I know I talked a lot on Sunday. I’m sorry. My hope is that we will continue to unpack a lot of it over the next few weeks. And, really, I’m clearly not that sorry because I’m about to say some more stuff I didn’t get to on Sunday.
As many of you know, I love to talk about hell. Our Matthew passage (10.24-39) brought it up, so I had a lot I was prepared to say. It’s not just my need to say stuff, though that need is strong. Really, my interest in hell is that it is the ultimate scare card. Because we think about hell in a particular way, it can trump all other ways we might think about God.
We talked on Sunday about how sin could be thought of as the fears that drive our worst instincts. And we talked about how Christianity has been spiritualized to the point of caring little for material reality. Hell functions as the final threat that compels us to act out of fear. Even when everything else seems fine, when the material circumstances of our lives are good, there is that looming threat of eternal torment. This might encourage a certain kind of virtue, but it does not form us into mature Christians, the greater and greater incarnation of God because it only invites us into a world of fear rather than love. So what does Jesus mean when he talks about hell?
Most of the time when Jesus talks about hell, he uses the word Gehenna, as he does here in Matthew. The word sounds mythical, like something out of Edith Hamilton. However, it is actually a place: the Valley of Hinnom on the southwest side of Jerusalem. It has a long, gory history, a place of blood and fire. It was the place that the Canaanites sacrificed children to Moloch and Baal. When the Israelites moved in, it became their trash heap, accessed through the Dung Gate. All manner of human waste and detritus ended up there, including the bodies of the unwanted and unconnected, criminals and the destitute, no family to give them a proper burial. Fires smoldered perpetually under the surface, noxious smoke billowing out with occasional flames breaking through. The surface of the heap was the domain of flies and their offspring, worms that never sleep. The stench was so bad that one might gnash one’s teeth while making a contribution to the pile. If we’re going to read the Bible literally, this is what Jesus literally meant.
But, obviously, Jesus is talking about Gehenna for some other purpose. It’s not a Jerusalem travelogue or a PSA for the city dump. There is a metaphorical meaning that leverages what people know about Hinnom to remind them of something they may have forgotten about God: that God loves us.
Notice that Jesus says to fear, not the one that can kill the body, but the one who can destroy the body and the soul in hell. It is easy to take this to mean to fear God. But Jesus immediately follows this with statements of God’s love and care for us. God looks after a bird that can be bought for a penny. How much more valuable are we to God? We should not be afraid. I submit that Jesus is saying not to fear death, only death without meaning. The body may die, but the soul is that which gives us life – it is life. If we live in a hopeless wasteland, have we even lived? And does death even matter? Life in God is a life that matters, a life that seeks justice. The alternative is to live for nothing, to live as though everything is waste, everything forsaken. That is hell and it is very real. We should fear – and oppose – anything that puts anyone there.
When we know ourselves to be a part of the life of God, we cannot be disconnected, dispossessed, or devalued. We cannot be consigned to the trash heap of humanity. We may suffer and we may die, but not for nothing. Those who find their lives – those who simply come upon it, who fall into it, without reflection or concern – will lose it, having never really lived at all, but those who throw it all away for God’s sake will fall into something entirely different: true life and love and hope.
Hell is indeed a warning about where we might be headed, but the choice is right in front of us all the time. If the life we have makes us gnash our teeth and hold our noses, maybe it’s time to consider something else. If it makes us feel disconnected and devalued, maybe it’s not the life for us. And if we see anyone else headed toward the Dung Gate, ready for life where the worm never sleeps, maybe we should sound a warning. More importantly, we should deliver the promise that God has something better, that God counts precious every hair on our heads. In God, we truly live and so does everyone else.