This is the draft of the Sunday, March 20 sermon at Newington and Trinity Ingleside United Churches - but as they say in the news business, check against delivery! There's lots of time for editing, adding and subtracting before Sunday morning!
Giving all glory and honour to God.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.” This is the famous verse, John 3:16, and sometimes when you’re watching a football game or some other sporting event on TV someone will hold up a sign that says John 3:16. It’s been called everyone’s favourite text, the very essence of the Good News According to John.
And it comes in this discussion Jesus is having with Nicodemus, who is one of the Jewish leaders, a member of the chief religious court. And he comes to talk with Jesus, as he knows about the wonderful things Jesus is doing and saying, but he misunderstands what Jesus tells him. Jesus says you must be born again, meaning you must be changed so radically that it can only be described as being born all over again. But Nicodemus can’t understand this. He interprets the words of Jesus literally, and responds, “Isn’t that impossible? How can an adult reenter the womb and be born all over again?” Jesus says, “You’re a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?”
Well, this story takes place 20 centuries ago. But things haven’t changed a lot. We have lots of religious leaders today who misunderstand what Jesus is saying. Many take his words too literally. Nicodemus lives. This has been proven the last few weeks. There’s been some reporting in mainstream newspapers and TV on this, but it’s been a huge controversy in Christian, particularly evangelical, circles.
Rob Bell is the pastor at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He’s a hipster guy with cool glasses, and he has a popular series of videos about faith that are used a lot in evangelical churches as teaching tools, and I’ve seen some of them and they’re very good. So just before his new book, called Love Wins, came out, Christians on the Internet suddenly went crazy. Everything Jesus talked about in what we just read in the Sermon on the Mount, everything Jesus said about not judging and not calling names – well, Christians did all that, judged Rob Bell and called him names. He was called a teacher of a false Gospel. He was called a heretic. Another well-known pastor said that Rob Bell was dead to him, said, “farewell, Rob Bell.” All of this without anyone actually reading his book. So this was not a great moment for followers of Jesus following Jesus. There wasn’t a lot of loving your neighbour.
The whole mess was about people suspecting that Rob Bell is a universalist and denies the existence of hell. Universalism is the belief that all humans will be saved through Jesus Christ. Its critics call universalism a heresy and a rejection of biblical Christianity. Well, now the book is out, and people have read it, and he says specifically that he is not a universalist, but he does raise questions about heaven and hell, so the controversy is continuing. I haven’t read his book, but these questions he poses have been asked in theology since at least the 18th century, and have probably been raised in United Church of Canada sermons and Bible studies. So this is an opportunity to look at what John is quoting Jesus as saying in this morning’s reading.
Now, it was news to me that universalism is a heresy, as I wrote my thesis on Gregory of Nyssa, who lived in the fourth century, at about the same time as Saint Patrick. Gregory is considered a saint too, in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and he was a universalist. Gregory believed that the ultimate triumph of good would redeem everyone, even including the devil, who would be unable to resist God. So I don’t think being called a universalist is an insult.
It was also news to me that biblical Christianity requires believing that a select few Christians go to paradise while other sinners are punished in hell by burning for eternity. The Bible is actually murky about hell. The word ‘hell’ is absent from the Old Testament, and while it appears 16 times in the New Testament, it doesn’t necessarily mean what we mean by hell. Several times it’s a translation of a Greek word for the place of the dead, which didn’t distinguish between heaven and hell – it meant both. The other times hell is used to refer to a real, earthly place, Gehenna, the garbage dump outside Jerusalem. Jesus does use Gehenna as an image of punishment, but often in a context which isn’t to be taken literally. When Jesus says, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than to go into Gehenna, or hell, with two hands, where the fire never goes out,” he’s using exaggerated language to make a point; he doesn’t literally mean that you should cut off your hand, so he may not be that literal about going into hell, or about fire either. And when Jesus mentions the garbage dump as hell, he’s usually addressing the religious people of his time. The idea that unbelievers will burn in hell forever is not explicit in the teachings of Jesus or the rest of the New Testament. The book of Revelation describes a lake of fire where anyone whose name is not written in the book of life is to be thrown, but this is not intended to be interpreted literally anymore than the beast with seven heads and ten horns or the other weird images that appear in Revelation.
There are statements in the Bible that can be taken as suggesting that salvation will be universal, that there will be no one in hell as we understand it. Jesus does say later in John’s Gospel, When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me. The Apostle Paul writes, in the second letter to the Corinthians, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them.
But elsewhere in the Bible it suggests that there is a final judgment. Jesus talks about it, although again in stories that defy literal interpretation, and so does Paul, telling the Romans that we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that each person will die once, and after that will face judgment.
It’s hard to live with ambiguity. It’s a lot easier to say this is biblical Christianity, there is a clear standard for heaven and hell, and we know what it is, and this is who’s in and who’s out – and, oh, people who believe what we do, coincidentally, are the in group – for heaven, that is. But the Bible isn’t that certain.
So what do I believe? The first letter to Timothy says, God our Saviour wants all people to be saved, and I believe that is indeed what God wants. God is not out to condemn or punish us, but to love us. But because we have free will, we can make choices, and we can then make choices that separate us from God. Freedom has consequences. Some of us may choose to be so irreconcilable that we reject God forever and cut ourselves off from God’s grace. I don’t think God ever rejects us, but we can reject God. The United Church of Canada states in our Basis of Union that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and the finally impenitent shall go away into eternal punishment and the righteous into life eternal. I think that’s true. So I’m not a universalist, based on how I understand Scripture, and Church tradition, and my experience. But it would be great if my thesis subject Gregory of Nyssa was right, and everyone will be reconciled with God. And I wouldn’t underestimate the power of God’s desire that everyone be saved.
So I believe in hell, in the sense that I think we can choose to separate ourselves forever from God. Another person of faith could reach a different conclusion. I don’t think that not believing in hell means rejecting Jesus. And I don’t think that biblical Christianity requires belief in hell as a literal place of eternal fire. That’s just one biblical image of final separation from God. The writers of the Bible also speak of separation as being like falling into a bottomless pit. Maybe it’s just nothingness, non-existence. The biblical writers weren’t trying to depict a real place, but were warning us that separation from God is a choice we can make, and that choice has consequences. We can’t know what hell is like any more than we know what heaven is like. We can only guess. And our imaginations have produced very vivid images of hell in art and poetry and literature and movies, even video games, but they are all guesses. This separation from God might be fire, or nothingness, or it might be like when The Simpsons visit hell on TV, and it has German potato salad, and they’re out of hot dogs.
And we need less tossing around of labels like heretic whenever anyone asks questions about heaven, or hell, or anything else. I get the impression that a lot of Christians think that the people who go to hell are those who don’t agree with them about who goes to hell. Well, we shouldn’t make God in our image rather than the other way around, we shouldn’t presume to say that someone who doesn’t sign on to a certain set of propositions that just happen to be our beliefs will be separated from God for eternity, and we shouldn’t put limits on God’s grace. We can be as stingy about grace as God is generous. Instead, we should trust in God’s love and justice, and avoid speculating about things that God has not revealed to us.
From the amount of time and energy this debate has consumed among Christians the last while, you would think that much of the Bible and the teaching of Jesus must be about hell and punishment. And that’s not the case. Jesus talks about the poor 25 times in the Gospels. That’s twice the number of times he mentions hell. Yet it isn’t considered a heresy to refuse to support anti-poverty measures.
In fact, the idea of hell is a pretty minor part of biblical Christianity. And Jesus would probably say to all the debaters, why are you so concerned about hell in the afterlife, when you have hells on earth right here, right now? Because we can’t get a better image of what hell might look like than northeastern Japan, with buildings pulverized and ships swept right into the middle of towns by the tsunami, or the inside of a nuclear reactor with radiation rising to frightening levels. We have hells now, in Libyan cities under attack, in too many places where social and personal sin separates people from God and God’s vision of peace and justice and love. With the hells of poverty, disease, war, oppression, abuse, grief, fear, despair, addiction all around us, we should have no energy to worry about any other hell.
And so we come back to John 3:16. God so loved the world that we were given God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. Everyone who believes - not everyone who believes and agrees with the following doctrinal statements. And the word ‘world’ is one Jesus uses elsewhere for what is opposed to God – he prays, ‘the world has hated my followers because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.’ The world hates God. The world hates Jesus. But God so loved the God-hating world that God gave the only Son of God, so that everyone who believes in him would live life abundantly now and forever. That’s how much God loves. That’s how broad and high and deep God’s grace is. So, rather than worry and argue about hell and who may go there, let’s rejoice that God loves this world so much, let’s share this wonderful good news, let’s try to love the world with even a little of the love God has, let’s try to bring that love to our neighbours here and around this planet, let’s make this world less of a hell for so many people trapped in hells on earth. That is biblical Christianity. We may not know for sure about hell, but we do know that this is true: God loves us, and calls us to love others. Amen.