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. 

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