When I was a youngster in Indianapolis and was learning how to read I took pride in reading the comics in the newspaper, which we as a family called the “funny pages.” But not everything was so funny. We had Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” about oddities, and a frame called “Haley’s Inferno.” This was about people in hell. One I remember was nurses in caps and tight uniforms being chased around by devils with large hypodermic needles. I did not like shots as a kid, and I think I responded to this notion of cosmic justice, karma if you will – nurses getting shots.
Last October when the Cubs won the pennant my favorite cartoon was a cold little devil, wrapped in a blanket and shivering.
I remember a cartoon which I saw as a teenager, and I don’t think it was in the daily paper. A newcomer was standing next to a longtime resident of hell and they were both looking across a flaming divide at scantily clad women. But it was a divide that could not be crossed, and the longtime resident was muttering to the recent arrival; “That’s the hell of it.”
What makes hell hell? What is the key to the devastation? What is the hell of it?
In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, God has come to us, shared our common lot, suffering sin and death and reconciled the world unto himself.
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried, he descended into hell…
I intuit that this is more serious than a cartoon – what does our religious tradition mean when we talk about death and hell?
- On its most basic level hell is separation from God. Jesus on the cross quotes from Psalm 22 “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” If heaven is to be with God and those whom we love, if it revolves around Jesus promise, “In my father’s house are many rooms, if it were not so would I have told you ‘I go to prepare a place for you?’ and if I go I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” Then hell is to be separated from God.
- In the Gospel of Matthew the term that Jesus uses is “gehenna” or otherwise the Valley of Hinnon. But what is the significance of the valley of Hinnon?
- Gehenna is outside the city of Jerusalem, but nearby. So it is outside the holy city of God. That would make it connect with the notion of separation from God.
- An additional possibility is that since in pre-jewish times gehenna was the site where babies were sacrificed to the pagan gods, it is a place of death. You remember that Abraham came to this general area when he had the notion that he was supposed to sacrifice his son Isaac? So it was a place of killing and death for distorted reasons.
- Further, by Jesus’ time this valley was the city dump. It would smolder and burn to get rid of the trash, 24 – 7. No longer a place of killing.
- This is where the translation “lake of fire” comes from. The eternal flames. You remember Lazarus and dives? “Put your finger in the water, come and cool my tongue, because I’m tormented in the flames.” So flames equal torment and serious pain.
- Some religious writers seem almost demented to me and they are way too interested in pain. But pain alone is not the worst thing. It is pain without meaning. I was asking two women who work at the church, who have had more than one child, how it was that they would decide to have a second child since childbearing is very painful. And they did agree that it was very painful. One said, “You know it took me over five years to let the memory dim.” Another said, “I got lots of drugs.” And then she continued thoughtfully, “and it was worth it to have a child.” So the pain is contextualized by the meaningful and valuable outcome. A dimension of mother-love.
- Another possibility for the city dump is not so much the painful flames but rather the notion of “the trash heap of history.” Our trash is trash because it is worthless to us. I think of this when getting rid of packaging material. And I feel bad, and the packaging or wrapping is often even beautiful, but of no use or worth. This is in sharp contrast to pain that has good outcome. So hell could mean to be judged worthless, of no consequence or worth.
- Another element of a trash heap that burns is the And “come to ashes” often signals good efforts and high hopes that have been frustrated. January 1961 was the end of President Eisenhower’s term, and 40 years of public service. We remember the somber tone of his farewell address where he identified the threat of the military industrial complex. The National Security Council minutes of 5 January 1961 include this: The President then remarked that soon after Pearl Harbor, he was engaged in an operation which required him to have certain information which he was unable to obtain from the Navy, i.e., the strength the Navy had left in the Pacific. The President also noted that the U.S. fought the first year of the war in Europe entirely on the basis of British intelligence. Subsequently, each Military Service developed its own intelligence organization. He thought the situation made little sense in managerial terms. He had suffered an eight-year defeat on this question (of getting good intelligence) but would leave a legacy of ashes for his successor. Is hell a legacy of ashes where our best efforts have come to nothing?
The traditional rendition of the Apostle’s Creed says: He (Jesus) descended into hell.” Whatever was the hell of it, he went there and he came back again. In cosmic terms he defeated hell, shattered and broke the gates of hell, and did so on our behalf.
- So to the degree that hell is separation from God, Jesus grants reconciliation with God and with each other.
- To the degree that hell is death, Jesus gives us eternal life with God.
- If hell is pain, Jesus gives us comfort makes it worth it.
- To the degree that our pain and suffering seem for nothing, Jesus renders our pain and suffering meaningful and worthwhile.
- To the extent that hell is the experience of worthlessness, Jesus calls us each by name in our baptism and declares each of us a child of God, part of the family and of infinite worth.
- To the degree that our good intentions and dreams seem to come to ashes, Jesus redeems our aspirations and gives them eternal value.
As we gather around the table to take within ourselves the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ, the life of Christ becomes alive in us. As we sang not so long ago, “And I’ll live in you if you live in me, I am the Lord of the dance said he.”
Whatever is the hell of it, it is history, and the future is open. Thanks be to God.
Amen and amen.