Sermon at Matins: Hell

4 December 2005 at :00 am

by the Reverend Canon Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian


Advent is traditionally a time for thinking about ‘the Four Last Things’: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Nowadays, preachers in churches like Westminster Abbey hardly mention hell. I guess that of all the beliefs fostered in peoples’ minds by Christianity, belief in hell, and so fear of hell, has been the most damaging.

We cannot deny that preachers in the past have mistakenly tried to make people afraid of hell so they would turn to God. But it is the artists who have made the deepest impression on the western imagination, especially with their depictions of the Last Judgment. Perhaps the most famous of these is the one by Michaelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, which shows a majestic, and very human, Christ casting the rejected into a vividly imagined place of torment. There, on the wall of the Pope’s chapel, are pictures of fear and terror, vividly imagined by Michaelangelo; and there on the walls of parish churches up and down medieval England were similar images, some of which survive today, which must have fascinated and horrified generations of growing children, giving them the distinct impression that Christianity is all about not ending up in a terrifying place called hell.

This is a complete distortion of Biblical teaching. Granted, the word ‘hell’ appears relatively frequently in the King James (1611) English Bible, but to translate three different words, all with different meanings. Modern versions usually distinguish between Sheol, Hades and Gehenna. Christian teaching about hell has been elaborated from a number of sources, mainly in the Psalms, the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Revelation, but also drawing heavily on classical ideas about the underworld. In the teaching of Jesus there is a strong message of judgment, and there are warnings about being rejected. Jesus talks about wheat and chaff, about sheep and goats. In some of his parables, he builds on the imagery of rejection by saying that the weeds which grow up with the good grain until harvest, or the unfruitful branches which are pruned off the fruit trees, will be thrown on the fire and burned. Following the thinking of his time, and particularly in St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus talks about a ‘place of weeping and gnashing of teeth’. In several passages of the New Testament he talks about Gehenna, comparing the destiny of the wicked to the place where rubbish was burnt outside Jerusalem and the fire was always burning.

It is the Book of Revelation which has really captivated the imagination of the writers and artists. This is an apocalyptic text, which means one in which God’s great plan for the future is revealed. The writer describes in vivid detail the place of Jesus, the Lamb who has been slain, at the centre of the worship of heaven; the terrible events that accompany the ending of this earth; and then the glorious coming of a new heaven and a new earth and a new Jerusalem. He wants to show us the definitive end of suffering, evil and death, and he does it by describing a sort of cosmic incinerator, a lake of fire (Rev 20: 14-15) in which the evil that has been excluded from heaven is totally and finally consumed. He is not interested and he does not describe vindictive torments for the wicked; his interest is in the utter destruction of evil so that God’s purposes are finally fulfilled.

There is an important distinction to make here. The imagery of hell, as it developed in Christian teaching, brought together ideas of punishment and of the destruction of evil. The infliction of punishment has a dreadful fascination for the human psyche. Humans are endlessly interested in torture and suffering. That’s why visitors keep going to the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds and the London Dungeon. Though the artists have given us such a vivid picture of the torture-chambers of hell, these are human ideas which spring from the sickness of the human imagination - not the teaching of Christ.

But the destruction of evil is a vital aspect of the Christian Gospel. Jesus Christ came into the world to confront evil and to overcome it without using the tools of evil that only compound the problem. His defeat of evil was entirely peaceful. It was entirely without bitterness, even towards the people who tortured him to death. His message of forgiveness utterly defeats the hellish spiral of vengeance for wrongs done into which human beings are otherwise locked – something the mother of Anthony Hutton, murdered with an ice-axe, who this week spoke of her forgiveness for her son’s killers, wonderfully understands. The victory of the cross applies to all places and all time: Christ is Lord, evil is defeated, and there can be forgiveness and new life even for those who will be rightly punished by being sent to prison for having done such a terrible thing. It is to show that the victory of the cross applies to all, even to those who lived before the time of Jesus Christ, that the imagery of the harrowing of hell – of Christ descending into hell after the victory of the cross to set free the souls imprisoned there – developed. Anthony Hutton’s mother, thank God, understands exactly what such teaching means for us today.

We don’t have to look very far to see how inventive human beings have been at imagining hell. The images of Michaelangelo, Dante and Bosch, of Goethe’s Faust and Mozart’s Don Giovanni, have all played their part in forming our ideas of hell. To them should now should be added the shameful reality of the Gulag, of Auschwitz and, one fears, Guantanamo Bay. What is so utterly contrary to the nature of God is that there could be any place in heaven or on earth or under the earth in which there is no hope. It is not contrary to the gospel to preach and teach that sin will be punished, but the point of the punishment is the good of the sinner, not the satisfaction of a vengeful god, or, still worse, a vengeful humanity. Everlasting punishment would be pointless. A great deal of what Dante and other artists have done is to settle old scores by placing the people they dislike in an imagined hell. This is more or less what political cartoonists do in our newspapers every day.

The Christian faith holds together the love and the justice of God. It teaches that sin, deliberate and conscious wrongdoing, will be punished, but that God’s forgiveness for the sin is always at hand. I find nothing in the Bible which supports the view that anyone – not even a Hitler or a Stalin - will ‘rot in hell’, though in the light of God’s justice we must all experience the pain of confronting our true selves before we come into the full presence of God. What ‘the pains of hell’ are all about is the pain of coming to know ourselves as we really are. What ‘the fires of hell’ are about is the perverted inventiveness of the human imagination and God’s triumphant destruction of every form of evil.

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