September 13, 2023
• Rev. Mindie Moore
Stumped Week 4: Does God Send People To Hell?
Last week when I teased that we were going to talk about hell today, Cathy Crafton came up to me in the Gathering Area and said, just so matter of factly, “you know, I’ve been to hell.”
And this is one of those moments as a pastor where you put on your pastor face and you say, “tell me more...”
And she laughed at me, putting on my pastor face and said, “I’ve been to hell and I even have a stamp on my passport!” (SLIDE) It turns out, this is an area in the Cayman Islands and she did in fact send me her passport and vacation photos to prove it. In fact here’s what the official website for this area says:
In the Cayman Islands, tourists can go to Hell. This uniquely named attraction located in the district of West Bay on Grand Cayman, is well known for a small patch of black limestone formations that can be seen poking out from its lush surroundings. Hell was created by salt and lime deposits over 24 million years and the legend behind its name still continues to be debated. After marveling at the field of black peaks, make sure to send your friends a postcard from Hell. The Hell attraction site is accessible at all times and is free to the public. There are three gift shops on the property as well as public restrooms which are open daily from 8:00 am – 5:00pm.
There’s three gift shops. Because one gift shop in hell would
clearly not be enough.
So I had to laugh at that, but here’s what I know. For a lot of
people, hell is no laughing matter. For a lot of people, this
question that we’re looking at today, (SLIDE) “Does God send
people to hell?” is a huge tension point in their faith.
Because Hell is often used as a major tool of fear. Turn or burn.
When we were at Mammoth Cave last Spring Break, Zack told
me about a tour he took deeper into the cave as a kid, where
they said that there would be church services. And it was dark,
and the preacher talked about fire and brimstone with literal
fire in a cave. I think if you had been part of that congregation,
you probably would have been bought in to anything that
preacher would have said because HELLO! He’s giving you a
preview, underground, for what happens if you don’t.
So this idea of hell, this idea that God might send people there
on purpose...it’s a big one. And the fact is, as we talk about it,
we have to just name that no matter what our view on hell iswhether
we think hell is a literal, actual place that a person can
go when they die, whether we think it’s an abstract concept, or
whether we don’t believe in it at all- and I would guess there
are people listening to this that fall into all of those categoriesno
matter what we believe about it...we have to acknowledge
the fact that Jesus talks about it. In fact, Jesus mentions hell,
directly or indirectly, 60 times in the Gospels. In the Gospel of
Matthew, he even says this (SLIDE):
41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You who are
accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the
devil and his angels,” This is probably his most descriptive
teaching on hell and, yikes Jesus!
So if you feel tense about this question and this conversation-
GOOD. You’re in the right place and the right frame of mind. It
would be incredibly easy to take a black and white viewpoint on
this question- to try to get to a firm yes or no. But I think this
one is one of those questions where there is a lot to unpack in
between those two poles. We HAVE to engage with the topic of
hell, because Jesus did. He thought something about it was
worth talking about. But I’m not so sure that this means we
have to have a super literal VIEW of what hell is or isn’t. This
might be one of those things can grow and evolve as our
theology grows and evolves.
And you know, we see that in Scripture and culture. If we go
back to the Old Testament, especially in the book of Psalms, we
encounter this word (SLIDE) Sheol, which back in ancient Jewish
times meant The Place of the Dead. There was a lot of
language around “going down to Sheol” but that doesn’t mean
it was the same idea that we have around hell today. Some
views on Sheol were that it was like a “rendezvous for the
dead”- you find your people, everyone is there, it’s beyond this
life but it doesn't necessarily sound scary or like punishment.
It’s just away from the living world.
And I want you to know this, because if we’re going to talk
about the afterlife, we have to understand that our views on
this topic have never been set in stone. And as it evolved from
Sheol, as people started formulating ideas around what
happened after you die, about things like heaven and hell, and
as Jesus shows up on the scene during his very specific time and
place and context, the way HE taught about hell was actually
very concrete and relatable. The way Jesus talked about hell
actually referred to a very real place in Jerusalem called (SLIDE)
Gahenna, also known as the Valley of Hinnom.
And when I think about Gahenna, I think about a place I went
on a mission trip in college, in the heart of Guatemala City. It
was a neighborhood with a terrible reputation- gangs, crime,
illness, raw sewage, it had it all. And it was considered so bad
that our host for our trip, a friend of our pastor, who was born
and raised in Guatemala City, he wouldn’t even drive us there.
He would get about two miles away and then switch with
another driver. He thought people had no business going to this
place and he wanted nothing to do with it.
And Gahenna, back in Jesus’ day, had all that...and more. It had
such a horrible past of death and very offensive practices and
such a horrific reputation that the people had turned it into a
literal garbage dump and set it on fire. And every day, it just
burned. And the poorest people of the community would dig
through the burning trash, I mean this place was a nightmare,
and everyone knew about it.
So THAT is the reference Jesus is often using when he talks
about hell. So this is a word and an example that is NOT the
abstract concept that you and I have today. It’s not little guys
with pitch forks and flames- it's a real, burning, scary,
dangerous place that people knew and wanted to avoid at all
So that in itself nuances this conversation a little bit. Because
maybe Jesus isn’t talking about exactly what we often assume
he’s talking about. Maybe he’s not referencing this far away
place that no one has ever seen. Maybe the message is a little
more practical than that.
In fact, I would argue that Jesus, while he talks about hell more
than some of us might be comfortable with, I would argue that
the REASON he talks about hell might have a lot less to do with
what happens after we die and might have a lot to do with the
actual real lives we’re creating here and now. I don’t think
these teachings are meant to be a threat for some abstract
time in the future. I think they’re supposed to be a wake up call
for what’s going on right in front of us.
And I want to give you an example that goes back to the
parable we heard read today. So we often call this parable that
Jesus told: “The Rich Man and Lazarus” and this is a popular
story. In fact, if you are a choir nerd like me, there’s a really
classic choral piece called “Poor Man Lazarus” and one year I
volunteered for ISMAA Choral Competition and I heard like 6
different choirs sing this song...and it was never great.
But if you’ve never gotten the joy of sitting through six different
versions of “Poor Man Lazarus,” I can go back and sum it up.
Basically, in this story, there is a poor man named Lazarus who
sits at the city gate and is always asking for help and charity.
And the rich man...he does not have the time for someone like
Lazarus. Lazarus is beneath him, he’s not worth paying
attention to. So he never helps Lazarus, and Lazarus dies. Well,
eventually, so does the rich man. And when the rich man
dies...uh oh. This didn’t go as planned.
And so Jesus paints a picture of the rich man in hell, he can see
to the other side, which looks way better than what he’s got
going on, and wouldn’t you know- THERE'S LAZARUS! With
Abraham, this great father of the Jewish faith. And they’re all
having a good time and doing great.
But not the rich man. And so he says, “hey, Abraham. Could you
please just ask Lazarus to give me some water?”
And Abraham says...nope.
But then he goes on to make this statement-(SLIDE) 26 And
besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been
set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you
cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
Basically he’s saying, Rich Man... you’re stuck. You’re stuck. And
there’s nothing we can do about it.
So we hear that story, and on the surface, it sounds like it’s
saying- you either go to heaven or hell and that’s the end of it.
But maybe that’s not the end of it. Here’s what I wonder, and
it’s a question that Rob Bell explores in his book (SLIDE) Love
Wins- I just wonder what was really keeping this man in this
place of torment? Maybe the thing keeping the man in that
place was the state of his heart. Look at how he interacted with
Lazarus on earth and look at how he interacted with Lazarus
after death. In both scenarios, he sees Lazarus as less than. He
sees Lazarus as worth nothing more than the possibility of
doing a service to him. Even in his worst moment, consumed by
fire and desperation, even THEN...he can’t be bothered to
address Lazarus directly.
Even in a scenario where the tables have turned, even when
the suffering is now his, even then, his heart won’t budge.
There’s a chasm alright. But maybe it’s his heart that keeps that
chasm so wide. It’s his inability to feel and practice compassion,
it’s the fact that he is self-centered and loveless, it’s the fact
that no one’s suffering can matter as much as his own. And I
just wonder if maybe it’s his choices that create this state of
being that feels an awful lot like the fiery town garbage dump.
CS Lewis once wrote that the doors of hell are locked from the
inside. And whether you view hell as a very literal place people
might go after death or whether you look at it more
metaphorically, the point stands- we are free to make choices.
We’re free to create the lives and the stories we want. And we
can orient ourselves around a life that is close to God...or we
can choose not to. We can pursue goodness and justice or we
can exploit and harm. We can break relationship with God and
with people or we can be about creating beautiful, healthy
things. The bottom line is that we have freedom to choose.
There’s a really tragic element to this conversation about hell
that has very little to do with what happens when we die.
Because so often, I think we as people do a pretty good job of
creating hellish conditions right here and right now. And when
we do that, we suffer, other people suffer, we lock ourselves
into cycles of brokenness that feel so hard to break.
And so when we get to this point of the conversation, when we
get to this level of talking about hell, it just feels hopeless. Isn’t
that kind of the point? Hope ends with the idea of hell.
But my issue with this part of the conversation...is that this
doesn’t really line up with the things I believe about Jesus. This
doesn’t really line up with who I know God to be. And it doesn’t
make sense that we would end in a place of hopelessness when
because of our loving God, we inherently are living in stories of
And hope has a way of doing some really mysterious things. I
want to share with you the Message translation of 1 Peter 3:19
and 22: (SLIDE)
He went and proclaimed God’s salvation to earlier
generations who ended up in the prison of judgment
because they wouldn’t listen...Jesus has the last word on
everything and everyone, from angels to armies. He’s
standing right alongside God, and what he says goes.
That sounds like Jesus is up to something. And I don’t
understand how what this passage is talking about works. I’ve
never had a glimpse into the afterlife. But what I DO
understand is that clearly what this tells us is that death is not
the end, God keeps working, and that whatever Jesus is doing is
so much bigger and more beautiful than you and I can fully hold
on to. Somehow, some way, hope can’t be contained- here on
this earth or even after this life into death. And if Jesus has the
last word...maybe death doesn’t? Maybe there is some kind of
hope that can found even in the places that feel farthest away
And if that could be true in death...it can absolutely be true in
life. And when I look at how JEsus lived and who Jesus is I am
reminded that Jesus is not afraid to enter into the places in our
lives that feel like hell. When we feel betrayed by someone,
when we walk through deep grief, when we don’t know where
to turn or if we’re ever going to heal...Jesus shows up. Jesus is
not scared off by the things that feel too tragic, too broken, or
too lost. (SLIDE) Jesus has the last word and that word is hope.
God’s story always comes back to hope. And we get to be part
of it. We get to CREATE it. Now, I’m not naïve enough to think
that we can rid the world of these places and situations that
feel like living hells. I know some of our stories are just so hard,
I read the news too! But I do believe that no matter how hard
life is, no matter how close to hell things might seem, we can
absolutely be people who create the hope of Jesus wherever
we find ourselves. We can be people who live into the mystery
of how God works and loves.
I’ll quote Rob Bell one last time today, because I think it sums it
up so well: (SLIDE)
Jesus invites us into...relationship...He insists that he’s one
with God, that we can be one with him, and that life ais a
generous, abundant reality. This God whom Jesus spoke of is
always looking for partners, people who are passionate about
participating in the ongoing creation of the world.
There are a lot of ways that we watch hell get created. But
there are so many more ways that we can partner with God
and create something more like heaven. There are so many
ways that we can trust that Jesus will SHOW UP and be present,
even when it’s hard. Even when we’re afraid. Even in a
conversation about something as bleak as hell, we can knowthat
hope has the final word. And we get to be part of that