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Sermon for Matins: Hell

The Reverend Robert Reiss Canon of Westminster

Sunday, 16th December 2007

The story is told of a very well-known political figure from Northern Ireland, who also is a minister in a Free Presbyterian Church there, who was preaching in his church one Sunday and he quoted those words from a parable in the Gospels, which says of hell ‘There will be weeping, and wailing and gnashing of teeth.’ An elderly lady in the congregation is reported as saying ‘Doctor, I don’t have any teeth’ to which, I am told, came the instantaneous reply ‘Teeth will be provided’. It does seem that the notion of hell can conjure up a lot in the imagination of some people’s hearts and minds.

And I do not think we can deny that in the Bible, and in particular is parts of the New Testament, there is a quite a lot about hell. But exactly what it is, and what it might mean, is less clear cut. The language is often part of a parable, as in the one quoted in that Northern Ireland sermon, where imaginative language, probably in some cases describing the rubbish pit outside ancient Jerusalem known as Gehenna, is used to convey a sense of something terrible. But it would be quite wrong to take the words at their most literal meaning, because that is almost certainly not what the original speaker or writer meant.

Yet some people certainly seem to want to believe that such a vision of hell is literally true. Some years ago Dr John Hapgood, when he was Archbishop of York, wrote an article in his Diocesan magazine suggesting that a literal belief in hell was quite difficult, and it provoked to him a quite surprising burst of journalistic activity and he was even asked onto BBC 2’s Newsnight programme to explain his point of view as though it were completely outrageous that a leading Christian priest did not take all the language about hell literally.

So what I believe we must do is to think carefully and analytically about the various elements that there are in the notion of hell, noting first of all that the New Testament was written against the background of 1st Century Judaism, and at that time some such belief in hell was common although not universal. When we read the New Testament we do need to consider whether any particular element of it was simply part of the cultural background which that society had or whether it was something distinctively new that Christianity was developing. I rather suspect that much of what it says about hell was not so much new as simply part of the cultural baggage they had at the time.

And certainly in so far as part of the picture in the New Testament seems to be almost a sort of rejoicing that eventually the wicked would get their come-uppance and be punished eternally I think we must today say that appears to be pretty sub-Christian. That there are consequences of wrong actions is undoubted, we can see that all too easily in our own world today, but an almost vindictive wish for eternal punishment by God does not seem to me to be consistent with the view of God as, above all, a loving and forgiving father. Indeed if God has created a permanent hell as a place of punishment from which there is no chance of forgiveness and grace then I am not at all sure I want to believe in him, let alone to trust my life to him. I suspect many other Christians today feel the same way. That way of thinking of hell is, I believe, plainly wrong-headed.

But that does not mean to say that we should regard undoubtedly wicked acts as anything other than that, and neither should we fail to recognise that they bring their own consequences. Evil, in the sense of a deliberate rejecting of what is good and pursuing a totally selfish and self-centred way of life that cares nothing for the consequences for other people, is, alas, all too real in our world. And while, sadly, all of us may from time to time behave in such a way, deliberately to pursue it permanently and to denigrate goodness and cynically to dismiss generosity and love is to create a sort of personal hell. And there are people, I hope not very many, who have got so caught up in that way of looking at the world that they become embittered, intransigent, and destructively cynical and do indeed appear to be in hell. But it is not a hell of God’s creation but one of their own. God has created us to be free, and it is quite possible to misuse our freedom with disastrous personal consequences.

Now of course I am painting an extreme picture, some might behave like that for some of the time, but at other times they may still be open to the care and generosity of another. Indeed perhaps all of us oscillate to some extent between those two worlds. Even predominately good people can have their own blind spots when it comes to making generous assumptions about others. So maybe all of us have a bit of hell in our own minds, where our blindness and obduracy keep out generosity and where we put up a border post in our minds that says ‘keep out.’ Hell is not just a consequence for someone else; it can be a consequence for all of us as well.

But if we allow the border signs to be taken signs down, if we allow generosity, forgiveness and love to dismantle some of our own internal defences, we may find that we change. I am not talking about being simply naive, that is no protection, but I am talking about seeking to be naturally generous at least emotionally, about being willing to be vulnerable, about being genuinely open to the other person, and being genuinely open to the love of God. When those things happen maybe that little bit of hell that is in each of us will get smaller, and what we may have experienced as hell we shall rather begin to experience as purgatory, a learning place on the route to something better. And when that happens we shall find that God is indeed God and, if we allow God to work in that way in us, hell can be destroyed. But we do have to co-operate.

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