Hell Is for Real

Today’s scripture readings:
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21
Sermon audio:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” For most of us, John 3:16 was one of the very first things we learned in Sunday School. Many of us probably had it memorized before we even knew how to read. It makes sense: John 3:16 is the Gospel in a nutshell, a summation of the good news at the center of the Christian faith. Martin Luther once said that this verse is “the heart of the Bible, the Gospel in miniature.”

That’s all well and good. But the truth is, I’m not a big fan of John 3:16. Partly it’s that the mass popularization of the verse seems to have watered down its significance. Walk into a Christian bookstore and you’ll likely see all sorts of John 3:16 merchandise—bumper stickers, bracelets, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other tchotchkes—cheap plastic souvenirs made in China that we can display in our homes, on our cars, or at work, as signs of our piety and devotion. I’m just not a fan.

But what concerns me more than any of that is how this verse that speaks so clearly of God’s love has sometimes been twisted to exclude and condemn. The focus shifts from “For God so loved the world…” to “…so that everyone who believes in him…” Suddenly we hear a verse that describes the depth and breadth of God’s love being misused to condemn those who don’t believe.

It doesn’t help that the verses that follow John 3:16 seem to reinforce that message. Just take verse 18: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” I’m sorry, but I’ve heard plenty in my life about who’s condemned and who isn’t. I’m just not interested. To be honest, if you asked me to name my favorite Bible passage, today’s Gospel reading wouldn’t even come close.

One commentator helped me put this Gospel lesson in perspective. New Testament scholar Marilyn Salmon points out that John’s Gospel was written for an emerging Christian community that had begun to separate themselves from their neighbors who remained firmly committed to mainstream Judaism. The insider-outsider language in today’s Gospel lesson, she says, “functioned to affirm members of a minority community defining itself in relationship to others…. The purpose is not to exclude others, [but] to support those who likely make difficult choices to belong.” She goes on: “As a small minority, [this] community did not have the power or influence to marginalize others or cause harm by excluding them. In the western world, Christianity has been the dominant religion for centuries… and it has the power to marginalize and exclude those who do not conform. In our hands, the gospel of John can do serious harm, indeed it has. So it is important that we make an effort to enter into the world of John when we” read this passage. In its original context, this passage was probably intended less to condemn unbelievers than to encourage those who had made the tough decision to follow Jesus. After all, what power did this little ragtag band of Christians really have to condemn those in the majority Jewish community, anyway?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this line, though: “Those who do not believe are condemned already.” I wonder if there’s something to that.

As a Lutheran, I remember being taught that all the laws of the Old Testament exist to show us how sinful and broken we are. The Old Testament laws given by God set the bar so high that none of us could possibly live up to their demands. When we examine ourselves in light of those laws we realize we fall short. And the laws make us see our need for the Gospel and point us to Jesus, hanging on a cross, where our sins are forgiven and we are raised with him to new life. I was taught that all those laws in the Old Testament exist to reveal to us how sinful we are and to send us to God begging for forgiveness.

That’s one way of thinking about the Old Testament laws. But there’s another way of seeing things. Maybe the laws are a gift from God intended to show us how to live in harmony with one another. “You want to live a happy life?” God says. “Don’t murder one another. Don’t steal things that don’t belong to you. Don’t cheat on your spouse. Rest once in awhile, and let those who work for you take a break, too. Be kind to strangers and outsiders, because you were an outsider once, too.” The longs lists of rules God gave the Israelites in the Old Testament—they were intended as a gift. Do these things and life will be good. But don’t do these things and life will be hard. You’ll hurt yourself and you’ll hurt one another. You’ll provoke animosity and stir jealousy. It won’t be a happy life—for you or for the rest of your community.

I wonder if that’s what’s going on in John’s Gospel when we read, “Those who don’t believe are condemned already.” God isn’t waiting around for us to break one of the laws and when we do—BAM—the lightning strike of God’s condemnation. When we disobey the laws God has given us—when we choose not to follow Jesus and live as Jesus lived—we are condemned already. The natural result of our unbelief is unnecessary turmoil, distress, and unhappiness. We reap the consequences of our disobedience.

In his book Love Wins, evangelical Christian pastor Rob Bell offers his take on, among other things, hell. He points out that the most common Greek word that we translate as “hell” is “Gehenna,” which means “Valley of Hinnom.” The Valley of Hinnom is a real place—it’s on the southwest side of the city of Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day, Gehenna was literally the city dump. “People tossed their garbage and waste into this valley. There was a fire there, burning constantly to consume the trash. Wild animals fought over scraps of food along the edges of the heap. When they fought, their teeth would make a gnashing sound. Gehenna was the place with the [weeping and] gnashing of teeth, where the fire never went out.”

I would guess most of us think of hell as a mythical holdover from a more primitive Christianity that used fear and punishment to control and manipulate people. But Rob Bell tells us that the hell Jesus refers to was a real place that people in his time would have known about. And Jesus’ point was that we have a choice. We can choose the path that leads to life, or we can choose the path that leads to hell, to Gehenna, to the city dump, where the fire is hot and there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Do I believe in a literal hell?” Rob Bell asks? “Of course… I’ve seen what happens when people abandon all that is good and right and kind and humane… It’s absolutely vital that we acknowledge that love, grace, and humanity can be rejected. From the most subtle rolling of the eyes to the most violent degradation of another human, we are terrifyingly free to do as we please. God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it.” Hell describes the “very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.” It “refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.” Those who don’t believe, in other words—those who disobey God and choose not to follow the way of Jesus—they are condemned already.

Plenty of Christians have told me more than enough about condemnation and God’s wrath, thank you very much. I’m really not interested in a conversation about who’s in and who’s out. I’m not going to engage in an argument about who’s condemned and who’s not. God’s love doesn’t create insiders and outsiders, winners and losers. If trying to enforce limits on God’s love is what the Christian life is about, count me out.

And yet, I’m not willing to abandon the topic of condemnation altogether. I know what it’s like to be literally hell-bent on my own destructive course of action. I know how my disobedience and unfaithfulness can hurt me and those I love. I know what it’s like to be among the unbelievers the gospel writer mentions who are condemned already. I bet you do too.

The good news is that no matter how far we find ourselves from home because of our disobedience and unfaithfulness, there’s always the assurance that it won’t be that way forever. God is always calling us back to abundant life and longs to meet us there. May God equip and empower each of us to be among those who believe and are not condemned. Amen.

Resources consulted:

Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

Marilyn Salmon, “Commentary on John 3:14-21,” on Working Preacher, accessed March 14, 2015, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1256.

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