The View From Bolton Street: Hell

There seems to be a lot of talk of Hell these days, which, for Episcopalians, makes sense. We have just entered Advent, and for three weeks we are reminded about Armageddon, the end of the world, sin, judgment and yes ... Hell. So it might be a good time to address the question “Do we believe in Hell?”

In less complicated times perhaps it is hard to believe in hell. When life is good and our family and friends are happy, are bank accounts are balanced, our personal lives are stable, ‘Hell’ seems like a far-off and strange thing. A scary thing. a needless thing, perhaps. 

But in more troublesome times, Hell seems entirely too plausible.  When it feels like the carpet could be pulled out from under you at any minute, when it feels like your friends might disappear, when all of your safety, all your stability, everything seems impermanent, Hell may seem like your day-to-day reality, or worse a permanent status you might wish on those responsible for the hell you are currently living. 

There is a popular theology in the church that says “God’s judgement requires that Hell exists, but God’s mercy require that it be empty”; or rather that the inescapable conclusion of Scripture and the incarnate God is that some punishment must be levied on us individually and corporately for the evil we have done, but that God is also so good to us that it is unimaginable that any of us would have to suffer for it.  While I am grateful for this theology, I do find it lacking and here is why. 

Let me say a few things about Hell and then perhaps frame this for our common life over the next several weeks. 

First of all, we must dispense with the notion of Hell as a place for “non-believers.” It is too simplistic to think that saying some magic words will save you from eternal damnation. Further, in a world where almost every day self-proclaimed Christians drop bombs from drones flying half a world away killing innocent Muslim children, it is impossible (for this Christian) to believe in a God that would send the pilot to Heaven and condemn the Children to Hell.

Second, we also must reconcile ourselves to the fact that God’s grace does indeed abound and it is quite possible that many terrible people (you can make your own list) have sought and will receive forgiveness from the most high.  If we believe in grace for ourselves, we must believe in it for all.

Third, Hell has always had a physical reality here on earth. From the Valley of Gehenna outside Jerusalem (the trash dump where fires literally burned forever) to the modern-day hells we see in trash dumps outside of Mexico City, or the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, or U.S. detention facilities; to the personal hells of LGBT people continuing to be re-abused; or women who have suffered sexual abuse in the workplace, the home or at Church .. Hell IS real, and no amount of creative theology can take that away. 

You see, whether we believe in Hell or not, does not change the reality that many people around the world live in Hell every day. When John comes in Mark speaking of repentance and forgiveness of sins, he is speaking to a people who are both living in a kind of hell and acutely aware of their own responsibility for the hell they have created.  They want a way out. They desperately want a new way to be. And John is offering them a path towards that new way. 

That new way is found in the birth of a savior, the Boy King Jesus. The risen Christ.

As we approach Christmas, we should be profoundly aware of the promise of Jesus to do away with Hell, and with our own responsibility as Christians to lessen the personal hell our friends and neighbors live with on a daily basis.  That is why I am proud of Memorial’s efforts to call for justice on a local and state level; why I am proud our children have organized a giving tree to collect toys and supplies for children in need; and why I am grateful for the leadership of Bruno our intern in putting together a Christmas party for the needy residents of Linden Park Apartments — because these are powerful examples of how we are spending this Advent season making Jesus seem a little closer, and Hell a little further away, for each other, and for all those suffering this season.