Words Matter: “Hell”

by susan on October 21, 2019

The following message was shared during our Sunday gathering on October 20, 2019 and is part of our Words Matter series. The focus text is Luke 16:19-31. It would be helpful to read this Scripture passage meditatively before reading the message.


For the past several years, I have been able to attend the Barbara Ann Campbell Memorial Breakfast hosted by Hubbard House, and I missed going this year. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and each year this breakfast brings attention to the ongoing issue of domestic violence. 

And it needs attention. 

Last year, not only were there 13 domestic violence-related deaths (children were present during 5 of these murders), but there were over 7,000 total domestic-violence crimes reported in Duval County alone.1

What I missed most about the breakfast this year was not the stats or the food, but the courageous stories of survivors. The stories shared are always unique, but one common thread is always there.

Domestic violence almost always involves someone the survivor knows & loves & trusts & at the heart of their relationship is fear:

Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of triggering the rage that leads to abuse. Fear that begins to isolate from other relationships. Fear that controls & shames & ultimately leads to all kinds of psychological & emotional & physical violence.

What survivors come to realize if they escape is that fear is no basis for genuine relationship. Fear & love are not compatible because fear is a terrible motivator & a frail foundation for life together.

We know this to be true.

And yet, we have allowed fear to be the foundation, the driving force, the undercurrent of of our relationship to God for a very long time. And there is one particular fear-based doctrine of the church that we have been afraid to overturn and it is this: that all who do not pray a sinner’s prayer & ask Jesus into their hearts are bound for eternal torment in hell. Perhaps part of our reluctance comes from our own fear that if we dare challenge this long-standing belief, we will be deemed heretics…and we all know what happens to heretics.

I still remember the first time I was called “unorthodox” (which I think is a step down from heretic…phew). While I don’t remember which fundamental doctrine I was naively calling into question, I do remember the feeling – the mixture of affirmation (that’s right, I’m unorthodox!) & discomfort (oh no, I’m unorthodox!).

A people-pleasing pastor questioning years of tradition & doctrine causes internal conflict & tension like you would not believe. That kind of tension can only be resolved by looking to Jesus. His very very life & ministry called into question a faith that had been handed down to him but that he knew had become something God never intended it to be. 

If you want to be called unorthodox today, just try telling people that you are a Christian and you don’t exactly believe hell is a physical place of eternal torment reserved for “unbelievers”. 

Fear of this kind of hell has been the dominant motivator for many expressions of Christianity for the past 1600 years of church history

It has made us: fear we will do the unforgivable, fear we will not believe correctly, fear we will not have enough faith, fear we will not be good enough to “make the cut”.

And yet, this was not the initial story that compelled people to follow Jesus. They were not following Jesus to avoid going to hell when they die. They were following Jesus because they encountered life through him –  full, abundant, restored life – one he brought to earth – one that saved them from death, not just for another time & place, but here & now.

For almost 5 centuries, Christian doctrine was unattached to any clear ideas of Hell as a place of eternal torment. In fact, universal salvation (all being saved by God) was the dominant belief  until one prominent religious figure, St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, inserted it into orthodoxy, and used a combination of power and violence to ensure its survival. His interpretation, the influence of Greek mythology & writings like Dante’s Inferno also helped to shape our modern ideas of hell.

The concept of hell as a place of eternal torment did not originate with the initial followers of Jesus nor is it found in the Bible.

What we do get from the stories told in Scripture are a few words that have been translated as “hell” scattered throughout the Old Testament & sprinkled in the New Testament. In the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament, the word we have most often interpreted as hell is “Sheol” (a word that refers to a dark, mysterious, pit-like place people go to when they die). All people, not just some. Sheol is not well defined, there are no qualifications or boundaries set up – the Israelites’ focus was, after all,  less on afterlife matters & more on their own survival in this life.

When we turn the the New Testament we find the word translated “hell” used a total of 12 times. To give you a comparison, love is mentioned over 200 times.

Most mentions of hell are attributed to Jesus and the word translated “hell” is most often the Greek “gehenna”. Ge means “valley”, henna means “Hinnom”. The valley of Hinnom was a real place on the outskirts of Jerusalem where people would take their trash. It was a hot, firey, dirty, smelly place where no one liked to go. It was the city garbage dump. So, when Jesus used the word hell, he was making a point, but it wasn’t that he was sending non-Christians to a place of eternal punishment. In fact, the word “eternal” as we understand it is never used in relation to hell (but then again, neither is the word “Christian”).

There were three other Greek words that can be translated as “Hell”, one of which we find in today’s scripture reading for today. Never once in any of these teachings, in all of scripture, did Jesus tell someone that if they do not believe correctly they are destined for an eternity in hell.

In fact, most of the teachings involving the word “hell” were told to those who considered themselves insiders. The story Jesus told in today’s scripture reading was told to devout students of the Law and the prophets. They were doing the right things (as evidenced by their good fortune). They thought they had earned God’s favor (as evidenced by their privileged position). They thought they were on the “right side of things” (as evidenced by their social status & their confidence). 

But they were missing something:  Their hearts were not in it. 

They had not experienced for themselves the radical, all consuming nature of God’s love. Their relationships were not defined by it. Their way of life was not shaped by it. So, Jesus tells a story.

It’s a story about a man who had been #blessed with a lot of good things: fine clothing, a home, scrumptious food, more than enough to share. He was an insider.

This rich man had a beggar outside his gate. Poor guy, he must have done something wrong. I think this unknown artist’s portrait is so captivating. Instead of Lazarus being outside, he’s right there just out of reach of the rich man’s table, but not even seen by the man. He could be any person who has been unwelcomed, left out, told they do not belong, told their suffering does not matter. He could be the person who disgusts us, whose humanity we refuse to see.  He was covered with sores that dogs came to lick, he longed to satisfy his hunger.

Jesus is making a point: IT IS ABSURD THAT THIS MAN IS NOT SEEN.

As the story goes, both men die, but Jesus delivered a stunning reversal. In death or Hades, the rich man (the one who appeared to be the more righteous one, the one who sat enjoying life while his neighbor suffered) is tormented, while the poor, filthy, sickly beggar finds comfort. 

The rich man can see and communicate with Lazarus. In fact, he instructs him to bring him some water. Even in death, the rich man still treats Lazarus as his inferior. The separation he lived now caused him grief later. And yet he held onto it. He had learned a lot, but he had not learned the way of love. 

So if we are sitting here today hearing that there may not be a fiery pit that will serve as a place of infinite separation from God & torment unbelievers for the rest of eternity, let me caution us. 

Don’t get too comfortable, because we still have to deal with the fire that’s in this story & others. 

In Razing Hell, Sharon Baker reminds us that fire is used throughout Scripture as a symbol of God’s presence. It is a fire that cleanses & refines &  burns away whatever is sinful, wicked or evil – whatever is not love.  It is also a fire consistent with the God who is revealed in Jesus to be a God of unconditional love for all & a God who refuses violence. 

Therefore, the fire of God is not the fire of God’s vengeance, but the fire of God’s restorative love. The fire of God’s love is the only judgement God has planned for us. As we come near to God’s presence, that love will not leave us & will expose, purify & cleanse us of all that keeps us from loving God, ourselves & our neighbor. If that is not happening, we are not close enough.

That was the point Jesus was making. This is a story warning us about how we live our lives.  When our lives are not rooted in divine love, when our hearts aren’t in it, when we are unable to see the suffering of those sitting at our gates, we are on dangerous ground.

If we are not letting love consume us, if we are not letting love dictate our relationship with our neighbor, if we are living like there’s an “us” and “them”, there will be consequences.

How we treat our neighbors, particularly those who are struggling, matters. More than anything else, it matters,  Jesus was saying.

It matters because there is pain going on in our world like we would not believe and we can’t just ignore it.

Earlier this week, I listened to a “A personal plea for humanity at the US-Mexico border” by Juan Enriquez. Toward the end of his incredibly powerful TED talk, he offered this plea:

A lot of us like to think if we had been back when Hitler was rising to power, we would have been out in the street, we would have opposed him… A lot of us like to think, if we had been around during the ’60s, we would have been with the Freedom Riders. We would have been at that bridge in Selma. Well, guess what? Here’s your chance. It’s now.

Yes, we need big policy changes, but we also need BIG acts of love & kindness. We need to pay attention to how we treat the person checking us out in the grocery store or the one who happens to be our Uber driver. We need to pay attention to how we interact with the person who has no home & the one who is teaching our children.

No one is beneath us. We are ALL beloved children of God.

The dominant doctrine of Hell has been used for centuries to control the masses with fear & to separate us from one another. It has kept Christians and non-Christian alike from experiencing God as Love and from entering the kind of life that brings about more love, more beauty, more goodness & more justice into the world. 

It is time we say the hell with our obsession with hell as an afterlife reality reserved for unbelievers (or those who don’t believe enough or believe correctly…). 

After all, fear makes a terrible basis for relationship.

Instead, let God’s eternal, fiery love fill us & fuel how we live here & now. Be people learning the way of Love, who even as we struggle to find our way, are always making room in our hearts & at our tables for the struggling among us.


1 https://www.jacksonville.com/news/20191001/13-killed-in-2018-domestic-abuse-cases-in-jacksonville

If you are interested in exploring this topic further, consider these books: Razing Hell by Sharon Baker, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God by Brian Zahnd, Love Wins by Rob Bell,  The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr. 

Words Matter: SIN

by susan on September 17, 2019

The following message was shared during our Sunday gathering on 9.15.19. It is part of our “Words Matter” series & was given in reponse to the question, what are we talking about when we talk about sin? The central text was Luke 7:36-50.

This week marked the 18th anniversary of the tre tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks which killed nearly 3,000 people.

If you were alive then, there’s a really good chance you remember exactly where you were on that day. I was working as an occupational therapist in a skilled nursing facility and happened to be walking by the day room where patients gathered to watch daytime television. I noticed there had been a break in regular programming and I wathed in horror as a second plane plowed into one of the World Trade Center towers.

Something we never thought could happen here had happened.

One of the messages repeated annually on 9/11 is this: “Never forget”.

Never forget.

We could take that advice in so many different directions:
Never forget how precious life is and how we must make the moments count.  Never forget that we are vulnerable to evil, that bad things happen to good people. Or this: never forget that we have enemies and we must never let them do this to us ever again. We must rid the world of terrorists (and anyone who resembles the profile of one!).

After 9/11, much like we started a war on drugs,
we immediately began a war on terror.

Isn’t this so often how we deal with our problems?
It is certainly how we have historically dealt with the SIN problem.

It’s sad to say, but in some cases, Christianity has been reduced to little more than a war on sin, as if we can rid ourselves of this beast.

A beast – that’s how sin is referred to in its first mention in Scripture.

The first humans, Adam & Eve had 2 sons. One became jealous of the other. Cain was mad because God was less pleased with his offering than with his brohter, Abel’s offering. The first mention of sin comes amidst a warning in response to Cain’s anger & disappointment.

God tells Cain, “if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:7).  Cain, you must learn to master your anger instead of allowing it to control you and to separate you from your brother. Much to the pain of God, Cain would not learn to master his anger, at least not then.

The word for sin here is the Hebrew word Chatta’ah (kattawa) and it’s root is chat’a (katah), a word that means “to miss, to miss the goal or the path”.

It can also mean “to forfeit”.

Sin is forfeiting the truth of who we are & who we were created to be. God created us in divine likeness & called us good & God desires us to live in harmony with one another & creation.

But as the backstory goes, instead of believing this voice of goodness & love, we thought it was too good to be true. We trusted another voice – the one that belonged to a serpent – the one that told us we were not good enough, that we needed something more, bigger, better in order to be something or someone. We let that voice guide us & we took from the one tree in the garden that was off limits.

We have called that event in the garden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit “the fall” and we have made it the defining event of humanity. The way we have retold the story, it is like God had a PLAN A, but then humans (being as terrible & sinful as we are), came in and screwed everything up, so God had to come up with PLAN B.

Is that really how tiny we believe God to be? God creates us with the freedom to do wrong but never expects that we might actually do it? Think about this for a minute.

Genesis is not a history book. It is a collection of stories. It is not telling us what happened once a long time ago. It is describing what happens in many moments in all lives.

We do fall – it’s part of being human.

Sin happens – we rebel, we mistreat one another, we forget our way, we get greedy, we want to be someone other than who we were created to be and we suffer because of it.

We let the voice of not-enoughness lead us & not the voice of you-are-beloved. We fall, but there’s always a next part to the story.  There is a consistent urgent invitation to return.

We hear it in the call of prophets like Joel (2:13):

Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.

We hear it in the call of the prophet John the Baptizer (Matt. 3:2), who prepared the way for Jesus:

Repent (or return), for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

There has always been a way forward. There has always been an invitation to reconnect with the Giver of Life & the source of goodness. And we see this invitation most fully in Jesus. In Jesus, we see something else, too – we see that one of our worst sins has been the way we have dealt with sin.

The woman in our scripture reading for today is a casualty in the war on sin.

For a long time, the solution to sin had been purity. Law keeping, rituals, sacrifices & a long list of do’s & don’ts were then, and in many ways still are the solution to the sin problem. We manage sin & we manage sinners.

Introduced as a “sinner”, Luke never tells us this woman’s name. Despite traditionally being idenitified as Mary Magdalene, she could be any well known “sinner”. In fact, the Greek word for sin here is “hamartia”. It also means “to miss the mark”, but it’s roots mean “not” and “a part”.

This woman was not a part – something about her life has painted her outside of the circle.

To be labeled a sinner in Jesus’ day could mean many things. She may have been a Gentile or non-Jew. She may have been an unfaithful Jew. She may have made a very public, habitual practice of wrongdoing. She may have been the source of a sexual scandal. She may have been someone who was abused as a child. Her identity as “sinner” could have stemmed from something totally beyond her control. We are not told her sin.

But one thing is clear: according to the sin management system, she is an outsider – she does not belong here.

She is not a part, but that would not be the end of the story.

When she hears that Jesus, who by now is known to be a “friend to sinners,” is in town having dinner at Simon’s house, she comes to anoint him with oil. This is not just a token act of appreciation; it is a wholehearted expression of love.

Her resources, her body, her tears, her heart are present & participating in this moment.

Can you imagine the courage it must have taken this woman to arrive at this Pharisee’s home full of men, knowing what they thought of her?

Despite the stares, the shame, the self-hatred & the stigma – she is there – she is there because something about Jesus has made her believe she is worthy to be there, too. Jesus confirms that yes, her sins are many, and yet *without requiring anything at all of her* announces her sins are forgiven. In fact, her forgiveness of sin is evidenced in her expression of love.

Perhaps the pain of her sin or the experience of being labeled sinner were the very things that allowed her to express a love that no one else in the room seems able to show.

And suddenly I am thinking that life after the fall is not PLAN B at all, but rather there is no other way for us to learn great love.

It is impossible, in fact, to know love until we know our need for it!

That was certainly true for Simon, who saw this act as a violation & an intrusion. If the characters in the story were to cast a play of The Return of the Prodigal Son (another story Jesus tells), Simon would be cast as the older brother. If you remember, the older brother was so caught up in making sure he was rewarded for his good deeds that he did not show up to the party celebrating his careless brother’s return.

That is the sin that most irritated Jesus and one of the hardest to notice & return home from. It disconnects us & keeps us from keeping the greatest command of all: LOVE.

As Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds us, “Our purity systems … are mechanisms for delivering our drug of choice: self-righteousness” (Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, p. 26).

I don’t know about you, but I get a little boost from seeing Simon called out. Isn’t that funny? My own self-righteousness sneaks in as if I’ve got everything figured out. Kind of like the feeling I got when I heard that a very large fundamentalist church would need to sell off a bunch of their downtown property this week (’bout time their judgmentalism & exclusion caught up with them, right?).

Sin is crouching, friends. It is always ready to disconnect us from our neighbor, from God, from our purpose in this universe, and it will never be defeated through war, but only through love.

Sin is not meant to define us.

We fall. We get labeled sinner, sometimes by something that is totally out of our control. And the truth is we can let sin be the death of us. We can make our spirituality revolve around proving our worth, our understanding of God center around sin, our lives all about trying to overcome sin.

But that is not the way of Jesus.

Jesus did not come to launch a war on sin.
He came to show us a way through it:
a way to live as God’s good creation,
a way to be human in a world where good & terrible things happen,
a way to reconnect with a God who loves us without end.

What would it look like for us to stop letting sin define us and instead allow it to wake us up & invite us to reconnect with God’s love & with our true identity as God’s good creation?

This poem by Mary Oliver is dear to many of us. Let them serve as our closing prayer: 

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


Words Matter

August 30, 2019

Not that you need me to tell you this, but… Words matter. They have the power to give or to take life. They can sting, soothe, divide or delight. They can give voice to our thoughts, truths, emotions & experiences. They can even point toward something beyond us. They can bring clarity, wisdom & a […]

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Beach & Baptism: You are invited.

August 21, 2019

Each year, The Well spends a Sunday at the beach together and everyone is invited. This is not just any trip to the beach, it’s our annual gathering to celebrate baptism, to remember our own baptisms & to enjoy a day of play, rest & renewal. Whether baptism has been part of your faith journey […]

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Loving Our Immigrant Neighbors

June 26, 2019

While we continue moving through our summer school of love, thousands of immigrant children are being separated from their parents and held in substandard detention center conditions. It doesn’t matter where they come from or how they got here. They are here now and they deserve better. A year ago, I had the privilege of […]

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Summer School of Love

June 8, 2019

In Practicing the Way of Jesus Together: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love, Mark Scandrette writes, “The vision of belonging that Jesus embodied and taught calls us to a love that is far more ruthless and tender than seems humanly possible. It is a kind of love that can empower you to treat your […]

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Journey with us this Lent

March 3, 2019

Lent is a season of journey toward the cross, of preparation for Easter, of looking inward & inviting God to reveal what lies fallow, what needs to be nurtured, and what needs to die for new life to emerge. We invite you to move through this season with us in several ways. Ash Wednesday, March […]

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Blessed are the peacemakers

January 29, 2019

“I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.” ~ Mother Teresa There are a ton of reasons why I felt stirred to start a new community of faith. One of those reasons […]

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A welcome in the wilderness

January 14, 2019

These are the “words for the journey” that were shared as part of our Sunday gathering on January 13, 2019 & they are based on Matthew 3:1-17. The last time Jesus & John met they were in their mothers’ wombs. It’s a rather weird way to meet. According to the gospel of Luke, their moms, […]

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Welcome: a good place to begin.

January 4, 2019

We have celebrated the coming of Christ into the world & the start of a new year together. Now what? According to the gospel of Matthew, after the birth of Jesus, a lot happened. For starters, King Herod caught wind of the news. A baby had been born and wise men were referring to him […]

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