Sunday, September 20, 2015

Difficult Questions: Hell

Difficult Questions: Hell
20 September 2015

Texts: Isaiah 14:12-20; Psalm 139:1-18; Revelation 6:1-8; Luke 12:1-12

The Top 10 Things to Know about Hell

10. About 99% of the images in your head of hell- the red demon with a pointed tail, the levels of suffering, the pit of fire, the presence of those who never knew Christ, the darkness, AND the eternal wailing and torment (plus the image of Judas in hell)- are all from Dante’s The Divine Comedy (or The Inferno). His writing was a piece of political literature that condemned powers of his day that he didn’t like. It also was Dante’s way of confirming himself as a poet for the ages by using the poet Virgil, who lived and died before Jesus, as his guide. Additionally, Dante’s work was a distillation of Greek and Roman mythology, some alleged gospels from the second, third, and fourth centuries, and one other work that had serious influence in Dante’s lifetime. The majority of the artwork about hell is not from Biblical interpretation, but is based on The Inferno- which takes very little from actual Holy Scripture.

9. What was the influential work that circulated in Dante’s life? It was a work that had been translated
into Latin and was very popular in upper class Italian household in the thirteenth century. Even if Dante hadn’t read this work, he would have been familiar with its descriptions of a fiery hell, divided into seven levels, and particularly populated by people who did not believe in God. What was this book? The Koran.

8. Isaiah 14, when it mentions Lucifer, is not talking about Satan. It is a prophetic statement against the then present-day Babylonian leader who brought suffering upon God’s people. The punishment for the shining leader would be an ignoble death and then to be completely forgotten. The prophecy also turned about to be prediction as no one is quite sure to which king this passage refers. Dante, as well as John Milton in Paradise Lost, expounded upon medieval Christian ideas of the ruler of the underworld being an eternal force that opposed God and was cast down. What force, anywhere, would have the temerity to attempt to oppose an eternal God? Also God has no eternal counterparts. Only God, as the Holy Parent, Holy Word, and Holy Spirit, exists outside of time.

7. The four horsemen in Revelation are not signs of the apocalypse. Apocalypse means disclosure. The four horsemen, as the images in Revelation 6 are called, are signs of apocalyptic literature. They help the reader to know that they are dealing with a story that seems to be about the future, but is really dealing with present realities. The four horses and their riders are the gospel, war, poverty, and death. These things struggle together, but only one will triumph. Those who are believers must remember to place their trust in what is truly permanent and act accordingly.

6. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the dead are dead. Period. Sheol is a place where the dead may be gathered and perhaps they are shades, or shadows of their former selves in that place. Ancient Israelites did not engage in ancestor worship, unlike most of the other regional religions of the time. Furthermore, an attempt to contact the dead (as Saul did when he used a fortuneteller to contact Samuel) is a sign of failure to trust in God as the one who holds the future and in whom one should place all confidence. Sheol is sometimes perceived to be a pit where one might descend spiritually- like the psalmist or the prophets Jonah or Jeremiah. Yet the fear is of being forgotten and God does not forget God’s children. Even in the deepest depths, God still knows the intimacies of creation.

5. Satan is an adversary in the Hebrew Scripture, but not an eternal being. When Satan’s name is used in the New Testament, it is either a pseudonym for powers and principalities or how the presence of evil, within one’s own heart or outside of one’s self, is named. When contemporary religionists empower the name of Satan by attributing works to him or giving him characteristics that are not biblical, they are engaged in a form of idolatry. Idolatry is not only worshipping the wrong god. It is also idolatrous to be afraid of the wrong power. The idea that there is a force equal to God with evil intent and the power to lure us into eternal separation and that we would be motivated by the fear of that being… Nope. That is not the essence of the Gospel, which is about the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

4. When Jesus talks about hell and says, “hell”, he is referring to an actual geographical location outside of Jerusalem. There, outside the city, was a horrible trash pit that burned constantly. The place was called Gehenna and it is the word that we have translated in the gospels as “hell”. Gehenna had once been the site of child sacrifices, the very sacrifices that were forbidden to Jews, but were practiced by other religions to appease their gods. It eventually became the place of the very worst trash and it was where Roman soldiers would dump the bodies of people who were crucified. It was this horrible place- a place of ignominy, terror, and avoidance- that Jesus urged people to avoid by encouraging them to care for one another, to tend to the sick and the dying, and to practice a radical kind of welcome. The Way of Christ would have meant being a community that saved one another, and the outcasts of society, from being burned with trash and forgotten.

3. Some strands of Christianity hold these truth to be self-evident: “Baptism, praying in the name of Jesus, and the King James Version of the Bible are all magical talismans against suffering in hell. Not drinking, dancing, swearing, or getting caught wanting to are also important.” If “I will draw all people to myself” (John 12) AND “Nothing can separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8) and “I have seen the Lord” (John 20) are true, then which of God’s children will be cast into an eternal separation from the presence of grace? We are not all traveling up the same mountain. We are not all feeling different parts of the same elephant. But if God is God AND God is love AND God has been revealed in the person of Jesus AND the Spirit intercedes for us in a variety of ways, then we cannot confidently make predictions about anything that comes after what we know, except to say, “God will still be God and, therefore, in charge.” Is it in keeping with how God has revealed God’s own character to the world to punish people for an infinite amount of time for bad decisions made during a finite period of time?

2. He descended to the dead. Everything from Acts to 1 Peter to the Gospel of Nicodemus to The Inferno written about Holy Saturday- the day between Good Friday (when Jesus was crucified) and Easter (when he was known to be raised from the dead)- everything written about Holy Saturday is an attempt to answer the question, “Where the hell was he?” Truth: no one knows. We are comforted by the idea that Jesus took the message of his triumph over death to the spirits of those who had died and brought them (or those who believed) to heaven. It makes great artwork. We don’t know. Theologian Yvette Flunder says, “Religion is violent because we insist on making the uncertain certain.”  Trying to create a definite answer for what happens on Holy Saturday is, essentially, an attempt to nail Jesus down. Again. So that we don’t have to live with a little mystery.  

1. Hell is not a geographical location. It’s not even a spiritually geographical location. Hell, if it is anything, is a perception of the absence of God. A perception that is patently false, but that appears when our own experiences, ideas, certainties, or doubts attempt to make gods of themselves through confidence or through fear. That perception is transformed through our acceptance, with Christ’s help, of the height and depth and breadth of grace. People need hell to exist as a reality because they don’t trust that there’s enough of God’s love, grace, or mercy to go around. If there’s not, they want to be sure they’re on the receiving end of it.

When we open ourselves to the hopeful truth that God’s grace overflows- in terms of time, space, context, materiality, and spiritual revelation- we then become more rooted in the joy of our salvation and the good news of freedom in Christ. Rejecting hell as something that must exist removes the scales from our eyes so that we can see how the kingdom of God is at hand.

Living faithfully, through God’s grace, means separating what we have ingested culturally through literature, art, theater, movies, and television and actually examining the written Word and the revelation that can come from tradition, reason, and experience. Anything else leads us away from the grace that is amazing, transformative, salvific, and eternal. And you know what? Resurrection grace says, “To hell with that.”


Thursday, September 17, 2015


Rape culture is a phrase that causes defensiveness in many people from across a wide spectrum of society, particularly Western society. No person or group wants to be identified as condoning or endorsing rape. Yet, if a society has a history or habit of

- blaming victims,
- failing to prosecute perpetrators,
- prosecuting sex workers instead of johns,
- sex negativity about assertive behavior in a specific gender or sexual expression,
- commodification of bodies (especially particular kinds of bodies) for the purposes of selling anything and everything,
- trivializing rape, trivializing self-control of one's own body, and/or
- failure to societally reject sexual predators...

the presence of any or all of these indicates rape culture. Whether it is part of a national culture, a school, a social organization, a religious group, a housing situation, or any other social setting, this kind of behavior is unacceptable.

For non-Christians or non-believers, this kind of behavior ought to be understood as a basic failure to create a moral and supportive foundation for a safe and just society. For those who claim to follow Christ or to be People of the Book, this kind of behavior represents a complete rejection of the understanding that God is the creator of all life and thus it is to be respected, valued, and cherished. The bodies that we see in front of us are tangible signs of the kingdom of heaven at hand and we are called to treat them as such- since therein is contained the very presence of Christ.

I have come to realize there is one aspect of rape culture that is not usually discussed.


In the past couple of years, sex-positive teachers, clergy persons, and community workers have been making an effort to communicate the fact that CONSENT is required and on-going consent is part of a healthy sexual encounter. A person who cannot consent either because of temporary or permanent disability, power differential, or bodily or mental incapacity is not a suitable sex partner. A living being that is always unable to consent is not a suitable sex partner.

Children cannot consent.

Animals cannot consent.

Persons who are drunk/high/comatose/heavily medicated cannot consent.

Subordinates in almost all job settings cannot consent.

Persons over whom one may have spiritual, emotional, or physical power cannot consent.

Consent is more than recognizing that "no means no". It is also means paying attention to the yeses one is receiving. Are they enthusiastic? Is affection being reciprocated? Are the yeses being communicated verbally and non-verbally with either eye contact, positive tone of voice, and/or affirmative body language?

I was recently at a public hearing about adding sexual orientation and gender identity to Anchorage's non-discrimination clause. (I support this.) There were a number of people who spoke, as Christians, claiming to be concerned that allowing this would lead to permitting behaviors like sex with children or animals. This "slippery slope" argument is a sign of rape culture. It reveals a kind of thinking that promotes sex generally from a cis-gendered, straight, vanilla point of view.

Bestiality and pedophilia are against the law because those laws protect parties who CANNOT consent to any type of sexual encounter. Period.

Changing a non-discrimination clauses does not change the law. Consenting adults, gay, straight, or otherwise, are still permitted under law to engage in non-procreative sex. Changing the non-discrimination clause means you cannot refuse housing to someone or reject their business in a public accommodation or fire someone because of who the person in question chooses to have non-procreative sex with on a regular (or irregular basis). In the case of gender identity, that's not about who one is having sex with, but about having one's inner and outer selves be in sync with one another. (This doesn't actually need consent from anyone else because, contrary to popular belief, it's not a sexual expression.)

We must learn to embed a clear understanding of consent in our thought process, cultural conversation, and lessons to our children. There are times when you don't have to share, you don't have to be nice, and you don't have be patient while someone else takes his or her turn. When it comes to your body, these things do not apply. If you do not like what's happening, say something. If someone says "no" or  "I'm not sure" or even "maybe"- there is NO consent.

Regardless of where we are in various "culture wars", we can all agree to take a stand against rape culture and an active, enthusiastic stand for consent.

In a conversation with another person, I once mentioned that I would like people to make a clear statement against rape, incest, and abuse before they launch into discussions of abortion. My conversation partner replied, "Well, that goes without saying."

No, it doesn't.

Rejection of rape culture, promotion of consent, and clear, truthful representation of the law NEVER go without saying. Ever.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Difficult Questions: Judgment

Texts: Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 9:1-12; Revelation 20:11-15; 21:5-8; Luke 11:14-23, 29-32   

       Imagine that you are an Olympic athlete. You’ve trained for years and years. You’ve fallen and gotten up more times than you can remember or even estimate. When you finally make it, there are the judges waiting and watching you. Their eyes catch every twitch, every flinch, every false start, every slip, every stroke. If you are in a sport that requires speed, your timing is everything. If you are in a sport that requires assessment for skill and technique- the judges decide your fate.

            For some reason, we who dare to believe in God, the one creator of all that is, seem to picture God in this same way. Even the most grace-oriented people I know have an image of God as the ultimate judge, watching our performance. At the end of all our days, all our events, when we reach the judge’s platform, we anticipate watching for the card with our score. Did we achieve gold (as in golden streets) or did we receive fire (as in eternal damnation)?

            Why do we have this image of our faithful life as a sporting event? As though, if we accrue enough points through right actions, then we will “win” the good judgment and will be able to enter heaven. What does that say about God? While this description may seem very far-fetched to some of you, others who fairly consistently worry about the fact that we are told we cannot earn grace know what I am describing all too well.

            The passage we heard from Revelation today does speak of a judgment. The end result of that judgment, though, is not what determines heaven and hell. Your eternal retirement plan, the life of the world to come for each of us, is not determined by our works. Period. Not by our faith, faithfulness, or faithlessness. Period. Jesus the Christ determines the life of the world to come and what it contains for each and every person. Being written in the Lamb’s book of life is not your work, not your handwriting, not your effort.

            There is an additional judgment mentioned in that section of Revelation. It is a judgment based on works. It is a judgment based on how time, talents, efforts, and relationships have been used. In Revelation, every single person is accounting for what they did with what they had at the time they had it.

            Now, if we were to read Revelation as a book that was about telling us the future and exactly how things are going to shake out at some time which none of us know or can know, then perhaps this would be the time to be worried. You can’t get yourself into the Book of Life AND you’re going to have to answer for every minute of your life, well… let’s sweat about that for a while.

            However, that is NOT how to read Revelation. Let me repeat, that is NOT how to read Revelation. Revelation is written in a specific style, called apocalyptic literature. That style of writing at the time of Revelation, at the time of Daniel, at the time of the Hunger Games, is meant to cause the reader or hearer to reflect on the events that are happening around them at that specific time. Apocalyptic literature may be structured to give hope or to change behavior or to point to larger truths that are being masked by world events.

            For the original audience of Revelation, we are talking about Christians being threatened under the Roman Empire. Some have already been killed. Others have been driven out from their homes or towns to become refugees. Others are being enslaved. Revelation is being circulated among Christian communities as a letter meant to give hope and courage. The Book of Life is an image that is meant to give hope to them, a metaphor to remind them that their place with God has been won through Jesus’ own life, death, resurrection.

            They may well fear where the emperor may send them, these first century Christians, but they do not need to fear the rejection of God- specifically because of Jesus Christ. The book of life metaphor makes that clear. The judgment portion, then, is a reminder that they are still accountable for acting faithfully- for caring for strangers, widows, orphans, and outcasts. They are still responsible for acting morally, ethically, choosing the good, keeping the commandments, and worshipping God together in community. The casting out of murderers, sorcerers, fornicators, liars, etc, is a reminder that these behaviors have no place in the community of believers.

            It is not simply because they are wrong. It is because the adoption of these behaviors, or the allowing of them in the community, fails to put God first. Murder makes a god of revenge or anger or violence. Indiscriminate sex makes a god of pleasure or the feelings of the body. Lying elevates dishonesty and brokenness over truth and community.

            We are no longer the Christians who were in the Roman Empire at the time of Revelation. We are not a persecuted minority. In fact, in some places, Christians are the persecuting majority- where those who claim to follow Christ want to make decisions for everyone around them. Even now, in Europe, there are countries who are refusing entrance to non-Christian refugees from Syria. Jesus and his parents were refugees once, but now Christians are often more known for who they turn away, than for their radical welcome in the face of all else. And, yet, we still act as though our actions have no impact on our relationship with God now or in the future. Judgment for these behaviors doesn’t wait until some distant day. The judgment for failure to be faithful happens when all hell breaks loose because we can’t trust one another, children die, people don’t have enough, and everybody does what seems right in their own eyes.

            The people hearing Revelation at the time it was written did not fear a future judgment day. They understood the letter to be reminding them that their actions had immediate implications. God’s judgment happened for all of us at the time when God shook God’s head and said to the Word and to the Spirit, “All right, one of us is going to have to go down there and explain this more clearly.” (Apparently the Spirit quickly touched her nose and said, “Not it.”)

            In the Luke passage today, Jesus tells those who are gathered around him, “The forces that oppose God are real, but they do not have ultimate power. You do not need something extra or more special to defeat them. You have something greater. You have prophets like Jonah, who witnessed to people who did not know God. You know the wisdom of Solomon, which drew rulers from outside his kingdom to hear of God.”

            Jesus continued, “Judgment is at hand. God has come to you. The kingdom is at hand. With the kingdom comes judgment.” What is happening, then, is that God judged creation to be worthy of grace, worthy of experiencing eternal love enfleshed, worthy of seeing the good news, worth of resurrection in the face of betrayal, humiliation, desertion, crucifixion, and death.  

            What if we can let go of the image of God’s judgment as a final score that tells us about our prize? Can we trust grace enough to come to understand that God is our coach, the Spirit-our advocate, Jesus-our role model? When we fall, when we fail, when we do not do the very thing we know we are to do (through the prophets and the wisdom and the Son), we are not being flashed a score that says “To hell with you” from a distant judge’s booth. Instead, they are right beside us. “I messed up”, we say. “We know”, they reply. “You’re forgiven. Let’s try again. You can do this.”

            The judgment of God is not supposed to strike fear in our hearts. It is meant to give us hope… that we have been made for better, that we have been made to do better. God’s judgment is meant to be medicine for our souls, motivation for our hands and feet, metabolism for our faith. We are accountable for what we do, what we say, what we give… and all the times we don’t and we should have. Yet, that account is reckoned every single day- by the measure of Christ to give it balance- and we are restored to and through grace. To live the baptized life again tomorrow. And to be lead closer to getting it right for the good of Christ in the world and the health of our souls.