Why in the Hell does Hell Matter? Moltmann helps us think the bad place

hell

Christianity is a religion of hope, unless of course your hope is in hell, in which case hell is your hope as the binary opposite of its cohort heaven. Hell is necessary because heaven is; one is not intelligible without the other.

But what is that really animates this our idea of hell and why do we hold onto it so tightly, a refined idea of the “afterlife” or “punishment” handed down to us via the logic of ancient peoples who lived in a 3 tiered universe?
Hell is currently such a flippant idea for so many. Millions believe in it, yet they do not live as if it’s a pending reality. But this is the incredible thing about belief: We can believe and that belief makes it real, even if the idea of the belief makes no material difference in our daily lives. Or perhaps, our actions discloses our true belief and we should learn what in the hell we believe in at all, as our mind says one thing and our hands say another.

Because lets be real. If people, millions of Christians, really believed in an “eternal” torment known as hell and they really really really wanted their loved ones to avoid it, how could we not quit our jobs and make a full time effort of warning others? If this was a firm belief, one of which we were thoroughly convinced, then surely we could not continue to meander through the distractions of modern society with all those going to hell without rushing toward them in great fear and trembling at the destruction and eternal pain that awaits all those that do not make the right choice of belief!

Seems to me, if Hell were a reality, then we would have no time to spare or energy to waste but in convincing everyone we can of this horrible horrible place.

Fact is, we don’t. 

We shake hands and nod at one another at church. We believe what the “bible says” (whatever that means) and we carry on, as if hell is this distant land that will never matter in the here and now.

So what animates our obsession with hell and our fantastic ideas of it? Why do we NEED this logic, a logic of separation, punishment, a peculiar idea of the character of God? Why in the hell is hell so important and is our logic of it illogical at best?

For many ancient peoples, Hell was a means of talking about destruction, particularly to the fiery elements that would eventually destroy creation.  The early church picked up on this wonderful usage of fire and used fire to burn heretics, returning the elements of the body very literally into the elements of the earth.  This process purging creation and punishing the victim simultaneously.  Hell, at its end, contained the idea of final separation from God, a reality that was somehow conscious to those without a consciousness at that point.

Yet, all the ideas of hell that we seem to possess and the flippant way in which we praise or ponder over this opposite of where none of us are headed, are really only possible because of our historical amnesia. We talk about hell like children and pissed off preachers because we have never lived it, so we have to contrive it to be what we “think” it to be and somehow buttress those ideas with our religious language and quotes of Jesus. But for people that actually live hell, like Christians in Mosul, Iraq, they have no need to invent wide eyed galleries of fire, men and women screaming in torment as they suffer burns from the bodies they don’t have and ponder endlessly how they did not make the right “choice.”

These Christians live hell; they have no need to imagine it.

As Moltmann suggests in his brief discourse on hell, there is no denying the reality of hell. Hell is understood as a total annihilation. In ancient times, fire was the ultimate annihilator from which nothing returned; in modern times, we have found hells in gas ovens in Europe, Christians in Rwanda having their children chopped up and tossed into rivers and Christians in Chile being tortured under the regime of Pinochet in the 70’s.

 Hell is…but it is so conveniently full of hope for many of us who believe in its opposite, for no hope in hell means no heaven to gain.

We hear sermons on hell and we are so calloused against all the hells on this earth because of our misunderstanding of some greater hell that even those experiencing hell today should consider as greater than being decapitated, their wives raped and their houses burned.

That’s a hell of a way to make the point that we care nothing about what hell really is, only what we want it to be during our benign bible studies.

For People who are awaiting the Hell of a tribulation period in the Book of Revelation, they have never known hell, seen it, and have no business talking about tribulation. Just because it hasn’t happened to us doesn’t mean we can confiscate this idea and doctor it up with the fanciful opposite of the Roman Road to salvation. Give me a break people…what the hell are we doing? This is Gospel?

At its end, Hell is illogical. It makes no sense because at its bottom, as Moltmann tells us, hell is not the logical end of the end; it is the logical end of human free will.

The logic is as follows. God who is love, preserves our human free will as a loving act. God has also, via love, went to the furthest ends to save humanity (from ourselves presumably) and give us the choice to save ourselves from destruction via Jesus the Christ. Even though God wants all people to be saved, there is a chance that our free will can reject God. Thus, the loving thing for God to do is to offer rescue, continue to maintain our free will to choose God, or we choose our own destruction in the place we have never seen but seem to know so much about.

Yet Moltmann presses us. He asks, “Does God’s love preserve our free will or does it free our enslaved will, which has become un-free through the power of sin? Does God free men and women, or does he seek the men and women who have become lost?”

For people who believe in an uber depraved nature of humanity, it is surprising we have so positive a view of free will, as if our depraved selves know a good “decision” when we see one, especially a decision of eternal consequences.

For Moltmann this logic of hell crumbles under two pressing points, which also open up a more biblical and theologically responsible way of considering the origination of the idea and necessity of hell.

First, for Moltmann, this logic of hell is inhumane and illogical. Inhumane because there are too many universal contingencies that seem to remove free will from the equation of folks being able to save themselves with their “choice.” Think handicapped people, jungle tribes, babies who die early (yes I know evangelicals have domesticated these answers with the mysterious “age of accountability” but the church historically took it seriously, making sure to baptize people who clearly could not make a choice like dying folks, physically impaired folks and babies). Also think God’s “chosen people” who are unable to choose Christ yet are bearers of the promise of God. How is this problem solved without tumbling into supercessionism?

The logic is illogical because as Moltmann points out, “there are not many people who can enjoy free will where their eternal fate in heaven or hell is concerned.” In others words, it’s not really a choice. It’s the choiceless choice that we mask as a choice to feel good about the choice we made and excuse all the sinners to be damned for their bad choice.

Really, those of who live by a logic of hell suspend two ideals in balance that are contradictory.

We want to hold in the balance God’s power, providence, love and desire to save us because we are depraved and cannot save ourselves. By grace we are saved through faith. Yet we hold to the idea that we are not really deprived as badly as we would like because we can really make a good decision concerning our salvation, so there is an element that is not “corrupt” known as a our will, that can affect our reason to supersede our deprivation. Thus we are doomed to God’s provision, but God’s provision is held hostage to our unfallen will and the ability we have to enact it. How strange for a people that believe in sin and the total otherness that is the reality of God.

Or in Moltmann’s questioning it sounds like this, “How firm must our own decision of faith be if it is to preserve us from total non-being? Anyone who faces men and women with the choice of heaven and hell, does not merely expect too much of them. It leaves them in uncertainty because we cannot base the assurance of our own salvation on the shaky ground of our own decisions. If we think about these questions, we have to come to the conclusion that in the end not many will be with God in heaven…or is the presupposition of the logic of hell an illusion- the presupposition that it all depends on human free will?”

In other words, how resolute must our decision be if it is so monumental that it carries with it such metaphysical implications? Is there any human anywhere with that kind of resoluteness? And if not, then the idea of salvation is not necessarily negated but is it thoroughly rested in the idea of God and God’s salvific purposes which are too heavy for the weight of human will but perfectly comfortable in the relation of God in Christ that negates free will in a later descent into hell, a descent that does not ask our will to participate in it and a descent that properly orders our idea of hell.

Second, the logic of hell is incredibly atheistic accordingly to Moltmann. For in this idea and transaction of hell, the human is her own Lord or God because only in using that will is God’s power enacted, making God subject to the depraved nature of a human will. God has no power here. God is impotent; here God is merely the genie in the lamp that is powerless unless we rub its side and tell him our wills desires. “If I decide for heaven, God must put me there; If I decide for hell, then God will put me there.”

God, who is providential and almighty, is bound to our decisions, impotent in the face of the human mind. We create our own reality or we make our own hell, all through a singular cognitive process. As Moltmann writes, “Humans do not just dispose over their lives here; they decide on their eternal destinies as well…after God created us free as we are, he leaves us to our own decisions. Carried to this ultimate conclusion, the logic of hell is secular humanism, as Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche already perceived a long time ago.”

But all of this was not the originary nature of the idea of hell. Neither must we be content to live with a full blown humanism nor an illogical idea of faith that believes contradictions and calls them biblical.

Christian ideas of hell are intimately linked to the separation of reality from God, but not as we would like. Hell is important because Christ descended into it; it is not important because of our bastardization of the concept in modern times. Hell has no need to fill it with our ideas of it, for hell is. It is not there, or far; it is here and near. We can marshall all the metaphysical arguments we want against hell and the pagan ideas that germinated alongside Christianity, and we may be correct in our arguments, yet reality tells hell is still felt by many today. It is experienced. It is real. It is the place into which Christ goes.

Hell needs Christ, and Christ needs hell, not because Christ needs a destination for our bad choices, but because Christ passes over the gulf of fire and annihilation to dwell with us there as long as necessary, emerging victorious.

Moltmann accentuates this activity when he writes, “it is pointless to deny hell. It is a possibility that is constantly around us and within us. In this situation, the gospel about Christ’s descent into hell is particularly relevant: Christ suffered the inescapable remoteness from God and the God-forsakeness that knows no way out, so that he could bring God to the God-forsaken. He comes to seek that which is lost.”

Christ, therefore, brought hope where there was none. Christ came to the place where all hope has been abandoned and made it hopeful, providing a means of overcoming its isolation.

Hell is not some place in the netherworld where bad people go when they die and it defies reason to think that God needs binary rewards to give to his good kids while he tosses his bad kids out to pasture. For those of us who have kids, we understand how dangerous it would be to allow them to make choices of such import and consequence. Hell matters because Christ experienced it and brought hope into it, destroying its finality, ensuring that is it no longer the final word that so many Christians wish it to be.

God’s graceful act toward the world is not dependent on the efficacious acts of our choosing. In a world of rampant consumerism, surely the banality of choice can make sense to us. No, God’s universal grace is not grounded in hell, or heaven, or the grounding of both of those in humanism (even if it’s a humanism affirmed by your local preacher).

God’s grace is grounded in the cross that eclipses hell, rather than firmly establish its possibility.

While I mourn that so many of us want the final last words of God to be those of condemnation and judgment, feeling that our right choice should be rewarded (think older son in the prodigal narrative here), scripture tells us a different story. In the Bible, judgment is not the final word. Hell is not the final abode of the world. The earth does not burn and turn to a cosmic bowling ball being hurled by God across the Milky Way.

No, the final word is not Hell and God doesn’t need your choice to make it happen.

Get over yourself.

The final word is, “Behold I make all things new”…and from this the Bible exempts no one.

*Source for the Moltmann material for this blog is: “The Logic of Hell” in God Will Be All in All, ed. Richard Bauckham (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 43-47.

Christ of Chaos- a sermon in Luke

Is this really what Jesus was talking about?

Is this really what Jesus was talking about?

*A sermon on Jesus, judgment and some difficult words of The Christ in the recent Lectionary reading of Luke 12.49-53*

“When life has become old and the spirit faint, it is in the beginnings that we again find the living springs from which the vital energies flow” Jurgen Moltmann, “Hope and Reality: Contradiction and Correspondence,” in God Will be All in All

Life has become old, and the spirit of Luke’s readers has become faint, as the words of Jesus echo through the corridors of the churches and continue reverberating to our own. As Jesus speaks these shocking words into a ministry that is taking now itself toward Jerusalem, the roads along the hills and valleys of The Galilee that lead to the Holy City are filled with visible reminders of the imminent end, the end that Jesus feels pushing himself toward the ultimate hill upon a hill. Christ is moving toward the Pinnacle event in his life, an event that will end on a pinnacle for those of us who know where Luke is taking Jesus in his narrative. Why is Luke taking us to this place? Because it is from this place that the end of creation will occur and a new beginning be resurrected. And along the way, we get a view of the teaching of Jesus that seemed to frame his entire work within the paradigm of the pending end of time, the much feared last days. Jesus is not heading toward Jerusalem, leaving the comfort and serenity of The Galilee, in order to anticipate the coming vindication of the righteous through a final fiery judgment. Jesus is marching toward Jerusalem because the end is already here.

This is why along the way, in Luke, we get these familiar teachings we call parables merged so frequently within sayings that have to do with readiness, ending, approaching, consummation, and judgment. These are the primary means of Jesus’ teaching and also the primary content. Jesus is challenging us to embody a parabolic way of life because this is the way the world will look when the work of Christ is completed. He is not preparing us for the coming end; he is opening our eyes that the end is now. And with Luke’s hearers, we, like them, are able to recognize this because life has become old, our spirits have become faint. From this ending, we recognize that a new beginning is on the horizon…and as we peer into the land of the text, Luke’s narrative, that end is seen in the silhouette of the Christ that is walking toward Jerusalem…yet leaving behind some very troubling things, troubling words. With our brothers and sisters in Luke’s Gospel we see Jesus approaching but what is he bringing with him as his shadow moves closer to the middle of the earth, the hill to which Luke is taking us where the end will be a new beginning?

In a sudden breach of Jesus’ typical demeanor, Jesus uses some of his most difficult rhetoric to express his frustrations with Jerusalem, the known world. Jesus becomes negative, going a step further than rehashing his most beloved stories such as separating sheep’s from goats, bridesmaids and bridegrooms, thieves and masters. Here, Jesus gets as graphic as anywhere in the Gospels. His emerging from The Galilee has produced a fiery prophet with great intent and fire in his eyes…determined to counteract the expectations of the disciples, his own disciples, perceptions of what he desires for the world and what he has truly come to do to.

Jesus, in the middle of a long diatribe, quickly turns to his disciples specifically for this teaching. As he stands amidst the crowds, he finishes his final thought then swiftly turns to his disciples, to us, and says… as if with contempt In his voice…”you think I have come to bring peace, to make your life easy, you think I have come to give you purpose, to caste off your oppression without event…wrong”

“I have come to cast Fire upon the earth and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo and how distressed I am until this is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, NO, but rather division. For from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son, son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother in law against daughter in law and daughter in law against mother in law.”

The theme of Jesus and conflict starts early in Luke’s Gospel. While we may seem affronted with Jesus’ rhetoric in chapter 12, this is a theme that has been building throughout the Gospel of Luke and will very literally bleed into the second half of Luke’s Gospel, Acts.

The very beginning of Jesus starts with a prediction of conflict in Luke…The adult Jesus is simply fulfilling the plot line that has already been laid out by Luke. In Luke chapter 2 Jesus is presented to the temple, and an old man named Simeon, who was already filled with the Holy Spirit (which btw won’t happen in the narrative for many years to come in The Acts), is able to ascertain through the power of the Spirit that in this baby Jesus is the consolation of Israel. Simeon tells Mary, what must have been a very chilling prediction, “this child is appointed for the rise and fall of many in Israel…a sword will even pierce your own soul.” At the time, we as readers are not sure how this will unfold but conflict quickly pursues Jesus in his first act of Public ministry in Luke 4 where Jesus fills the entire synagogue with rage because of his teachings. They tried to kill him before his ministry had even started…Jesus had already begun to wield his sword, but the sword will get more mighty and polarizing as Luke’s story continues.

And time would fail us to rehearse the polarity of the narrative of the Baptist, the public acts of choosing to call tax collectors over the proper house of Israel, breaking the Sabbath observances, and the much infamous Sermon on the Plain wherein Jesus corrects Moses on multiple occasions…and these to just name a few. By the time we get to chapter 12, Jesus has begun his ascent from the Galilee toward Jerusalem, his heart and head are weary, his spirit must be growing faint with lack of faith he finds…so at this point in the narrative Jesus states explicitly what has been unraveling throughout the narrative to this point. He is fed up with these people who are not understanding his message and continually perpetuating non-parabolic forms of life that revolve around their customs, power, positions, economics, …and if it would just begin happening right now, if fire would already be set ablaze then the purging of creation and a new beginning could occur.

So it’s not only the message of Jesus that is rote with conflict; it is his very presence. The presence of Jesus the Gospels call Christ is the entrance of conflict into the story of the world because he is the entrance of the end. His presence is the weighing of the scales of judgment. He is our beginning that has entered our end so that we can have a future beginning. And this is what is so disconcerting to these characters that oppose him in the story, to those families that are divided because of his teaching. Jesus has entered a narrative that begins with “loud Hosannas” and “glory to God on the highest”…his entrance is hailed by those that have no business recognizing the Baby Jesus whose notoriety is seen in the public announcements we see at Christmas time “Joy to the world, Peace on earth, Goodwill toward humanity”…remnants of a Gospel story that says Jesus came to bring peace rather than a sword. The unassuming announcement that is brought by none other than Gabriel in Luke 1 reminds us of Daniel wherein Gabriel seems to be a bearer of messages concerning the last things…the announcement of Jesus is the eschatological sign that the words Jesus echos in Luke 12 are also connected to his very life. Jesus is the end and he is speaking judgment and conflict not only to Luke’s hearers but also to us. The birth of the Christ, in ironic fashion, was the judgment of God into the world…and only thereby might peace be found on the other side of the life that Jesus must live…is living in our text.

If we grant the tension that the Gospel gives us a Christ that declares division while also proclaiming peace, yet his ministry somehow embodies both, causes both, what are we to presume this cryptic saying of Jesus is to mean? How do we make sense of this eschatological prophet whose story lead many of Luke’s hearers, and us, to proclaim that we are not only dealing with a unique prophet grounded in history but one that we must also confess as son of God, Christ, Messiah…and of what is he Christ, for what purpose is this derisive character known of Messiah entering the world of Luke’s Gospel, and our lives, with some words that subtly challenge the comfort of our seats and the peace with which we idealize our ideas of the world and creation?

The most striking thing about this passage is that it occurs prior to Jesus once again returning his gaze to the crowds. Jesus is still speaking in the absent presence of Peters words, “Lord, are you addressing this parable to us or to everyone else as well?” The tone of the texts indicates Jesus is speaking these words to the disciples…for after he tells them of this conflict and sword that he brings, then the text says, “he was also speaking to the crowds…saying.”

Jesus is addressing this difficult saying to Luke’s churches, to those who were then currently living the tensions of families broken up because of the gospel, to families that had lost their inheritances because of their allegiance to Christ, to families that we on different ideological sides of the role of the temple that had by the time of Luke’s Gospel been destroyed. Jesus is speaking this to disciples; people in the conflict…and the reminder that he comes to bring conflict is a reminder that Jesus has prepared them for this difficult time.

While the Gospel did seem to have a euphoric sense to it, a sense of ultimacy that if Jesus was followed then new creation would emerge in a way consistent with all of their prior conceptions, the stark words of Jesus here is that his ministry will divide the very homes his ministry will also unite…and if he could expedite the process even the Son of God wishes that fire would consume creation and hold the powers that be accountable for their evil and oppression. Luke is using this discourse of Christ to remind them that the division they are now experiencing is not unexpected…even Christ knew such would happen…and the message of Acts tells us what a life proclaiming the Gospel looks like for those bound to this very divisiveness…how do they survive such division? The power of the Holy Spirit.

But what makes Jesus direct this very strong verbiage to his disciples?? Why doesn’t he point out the superstructures of society that are suppressing his people and keeping Israel in occupied bondage? Why doesn’t he come right out and say to whom this judgment and division is going to be directed? Why not a call to social-action like the prophets of old here? Why not attack the overtly political actions that are necessitating the presence of a judgment and a coming Christ? Why not address this warning to people that are not followers of Jesus? What is Jesus doing here?

He wants his disciples to see and feel the role reversal that takes place in the pending judgment of God visa vi his death, resurrection and giving of the Holy Spirit that will later unfold in Luke/Acts. The Kingdom of God, the coming God of whom Jesus is the living presence, has come, and is coming, into history to judge those very folks who think they are not subject to judgment…rather they think they provide and do the judging. The judgment of Christ comes about under the indictment of resurrection and victory and is purged by the fires of cleansing…fires that Jesus presumably believed would be quite literal.

Conflict and division is central to the Gospel of Jesus and the hell that Jesus wishes here upon the characters of the text, perhaps even us in the present, (remember he is responding to Peter) is a judgment upon our very ideas of judgment and role in preserving the status quo of the current system that is not enlivened by the parabolic vision of the Christ and the pending kingdom. Our judgment, even as disciples, establishes a foreign kingdom, one not beholden to God or divine purpose. In a world where Luke’s Gospel is very political, Jesus is seeing through the ideological powers that bring judgment and peace (ideologies we often support even as disciples)…yet these will in fact be proclaimed as garbage under the microscope of the Gospel…fit to be burned and destroyed as a part of God’s weighing of creation. Jesus is fed up with this complicity. He sees all this and he wishes it would go ahead and start raining sulfur…yet he knows that just as his ministry started with a baptism by John so too his purpose must end in another baptism into the earth. The effect of this baptism and the belief it has produced in Jesus will be a division amongst people that were already being lived by Luke’s churches…and has been lived historically throughout Christianity.

You see disciples often forget a very central point of Jesus’ messages. While the disciples of Jesus then, like us today, like to take the words of scripture and use it to indict those that are not faithful…if we keep with this text we find that Jesus is directing these words to his disciples because they are often confused about their own complicity in guilt, and therein, judgment. We like to direct this discourse to some ominous event in which “god is going to get them” and we are on the winning team…only problem is, Jesus is not using this as warning outside the community of faith. He is using it to warn his disciples…that they should understand the risky business of following the Christ. Following Jesus is difficult. It’s divisive. It may not lead us to the Purpose Driven life that looks like the American dream. It may not lead us to powerful positions within secularity…it may lead us up a hill we are not prepared to walk.

…Chances are…it will lead us into division with others, our family and even ourselves because it lays bare our thirst for the dominant configurations of power and narcissism that plague our lives…and what will judge those misplaced configurations of power? In Luke’s Gospel, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus has already done this. The presence of Jesus and his words is the arrival of judgment of the last days…We already stand under these words because God, who is the end of the world, has come into our presence. But Jesus has prepared us for this with these very words.

So while multitudes read Luke 12 and rehash fantastic scenarios in which this will happen at some grand event when all of time and eternity collide into the presence of an end times that is only given vision through the writers of facetious fiction…Luke’s is showing us his hand. It’s not about when. It’s about now…and the judgment of Christ is already finished. Despite our hardships or that divisiveness of the person of Jesus…the cost of following him, which in America is precious little, despite this…the jokes on us. Christ does bring a sword, but he swallows his own sword up when the garden spits him out of his earthy cage. While we await this judgment and its victory…Luke will later remind us…we are already judged on Calvary…and we’ve already had victory. Jesus is telling us about what will happen cast within Luke’s narrative of what has happened.

It’s a little thing we call Easter.