“Some want to live within the sound
Of church or chapel bell;
I want to run a rescue shop,
Within a yard of hell.”
Some think of Hell as a literal place of punishment, awaiting sinners on the other side of death…
- an eternal destination for the damned…
- a deep abyss, beneath the earth….
- a burning lake of eternal fire and brimstone…
- a state of eternal torment and suffering, where there’s never-ending weeping and gnashing of teeth (what is teeth-gnashing, anyway?)…
- the underground lair of the Devil and legions of demons…
- unending, irreversible separation from God.
I’m increasingly doubtful of Hell as a post-life destination. I just don’t read much evidence in Scripture to support Hell being more than a metaphor for eternal separation from God, which I do believe in. I could be wrong. Maybe Hell is a literal place. I guess we’ll all find out, eventually.
To me, belief in an eternal Hell feels more like a threat, motivated by fear. God doesn’t need threats to attract us. God is good, and the offer of eternity with God is very good. God doesn’t need the fear or threat of an eternal hell to motivate us. That sounds a bit too mobster for me.
But, that being said, I do still believe in Hell. Perhaps there is an eternal state of Hell, for those who choose it (for more on this, read C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce). But, if Hell is separation from God, Hell isn’t necessarily a future destination. Hell, for some, is a PRESENT reality. Hell can be anywhere, anyplace, anytime.
Hell is anywhere a person feels cut off from God. I don’t really believe anyone or anyplace – including Hell – is cut off from God, entirely. Psalm 139:7 asks, “Where can I go from your Spirit?Where can I flee from your presence?” The answer? “Nowhere!” But, undeniably, there are times, places, situations, experiences in this life when a person might FEEL cut off from God…
- When a victim is abused or assaulted.
- When a person is trapped in addiction.
- When trust is betrayed.
- When a person is sliding deeper and deeper into depression.
- When someone has lost their way, and keeps wandering farther and farther and farther astray.
- When a person is belittled or dehumanized for their age, gender, ethnicity, skin color, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation.
- When fear is greater than love.
- When a person is a victim of injustice.
- When lies speak more convincingly than Truth.
- When a person is caught in endless, grinding cycles of poverty.
- When EVERYTHING seems hopeless.
- When a person is haunted by the sins of their past.
- When it feels like there’s nowhere to go, and no one to turn to.
- When a deepening darkness blots out the fading, dimming, failing light.
- When pain – physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual – overwhelms.
- When a person cannot escape the consequences of their sins.
I recall a recent conversation about the success of so many conservative, mega-churches, and how many have transitioned from being historically “traditional” to something much more modern and contemporary. I wondered aloud if their success has anything to do with their belief in Hell? I wonder if believing “lost” people go to an eternal place of suffering motivates members to “save” people, no matter what it takes, before it’s too late. I don’t wonder. I’m sure that’s the case.
But, what if the Hell people need saving from, most, isn’t in their future? What if the “lost” are already in Hell, in this life? What if the “saving,” lost people need, isn’t just from a future Hell, but a current and present one?
What if Hell exists in…
- broken homes and families,
- poverty-stricken neighborhoods,
- brothels, strip-clubs, porn-studios, and red-light districts,
- the bottles or needles of every addict,
- loneliness – real or perceived,
- racist/discriminatory attitudes, practices, and policies,
- where the abuser’s hand touches the victim’s flesh,
- unsafe school yards,
- the bully’s threats and verbal assaults,
- corrupt, unjust governments and leaders,
- the hearts of many men and women, children and teens, young and old, friends and family, neighbors and coworkers,
- prisons, homeless shelters, mental hospitals,
- the minds of the mentally ill,
- the bodies of the sick and dying,
- the news of a tragic death or suicide,
- broken, betrayed hearts…
What if the person/people we live with, work with, ride the bus with, eat lunch with, do business with, is/are currently living in a Hellish state, and we don’t even realize it? What if they desperately need us to realize it?
What if the job of the Church, and Christians, is to rescue people from their current Hell; not to avoid their Hell, or to stand back and judge them for it? What if the job of the Church, and Christians, is to set people free from their current Hell, and to invite them into a new, better, godly reality? What if our job is to be Heaven on Earth, even in the midst of the Hell people are currently enduring? What if our job is to enter the Hell of others, while remaining deeply anchored in a higher spiritual reality? What if our job is to find them in Hell, and lead them out?
What if Hell isn’t an eternal state, but only lasts as long as a suffering person must wait for you or me to crash down the gates, keeping trapped inside.
What if our job, Christians, isn’t to avoid Hell, but to dive into the thick of it, shining our light into the inky darkness, releasing the prisoners and rescuing the captives, transcending Hell together, into God’s glorious light?
1a: to rise above or go beyond the limits of
b: to triumph over the negative or restrictive aspects of
c: to be prior to, beyond, and above (the universe or material existence)
2: to outstrip or outdo in some attribute, quality, or power
: to rise above or extend notably beyond ordinary limits
Who do you know currently residing in Hell? What are you going to do about it?
Another question to ponder, Church: based on my definition of Hell, have we (The Church) done more rescuing FROM Hell, threatening WITH Hell, or treating people LIKE Hell? Think about it.
6 thoughts on “Transcending Hell”
You are a “GREAT” Pastor and if they ever move you I don’t think I will stay at that Church unless they can bring in someone as caring ans as good at preaching as you! Really there is no other Church for me! You and Alex are the BEST Preachers, besides Dr. Charles Stanley on TBN! I Love your Sermons and learn so much from you and you keep everyone interested in coming back for more just to see what we will learn next! Just when I was ready to give up on asking Rocky to come to Church with me-Cause he was SO Catholic-he surprised me and came! He liked you so much and the friendly folks at church–he didn’t stop till God took him home! I sleep alot now and trying to get rid of extra things in my house so my poor girls don’t have so much to do when I go home to God1 FROM ONE IN YOUR CONGREGATION WHO TRULY APPRECIATES ALL YOU DO!
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Thank you for this post. It’s powerful, intense, soul-searching, and hopeful.
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This is kind of similar to your sermon of “What if there is no heaven? What if heaven were right here on Earth?” I truly hope that there is something more than just Earth. My deceased loved ones certainly deserve better. I believe we are steering Earth towards”hell”, and I anxiously await the return of the Lord.
When you speak of the church, I do believe that our job is to enter the “hell”of others and seek to reform their lives. Repentance is key in that reformation. We both know that February 2019 could easily be the demise of the “United” Methodist Church. That truly saddens me. It makes me feel like society is leading the church, rather than the church leading society out of this “hell”. However, if it is God’s will, then I pray that both the Progressives and the Conservatives can go forward, produce thriving congregations, and spread the Word. I feel like it’s time to get back to following the Word, not rewriting it to suit our needs. Praying for a productive General Conference 2019! <
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I don’t know a single progressive Christian, advocating for the LGBTQ+ community, following the “lead” of society. We read, in Scripture, God’s love for EVERYONE – especially the hurting and marginalized. We read, in Scripture, God’s call to work for justice and peace. We read, in Scripture, stories about a kingdom open to outcasts. We see, in Jesus, God extending grace to those whom religion has deemed unworthy. I am progressive BECAUSE of Scripture. This is a deep spiritual, theological conviction, for me, based in a love for God and people. It should be obvious, by now, that Society has very little sway over my convictions!
Talk to anyone in the LGBTQ+ community, as I have countless times. Listen – really, respectfully, listen. You will hear story after story of men and women who’ve experienced fear, shame, rejection, hate, discrimination – often at the hands of the Church. I call that Hell.
And, listen to the stories of those you so strongly disagree with, instead of regurgitating the same, old accusatory rhetoric. I don’t expect you to change your mind or your convictions. I don’t condemn you for your beliefs, or how you came to them. But, you undermine your own convictions when you fail to understand and respect why this matters so much to those seeking change.
You have come to a different conclusion based on your own reading of Scripture, which is fine. You feel passionate about this issue, and the future of the Church – as do I. But, it is FALSE to say progressive Christians are following society’s lead instead of Jesus’. It is a lie, and saying so repeatedly is ungodly and slanderous. Even as you vehemently disagree with progressives, you can still respect our convictions, and the source of our convictions, which has NOTHING to do with SOCIETY’s influence.
My comments were only on the Church, the bride of God. The church is meant to lead the sheep.
The UMC is welcoming to ALL! It always has been! I am truly thankful that you are choosing to discuss this subject, however I’m not sure why you thought I was speaking about our church members, indicating as though some were being cast out. I don’t know of any person EVER being unwelcomed, condemned, or intentionally made to feel “outcasted”.
In February 2019, the Church will be forced to make decisions of how it will operate from this point forward. It is scary. It is sad. It will effect millions. The church’s current beliefs and Book of Discipline are being violated, without repercussion. The violations are made by the leadership, even Bishops. However, the church’s congregation and its members are those who will be affected most.
I don’t think that the Traditionalists have this “hatred”, as much as Hurt! Their church is being violated and could easily divide. However, I personally, am not as attached to the cross and flame, as I am to the faith of our church. I do believe that the church is meant to lead by example, and that breaking ordination vows is not a holy example.
I respect your opinions, although I am not Progressive. I do not know of Traditionalists who seek to eliminate LGBTQAAI+ from their lives or the church. Many — myself included– have LGBTQAAI+ in their families. Their sins are no worse than mine.
LGBTQAAI+ has become a “stamp” placed on a very diverse group of individuals, lumped together, as if they are a race. They are not. Rather, they are very individual chosen lifestyles. They are lifestyles that have ALWAYS BEEN WELCOMED into the UMC. However, choosing to be leadership in the church is also a very different, individual lifestyle. Such lifestyle is clearly defined by the Ordination vows. There is a definite difference between the clergy and the congregation! Praying for a productive Special Conference in February 2019!
Sorry for the confusion.
To answer your question, teeth-gnashing is “snarling, growling: in the sense of biting” (from the Outline of Biblical Usage by Larry Pierce).
Your fanciful ideas about Hell don’t line up with scripture. Hell is a place of ETERNAL torment, not a temporary condition or situation here on earth. Threatening people with Hell probably has no value, but that doesn’t mean we should lie to people about Hell either.
Jesus made it clear that Hell was not created for man, but for Satan and his angels. That doesn’t sound like anything you have described in this post.
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;
Matthew 25:41 NRSV