Can I mention Hell, or is that going to offend you? It may be the key to your joy.
Dark before the dawn.
Death before resurrection.
Suffering before glory.
The first warm breeze of spring is far more gratifying after the iron cold days of winter.
Holy Week is the reality of the now, with the hope of what’s to come.
So why write about hell the week before we have egg hunts, Easter bunnies, and candy basket treats?? Good question. Maybe some talk of hell will result in thanksgiving. Maybe it will orient your soul.
This is the week on the church calendar when we ponder Jesus’s walk to hell.
And because he went, you don’t have to.
I attend a small Vineyard church outside of Philadelphia. Each Sunday we gather under the cathedral ceilings on the top floor of The Church of the Good Shepherd dating back to 1869. This past Sunday was Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week. Christians recognize Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, riding a donkey through a tunnel of palm branches waving him in. Crowds shouted their acclaim, "Save us!" Jesus was saving them, but not from what they thought. He would deliver them from something far more oppressive than the Roman rule they were begging for: sin, and subsequently, hell. The donkey he mounted, a symbol of peace, represented the upside down Kingdom of God. This Kingdom wouldn’t come with force, but by surrender. Jesus was demonstrating the greatest act of service in all of history. His torture and death would rescue sinners from the domination of sin and an eternity in hell.
The ONLY way to peace and reconciliation between God and humans, and between humans and humans, would be by way of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Our ideas, our best attempts, are not putting a dent in our problems. Look around, I'm not sensing the peace. As a matter of fact, its worse than it's ever been. We need a different kind of help.
The pastor of my church, and a good friend, preached on the often-ignored topic of hell. Across the nation, I wonder if anyone else heard a sermon on hell this Palm Sunday. My response at the end of his teaching both surprised me and didn’t: I was overwhelmed with gratitude. The reality is, we need to talk about hell. Both individually and as a society, we avoid uncomfortable topics. However, if we don’t push through our initial resistance, we won’t hear the second part of the narrative.
Throughout Jesus’s teaching, he talked about hell more than anyone else. The “gospel” of 2021 is not the Gospel Jesus taught. Instead it is one that dismisses sin, dismisses Scripture, and defines God in whatever way one wants to define him. We, the created ones, have tried to squirm our way into the role of Creator. In the 21st Century, “authority” is a bad word unless serving our felt needs, and affirming our every desire. We want to run the show. The scary reality is, we don’t know how dangerous that is. In essence, hell thrives in our grasping for control. Hence, the nature of hell is this:
“I don’t want God. I want to be my own god. I want to be the authority over my life. I want to do whatever I want, be whoever I want, no one can tell me what I can and cannot do. I have no interest in God’s ideas, ways, or boundaries. Mine are better. I have no need for God. I don’t want him.”
Hell, simply stated, is separation from God and all the goodness of God as a result of one’s rejection of God. Hell is the absence of his values, his ideas, his nearness, his light. Hell is disordered, isolating, and empty. God’s authority creates order. It thrives in the structures he instituted. His goodness and purity are experienced in his Creation. His love is exercised by his perfectly wise instruction. His boundaries, his “yes,” or “no,” are established for protection and flourishing. His presence is light and life. Funny how we have come to trust our ideas, our ways, and our authority. The more we trust ourselves, the more disordered we become. We are a mess when left on our own.
My pastor quoted J.I Packer’s definition of hell: “Hell is the negation of fellowship with the Lord. It is the negation of pleasure. It is the negation of any form of contentment.”
Serving the desires of the self will be gratifying for a moment, but like a trap, will snap down on us. Pleasures become demanding, and demand raises its whip of control, making us its slaves. We no longer choose pleasure, instead it owns us. Sin, left unconfessed, left to its own progressive nature, will strip us of all peace, and leave us both empty and restless. Choosing our own path, creating our own truth, suffocates contentment; sin is insatiable. What results is a distance with the God who loves us, see us, and protects us. Jesus describes us this way: “They are like sheep without a Shepherd.”
This is hell.
Sadly, we have become a fragile bunch. Quick to be offended, and therefore, unable to contemplate and consider a topic before cancelling the conversation altogether. Alan Jacobs, in his book How To Think makes mention that the impulsive feelings of disagreement will cause us to shut down and stop listening. When we stop listening, we fail to learn; we stop maturing. Discussions on hell, thoughts on sin, conversations on boundaries, sermons on confession, repentance, and God’s authority are necessary for thriving together in community. But we resist them. We cover our ears.
I wonder when we started believing that to admit weakness and sin was a bad idea. And yet, what parent would dissuade their children from saying “Sorry.” Training up a child to eventually become a mature adult and a good friend begins with admitting wrong, saying sorry…
(…Although as I stop and consider, too often the stories coming from educators are parents defending their kids at all costs, expecting teachers or other students to take the blame…hmmmm….not good friends, not good.)
Holy Week is calling us to pay attention, to stand on the side of the road where Jesus shouldered the cross, bloody, dehydrated, weak…and to watch him, look him in the eye, and remember why he was carrying a cross to an execution he didn’t deserve. Uncomfortable? Yes. Necessary? Without a doubt. We can’t have the second part of the story without the first.
So here’s the Holy Week secret. We are sick in the soul. There is no fix for our selfishness, defensiveness, hatred toward others, or our impulse to judge others while failing to hold the measuring stick up to ourselves. As a people, we hardly talk about forgiveness, instead we wave the flag of social justice as if it is the only road to recovery. We want mercy for ourselves, but justice for everyone else. At the core, we are hypocrites, failing to see the wrongs we have done, but able to list out, blog out, tweet out, and post the sins of those we disagree with. We keep trying to even the score. What’s worse, we don’t believe we have any need for a Savior.
But there is a second half of the story. The dawn after the dark news. All around the world Christians will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Salvation for sinners. There is a rescue from this wasteland of selfishness, pride, self-reliance, and fear. A rescue from hell. Death always leads to resurrection in the Kingdom of God. And this is good news. The more I understand my sin, my twisted nature of self-worship, how I hurt others, and put myself first in every scenario, how my lack of wisdom has lead to broken relationships…the more I cry out for someone to save me from myself. And this is the best news: Jesus saves! He took on hell FOR ME. But if my sin is just “small potatoes,” I will see no need for him. There is no awe, and no response of worship. Here is the truth: we only rejoice when we have something to rejoice over. We worship God only if we understand what he has saved us from. And this is Easter! Hell conquered.
To see hell for what it is, to know it is real, to remember “the wages of sin IS death,” to face the uncomfortable reality, the humbling truth…this will cause the fountain of gratitude to overflow.
Sit in the darkness of hell this week, don’t avoid it. Let it usher in your hope, let it lift your head in thanksgiving to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is your salvation.