This is the first sermon in our summer sermon series on “big questions” about life and faith asked by the congregation. The most common questions I received this year were about heaven, hell, whether they exist, and who goes where. The first three sermons in our series will explore these issues. This sermon responds to the question, “What do Lutherans teach about hell?” One of the people who asked this question also wondered how and why church teaching has evolved.
The frequency with which you submitted questions about heaven and hell speaks to some of our deepest human curiosity about cosmic reward and punishment when we don’t always see it reflected in the world around us. It also speaks to the culture in which we are immersed, in which the Christianity we hear about most often claims absolute certainty about heaven and hell. Finally, significant moments in our lives tend to stir up questions about heaven and hell: serious illness, the death of a loved one, friends or family members choosing a different religion from ours or no religion at all, and facing our own mortality.
We’ll begin our theological exploration of hell by looking at what hell is like in the Bible. Spoiler alert: there is no single “hell” in the Bible. Confusingly, different English versions of the Bible translate various different words as “hell,” so we often miss the nuances when we read the Bible in English.
The first hell-like place in the Bible is Sheol, the Pit. Some parts of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, talk about Sheol as an underground realm where the souls of all the dead reside. Sheol is morally neutral. There is no punishment there; when you die, it is simply where you go. The psalms tell us that Sheol is not out of God’s reach: Psalm 139 is a good example. Just as God knows human beings intimately before they are born, God is still with them even when they end up in Sheol.
A second hell-like place in the Bible is called Gehenna. It’s based on a real place, the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, south of Mount Zion. Because tradition says that one of the Israelite kings sacrificed children there, the valley gained a reputation for being cursed. By the time of the life of Jesus, Gehenna was also understood as a metaphysical place of curse and punishment after death. In rabbinic literature from Jesus’ lifetime, Gehenna works sort of like traditional purgatory; sinful souls serve out their sentence there before being set free. Second-temple Judaism understood Gehenna as a fiery place; its fire could burn away souls as well as bodies.
Gehenna comes up frequently in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, where Jesus uses it to describe the opposite of the kingdom of heaven. Note that it’s not the opposite of heaven, the place where God dwells, but it’s the opposite of the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign of justice and peace coming into the world here and now. In Matthew and Mark, to reject Jesus’ message of compassion, justice, and peace is to earn a place in Gehenna.
The third form of hell in the Bible is Hades — yes, the same one as in Greek mythology. Greek thinking had a significant influence on the New Testament. In the Bible, souls that have already served their punishment in Gehenna end up indefinitely in Hades, which is characterized by forgetfulness. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus in the gospel of Luke takes place in Hades.
The last type of hell in the Bible is called Tartarus. It has a tiny cameo in Second Peter in the New Testament. Like Hades, Tartarus draws on Greek and Roman mythology and seems to be a place for fallen angels. Non-biblical writings from the century around Jesus’ lifetime expand on Tartarus and its fallen angels, but the Bible says little.
To review, the Bible contains four ideas that we translate as hell: Sheol, the realm of the dead; Gehenna, the accursed and flaming opposite of Jesus’ kingdom of heaven; Hades, the forgetfulness after punishment; and Tartarus, imprisonment for fallen angels. You might have noticed that none of them correspond perfectly to what we imagine as hell: eternal punishment, fire, and brimstone. Biblical ideas of hell are influenced by a few different cultures. First, ancient Hebrew culture, most influential in the Hebrew Bible, believed in Sheol. Second, the Pharisees, one of the main sects in second-temple Judaism during Jesus’ lifetime, believed that souls would meet either eternal reward or punishment after death; the New Testament shows plenty of evidence of Pharisaic thought. Finally, Greek and Roman ideas of afterlife, punishment, and reward left their fingerprints all over the New Testament as well.
So what about those signs that street preachers carry listing all the kinds of people who go to hell? For the most part, they’re not in the Bible. They come from bad interpretations and inexact translations of the Bible, from apocryphal writing not part of the biblical canon, from popular religious tradition, and from the influential literature of writers like Dante and of Milton.
If you have gotten the sense that church teaching about hell has changed… well, it has. Just like science, theology grows and changes as we learn more. Talk of hell has waxed and waned in churches through the last millennium. It has spanned the spectrum from Jonathan Edwards and his famous sermon about sinners in the hands of an angry God to the universalists who proclaimed salvation for everyone. Politics, social issues, war, and peace have all influenced the extent to which churches have preached about the threat of hell. In recent decades, pastors and theologians have grown more sensitive to the damaging ways in which hell has been used as a tool of spiritual manipulation, to scare people into an arbitrary determination of correct behavior. Theologians from across denominations have also taken a closer look at the Bible verses traditionally used to condemn people like gay and gender-nonconforming people, unwed parents, women preachers, and so on. Reading these so-called “clobber verses” with better awareness of their original context reveals that they have very little to do with the contemporary issues they are often used to condemn. In fact, threatening specific categories of people with hell is sinful behavior because it causes spiritual, psychological, and physical harm to real people. Claiming that certain people are going to hell works directly against the kingdom of heaven — God’s reign of justice and peace. God alone can judge.
Our Lutheran tradition does not deny the existence of hell, but it’s complicated. Our understanding of where hell is located has shifted. God’s reign is breaking into our world all around us, but it is not here yet, and evil is deeply entrenched. Today, we often talk about hell as a state of separation from God. Hell is real because sin and evil are real. We live in a world poisoned by sin, and sin results in evil. Hunger kills the most vulnerable people around the world; people of color die in routine traffic stops; disease strikes down our loved ones. Last week was the one-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting, and yesterday was the two-year anniversary of the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston. Sins like homophobia, racism, poverty, and sexism are real, not abstract. They are lethal; they are signs of hell: abject separation from God’s reign of justice and peace.
But we are not helpless to stand against the forces of hell and the devil, these lethal sins that claim our lives and try to separate us from God. We have Jesus. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus goes out of his way to heal, feed, and welcome people sidelined by society. We also have the love of God. Love and mercy are God’s primary defining characteristics from the creation of the universe all the way to the end of the world. Some of the most beautiful language in the whole Bible speaks of how nothing can separate us from the love of God: not height or depth, not things past or things to come, not even life or death.
God’s life-giving promises are stronger that evil. The redeeming love of Jesus, who died and rose to bring God’s reign to each one of us, reaches all of us by the grace of God. God’s humble power reaches into the depths of our suffering, even to the heart of hell, and gathers us all into God’s embrace.