind. Let yourself feel some inner tension. Allow yourself to be made uncomfortable by this image of Jesus.

But to help make sense of this vision of Jesus the divine warrior, let me give two things: a thought, and a story.

Here’s the thought: think of the power of the spoken word.

A simple word, like “Thanks.” A phrase, like “I’m sorry.” These can be powerful words.

Or something more, a fuller statement of some kind: an invitation, or a pledge, or a confession, or a command, or an assessment, or an entreaty. These can be powerful things in our lives.

Now expand that thought: think of the way in which a single statement—a declaration, a pronouncement, a promise—can cut two ways, the way a single statement can be received in two completely different ways by different people.

A judicial declaration—“You are acquitted of all charges”—can bring relief and happiness to the person so acquitted, but bitterness and anger to an injured person still seeking justice.

A marriage pronouncement—“I now pronounce you husband and wife”—is a cause for great rejoicing for the couple, but might be a cause of deep anguish for a former spouse who had hoped to be reconciled.

A parental promise—“We will go for ice cream after your concert”—will probably bring excitement to the child, but might cause resentment by another (“Why didn’t we go for ice cream after my concert?”).

The power of the spoken word—and the ways in which a single word can cut two ways. Keep that thought planted in your mind as I tell the story.

It’s a familiar story—the story of Jesus. But it’s the story of Jesus through the lens of the spoken word that cuts two ways.

Here’s the story.

In the beginning was the Word, the Word of God, God’s powerful, spoken message. And this word was light and life. This word was love. This word was good news for all creation.

God spoke this word at many times and in various ways through history, including through the prophets of ancient Israel. Isaiah was one of those prophets.

Isaiah assured God’s people that the divine word, God’s powerful, spoken message, would go out into the world and accomplish God’s purposes—like rain falling from the heavens. God’s word of light will bring light. God’s word of life will bring life. God’s word of love will flood the earth with justice and peace.

Isaiah had a name from the one who would bring this “word of God” to the world: he calls him the “Servant.” Here’s how Isaiah puts it—in the Servant’s own words:

The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word
.

And what is this spoken word that cuts like a sword? What is this spoken word that sustains the weary? It is the “good news” of God’s kingdom, God’s reign over all things. Here again is how Isaiah puts it:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

This word of God, this spoken message of God, sustains the weary. This gospel of God’s kingdom is good news for the oppressed, comfort for the brokenhearted, freedom for all held captive by the dark powers of this world.

Lion-Lamb 2This word of God is a powerful word—but it cuts two ways. The message of good news for the oppressed means judgment on the oppressors. The word of comfort for the brokenhearted is a denunciation of all who break those hearts. The promise of freedom for all held captive is a blunt warning to their captors.

God has spoken this double-edged message at many times and in various ways through history, including through the prophets of ancient Israel, including Isaiah.

But now, finally, in our own day and age, God has spoken this message through Jesus, the dedicated Servant of God. The Word of God, the very message of God from eternity past, was enfleshed among us and lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth.

Think about how Jesus defined his mission in Luke 4:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

That’s Isaiah again, which Jesus says he is in the business of bringing about.

And this is indeed what Jesus does: Jesus speaks the word of God, the message of God from the beginning of the world, the good news of God’s reign. And this word cuts two ways.

Think of how Jesus’ message is summed up in Mark’s Gospel:

Good news! God has come to reign!

But repent! Repent, for God’s kingdom is here!

Trust in God, for God is bringing justice and peace and life! But this means you must repent of your harmful and destructive ways.

A powerful word that cuts two ways.

Or think about how Luke’s Gospel presents Jesus’ beatitudes:

You who are oppressed by rich landowners,
you who are impoverished by greedy tax-collectors,
you who are dealt death by sword-wielding soldiers—
you are the truly blessed by God, and God will make things right.

But that means woe to you wealthy 1%,
woe to you privileged white males,
woe to you nuke-wielding powers that be—
your time is up, for God will make things right.

Words of comfort, words of healing, words of hope. Yet those very same words: challenging words, disturbing words, words of judgment.

A powerful word that cuts two ways.

Jesus carried no sword. He used the metaphor of the sword in his teaching, but that’s what it is: a metaphor. The one time Peter took him literally about carrying a sword, Jesus ended up rebuking him for actually using it and healed the man whom Peter had injured. No, Jesus was not speaking of literal swords.

Jesus carried no sword. To use Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 10, Jesus did not use the weapons of this world, because he was not waging the war of this world. Rather, he used powerful and persuasive speech, seeking to (as Paul puts it) “destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, to take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

Jesus carried no sword. To borrow from Paul again, this time in Ephesians 6, Jesus did not fight against flesh and blood, against any human persons, even his enemies. Rather, he was waging war on the oppressive powers of this world, the rulers who wielded their power for their own gain. He was waging war on (as Paul puts it) “the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil.”

Jesus carried no sword. Rather, his word was his sword: the eternal message of God, the good news of God’s reign, the word of love, the word that brings light and life.

This word is a sharp sword: “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Menno Simons echoed this when he declared that “We know of no sword, nor commotion in the kingdom or church of Christ, other than the sharp sword of the Spirit, God’s word.”

This spoken word of God cuts to the heart—and it cuts two ways. The gospel proclaimed and embodied by Jesus comforts the disturbed but disturbs the comfortable. It is blessing for the poor and oppressed but judgment for the wealthy oppressors. It is light for those in darkness and life for those walking in the shadow of death, but it is condemnation for those who dole out darkness and deal in death.

Once we’ve grasped this thought set within the story of Jesus, we can step back into Revelation 19 and make sense of this difficult image of Jesus the divine warrior.

Heaven opens, and out comes Jesus, “Faithful and True,” riding on a white horse to bring “justice.”

He himself is called “the Word of God.” He is himself God’s message, spoken from eternity past, God’s message of light and life, God’s message of love—and so God’s message that condemns all hatred and violence and darkness and death.

And from his mouth comes a sharp sword, by which these enemies are defeated. He speaks God’s message, and the evil powers of this world—beasts of empires, beasts of oppressive systems and unjust structures, followed slavishly by the powers that be, the kings of the earth—all these evil powers are condemned in one fell swoop.

This, then, is Jesus the divine warrior. This, then, is the judgment of God.

Not a sword, but a word: a powerful word, a word that names and condemns evil among us while also bringing justice and peace and flourishing life for all.

Not a sword, but a word: the word of the gospel, the Word which is Jesus himself.

Here’s the final post in this series on Revelation: “The Lord’s Prayer Fulfilled”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on May 1, 2016. All images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

The Horrors of the Apocalypse

Revelation 6, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: domination, war, economic injustice, and death.

Revelation 8-9, the Seven Trumpets and Three Woes: volcanoes, earthquakes, plagues of insects and disease, and war, always more war.

Revelation 12-13, the Dragon and his Two Beasts: persecution, suffering, martyrdom for those who follow Jesus.

Revelation 15-16, the Seven Bowls of Wrath: the earth, the rivers, the seas, the skies, all touched with degradation and devastation, and death, always more death.

Awful, terrible, horrific things. Things almost too monstrous to mention.

War. Poverty. Drought. Famine. Disease. Climate catastrophes. Natural disasters. Religious persecution. Overwhelming death.

It’s only in the White West where we have had the luxury of being able to imagine these horrors as something still future, some future seven-year tribulation. But tell that to the 40 million who died in ancient China’s Three Kingdoms War, or the tens of millions—half Europe’s population—who succumbed to the Black Death in the Middle Ages, or the millions of indigenous persons swept under the first waves of conquering Europeans, or the millions who perished in the Bengal Famine of 1770, or the tens of thousands of Christians killed for their faith each year around the world.

There is no need to imagine all this as some future tribulation. This has been the human experience throughout our history. It was, it is, and it is to come.

This can be hard to accept on its own, but there’s something else that makes all this even more difficult to accept for us as Christians: Revelation, and indeed several passages in the Bible, describe many of these horrific realities as divine judgment.

But does God, in righteous wrath against sin, actually employ violence and destruction and death to exact judgment, to bring about justice? If so, how do we reconcile that with Jesus’ call to nonviolence, to love our enemies, to forgive seventy times seven times? And if not, how do we make sense of this kind of language in Revelation, or even elsewhere in the Bible?

There are several things in Revelation that suggest that all this is more complex than it first seems, and that notions of God seeking “retributive justice” or using “redemptive violence” are missing the point of Revelation’s language of divine judgment.

Yes, God judges human sin—but not by zapping us with lightning bolts of violence, not by doling out destruction with one hand and death with the other.

Lion-Lamb 2Let’s start with the first major vision of Revelation, Revelation 4-5. This vision sets the stage for everything else that follows in Revelation. It sets the tone for how we should imagine Jesus and God. And there God reigns through Jesus, and Jesus is the Lion of Judah—Israel’s Messiah—who reigns as the Lamb who has been slain.

Jesus does not reign as a tyrant, as a bully, as a cruel and violent despot. Jesus reigns as the one who is willing to die rather than kill, who rejects violence and coercion as the path to justice and peace.

This should sit like a burr in our brain, making us uncomfortable with connecting all these horrific things on earth with God’s reign from heaven.

Then look ahead to one of the last major visions of Revelation, the judgment scene in Revelation 20. There we have another clue that things are not as they seem. There, at the end of God’s judgment of all things, we are told that “Death and Hades” are themselves condemned and eradicated. To put this into Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

God does not deal in death; God is out to destroy it.

In short, both the first major vision of Revelation and one of the last visions highlight one crucial fact: violence and injustice and suffering and death are not the way of God, but they are the very enemies of God which God is seeking to eliminate.

So how do we make sense of all the visions in between that seem to say the opposite?

Think of those Four Horsemen of Revelation 6: domination, war, economic injustice, and death. Although these are portrayed as coming at the call of heaven, they are thoroughly human evils, originating in our own human greed and cruelty and reflecting a pattern seen throughout human history.

The same assessment could be made of all the expressions of “God’s wrath” in Revelation. Not just the killing and wars, but even the famines and diseases and degradations of the earth, the sea, and the skies—these are caused by human action, human harm, human sin. These are not “God directly inflicting punishment,” but rather “God giving people up to the consequences of their sinful actions.”

This is exactly how Paul describes “God’s wrath” in Romans 1. Paul says that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness.” And how is that “wrath of God” revealed? Paul goes on: by God “giving us over” to our sins, to experience the full impact of our own destructive attitudes and actions.

No wonder Revelation repeatedly calls on humans to repent.

Then take a look at the two beasts of Revelation 13. Revelation scholars agree that these beasts do not represent specific human leaders (e.g. Nicolae Carpathia) but rather the Roman empire and its imperial cult. These beasts, in other words, are human structures and systems of power gone wrong.

Our human structures for organizing society—our political structures, our economic systems, our religious structures—these can become inhuman, corrupt and cruel, perpetuating injustice and bringing more death than life. At that point, these “powers that be” become “evil powers.” They become beasts.

These beasts, then, and the diabolical ethos that animates them, are not God’s creation. God does not make them. They are not God’s instruments. God does not use them. They are God’s enemies. In fact, we discover by the end of Revelation that the devil and his beasts, all these evil “powers that be,” face the same fate as “Death and Hades”: they are condemned and eradicated.

Evil is not God’s instrument; it is God’s enemy.

God does not deal in death and destruction. God does not stand behind oppressive governments and unjust economic systems. All these things—all the horrors depicted in Revelation, all the horrors experienced in human history—all these things are the very things God condemns, the very things Jesus came to deliver us from.

This way of understanding Revelation is both comforting and disturbing.

It is comforting to know that God does not use violence and destruction and death at all, even to bring about good. As John 10 says, it is the thief who seeks to steal and kill and destroy, not Jesus—Jesus brings life. If there is anything that brings hurt or harm, damage or devastation or death, that thing is decidedly not-God.

SeraphAnd this means there is more than meets the eye in Revelation. All those depictions of God’s judgment being a sort of violent vengeance, a kind of retribution, cannot mean what we think they mean at first glance. God is out to eliminate human sin, evil powers, even death itself—but not human persons. As Ephesians 6 puts it, “our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”

Yet in another way, all this is very disturbing. For it means that we are our own worst enemy. Our selfishness, our self-indulgence, our unbridled aggression, our prejudice, our capacity for cruelty, our political oppression, our corporate greed—this is what lies behind so much of the violence and death our world experiences, the degradation and devastation even of the earth itself.

This is the judgment of God. This is God’s assessment of the human predicament.

Hear, then, what the Spirit is saying to us. Hear the call of God for us to repent, to “come out of Babylon and not take part in her sins,” to resist the lure of our world’s “powers that be” gone wrong, to say a firm “No!” to the corruption and injustice and oppression of human structures of power gone bad. Hear the call of Jesus the Lamb to follow him in his cross-shaped footsteps, his footsteps of selfless self-giving for the good of the other, for the good of all, even in the face of death.

In this is the salvation of God. This is the path to the kingdom of God, God’s reign of justice and peace and flourishing life.

Here’s the next post in this series on Revelation: “The (S)Word-Wielder”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on April 17, 2016. The first image is a painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. All other images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.