In Heaven: The cooks are French, The policemen are English, The mechanics are German (until the middle of last week!), The lovers are Italian, The bankers are Swiss.
In Hell: The cooks are English, The policemen are German, The mechanics are French, The lovers are Swiss, The bankers are Italian.
I thought I’d start with a little bit of a joke today. As you may have guessed from the reading, it’s a pretty serious topic in the sermon. Hell is a subject that we don’t often discuss, or preach on. Headlines like ‘Church abolishes hell’ give the impression that perhaps we don’t believe it these days. Although apparently 14% of British men believe that if hell exists, they’re going there – but only 6% of British women feel the same. We might wonder, how can there be a hell if God is a God of love?
So as we look at Jesus’ teaching, please pray for me. As v.42 tells us, it’s a serious responsibility – I don’t want to put a stumbling block in front of anyone! If I err on one side, I might end up painting a picture of God which is harsh and lacking in mercy. Which would be untrue. If I err on the other side, we might miss out on hearing one of the most serious warnings Jesus ever gave. Let us pray:
‘Lord, grant that I may proclaim your word faithfully, that your Spirit will sort the wheat from the chaff, and that we may all respond to your justice, love and mercy. Amen.’
Have you ever really put your foot in? Said something so embarrassing that you wish the earth would swallow you up? How do you get out of it – make a joke? Change the subject? John the apostle thought the best thing to do would be try and drop someone else in it.
We join our reading at v.38, just after last week’s story about Jesus rebuking his disciples for their selfish ambition. Clearly uncomfortable, John decides to divert attention elsewhere: ‘Teacher we saw someone casting out demons in your name and he we tried to stop him because he was not following us.’ In his ministry Jesus set people free from the powers of darkness. A stranger was copying him. Is that a problem?
Jesus looks beyond who’s in and out. He looks to the principle: ‘Do not stop him for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us’. (How wonderful if churches could put this into practice and not compete with each other, instead co-operating and rejoicing in one another’s success).
Jesus wants to encourage this openness, which follows the openness and love of God. He says: ‘whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward’. He paints a picture of a God who seeks excuses to bless us, who wants everyone to know Christ, who rewards even the tiniest gift offered in Jesus’ name. Our heavenly Father is a God of love who calls us his children. There’s a wideness in his mercy which is wider than the sea.
It’s precisely because of that wideness that God takes so seriously the problem of those who cause others to fall. In v.42 ‘If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.’ Tough words. But Jesus says them precisely because God wants everyone to be able to come to him. He doesn’t want any to stumble. If anyone stops someone else, by their harshness, by their lack of love, by their false teaching, then that is a big problem.
I’m a school governor. If I go into a class and I see a teacher who is clear, who has firm but fair discipline, then that tells me she cares about the children. She creates an environment where all can learn and excel. Because the children matter to her she won’t let one or two spoil it for the others. However if I visit a class which is chaotic, I reckon either the teacher lacks ability or doesn’t care for the children. For love knows right and wrong, love sets out boundaries of acceptable behaviour, love has a sense of justice.
So if we look at the awful scenes on our news and long for justice to be done, if we see suffering and long for evil warmongers to be reined in, then how much more does God! God’s Love demands that he condemn wickedness. Love requires that something be done and the evildoer not get away with it forever. Love leads God to promise that he will renew the world, purging from it evil and therefore those who cling to evil. The Bible shows us that a God of love has to be a God of justice. If God does not do justice, then he does not love or he is not God.
Which brings us to the difficult subject of hell… Let’s be clear. Jesus teaches that there is a hell. Yes, he uses dramatic imagery but his warning is serious. Jesus says hell is a risk for all of us. Who is Jesus addressing in v.43 onwards? Is he in a prison speaking to murderers and rapists? No. Is he saying ‘This doesn’t apply to you decent people, but when you meet a dictator you might like to warn him’? No. He’s talking to his followers, his disciples when he says ‘If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.’
He spoke to his disciples. People like us. If it weren’t a real risk, why tell them? Let’s think about that a bit more… Many religions have the idea that you do your best to be good and try and avoid being bad. Many religions have taught that what happens to you after this life depends on whether your good deeds outweigh your bad. The Egyptian god of the dead was even shown carrying little weighing scales.
This idea seems easy to understand, but there are some problems with it. For instance, if when you were a kid you nicked a lollipop from the corner-shop then that weighs down your bad side. But by how much? And how many times do you have to help old ladies cross the road in order to get your good side back up again?
And where do you draw the line? Imagine a great queue of people waiting to get into heaven. An angel comes along with a sign – bit like being at a theme park where you get those white signs at points in the queue which say ‘1/2 an hour to wait’. But the one the angel’s carrying is a barrier that says heaven one side and hell the other.
And he plonks it right next to me. But on the wrong side! And I’m like ‘why here? Why me? What good’s the next bloke done that I haven’t?’ And the angel explains ‘well, there’s an awful lot of people that have ever lived, so the differences between you are really quite small. This just happens to be the cutoff point. He’s going to heaven because in the course of his lifetime he said one more prayer than you.’ ‘Well that’s not fair. Can’t you move it down a bit further?’ Of course, you can imagine what the next guy would say and so on.
It doesn’t work. The idea that if we do enough good we get to heaven, and too much bad we go to hell doesn’t hold together. It’s trite, simplistic. It’s not what the Bible teaches. The Christian faith believes something much more radical, more profound, more challenging and yet more solid hope than simply doing our best could ever be.
The truth taught by the apostles, taught by Jesus himself, is that if God in Christ hadn’t intervened to save us, hell would be the destiny of us all. The Bible teaches that by going our own way we cut ourselves off from God – the source of all life. Bluntly: we all deserve hell. When people in the Old Testament encountered God, they hid their faces, they took off their shoes because they stood on holy ground. They knew they were unworthy to enter the presence of the holy God. It’s not a difference of degree between us and God – as if he is more pure. It’s a difference of kind. God is God, and we are sinners.
I won’t be surprised if someone reacts against this: ‘Yes, I know I’ve done wrong, I don’t dispute that. But this emphasis on sinners is a bit strong – I’m sure I’m not that bad.’ If you’re feeling like that, imagine yourself saying it before God himself. I can’t. God’s spirit convicts me.
It is important not to misunderstand this idea. It’s not saying we’re incapable of doing good – many people, religious and not, do a great deal of good things. It’s not saying we’re utterly depraved. But it is saying we have gone our own way, not God’s. It’s more profound than saying we’ve done the odd wrong thing – it’s saying there’s a spiritual problem at the root of those deeds, a fundamental pride, self-centredness, which means we need God’s forgiveness.
Jesus talks about entering life. In v.45: ‘If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. Entering life happens through Christ – that’s why v.38-41 are all about the name of Christ. He is our Saviour.
He alone is not standing in that queue of the partly good and partly bad. He alone is perfect like God – Christ alone is God as a human being. Yet though he is innocent of any wrongdoing he willingly takes the punishment for our sinfulness. It is as if we were condemned to die, but Jesus offers himself to die on the cross in our place.
This is a great mystery – no-one can fully plumb the depths of it. But what is clear within the New Testament is that God is both the Judge and the one who addresses the need for justice. God’s love demands that there is justice because otherwise love is not love. Yet his love also longs for us to be reconciled with him and enter life. The tension is resolved when God the son becomes man and offers himself on the cross.
So the point of what Jesus is saying about hell is that we shouldn’t need to worry about it! The way to life is open! We just need to accept and travel that path. It’s like a party invitation – only any use if you accept it and go along. Or my expenses cheque, which is useless until I’ve presented it. God invites us to enter life, so let’s take up the invitation!
We do need to do that. Make that choice. God gives us free will, he respects our choices. If someone says no, if they want nothing to do with God and can’t abide the thought of eternity in his company, then God isn’t going to force them – in effect they choose to go to the other place. If you struggle to understand how anyone can choose that, then may I recommend a book called ‘The Great Divorce’ by C.S.Lewis – it’s psychologically believable and a very good read.
In that book, some of the characters choose to walk away from heaven because they won’t let go of things that they know are wrong but still enjoy. Jesus says we need to be ruthless, in v.47 ‘If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out, it is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.’
The early church father Origen supposedly took this rather literally. He had a problem with lust. He took some drastic action to ensure it would never lead to physical sin. But were the temptations still in his mind?
Jesus of course is speaking in an exaggerated fashion about cutting bits off our bodies. The rest of the New Testament seems pretty clear that life with God involves being healed at the resurrection, having a new perfect body, not one with bits still missing. Jesus’ words are strong images, meaning be totally intolerant of anything that hinders your Christian discipleship.
Don’t let those little habits grow into addictions! Act on the promptings of conscience. Let Jesus be Lord of every part of your life, don’t leave corners of your heart unswept. You can’t keep a foot in both camps.
So to sum up, this reading asks three things from us: Firstly, take the doctrine of hell seriously. We don’t have to buy in to Bosch’s mediaeval imagery of devils with toasting forks and wheelbarrows to hear what Jesus says. He shows us that God’s love and God’s justice go together, that there are consequences and God respects the choices we make. He gives us such awesome freedom.
Secondly, let us be inspired to go out in mission. Jesus gives us a message of good news for the world. Not the uncertainty of trying to be good, but the assurance of forgiveness. The invitation to new life. The promise of security in the life to come. Our world needs to hear this message – let us be courageous in sharing it.
Finally let us understand that the way to life is open. If any of us have not responded to Christ’s invitation and committed our lives to him, I urge you to do so. Let’s not let anything get in the way.
I’ll pray now, and if you want to make that response, please say Amen at the end. ‘Father we thank you that your love and justice meet in Jesus. Thank you that he is our Saviour and frees us from hell. Lord I turn to you, I ask for your forgiveness and pray that you will keep me on the path of life. Amen.