Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Terrible Possibility of Damnation

This morning I want to address a topic that makes many people uncomfortable—indeed I confess that it makes me uncomfortable as well—yet it is a subject that cannot be responsibly avoided. I would like to address the topic of damnation…of Hell. 

There is a lot of unhelpful talk about how the God of the Old Testament is wrathful and vindictive, but how the New Testament corrects this idea with a God of love and mercy. This of course is not true. The love and mercy of God can be found in the Old as well as the New Testaments, but neither is it true that the New Testament does not speak on the Judgement of God. I am not just talking about the book of Revelation or grumpy old Saint Paul either, but of our Lord Himself, Jesus meek and mild. It has often been pointed out that Jesus speaks on the subject of hell more than anyone else in Holy Scripture. 

Our reading this morning from the Gospel of Mark contains one of Jesus’ most stark and terrifying warnings. Jesus speaks of the awful fate of the damned who are thrown into Hell where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. The word translated as Hell here in this passage is a very real place outside of Jerusalem called Gehenna or the Valley of Hinnom. It was a place considered cursed for its association with idolatry that served as a garbage dump for burning refuse. Many commentators have pointed out that these words are not to be interpreted literally, but even as a figurative description they are chilling! It is possible, Jesus says, to make a stinking, worm infested, garbage dump of your soul! What a horrible fate. 

As terrible as the passage in question is, however, it is prefaced with one of Jesus’ most inclusive statements. The Apostles tried to silence someone acting in Jesus’ name because he didn’t belong to their group. Jesus corrects them saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” When Jesus speaks of Hell, what he is not doing is promoting a kind of tribalism that consigns everyone outside of the group to damnation.
I believe there are two extremes that we should avoid.

First, many Christians have a rigid exclusivism that makes the scope of God’s love seem narrow and paltry. They seem unable to recognize the work of God outside the confines of their own tribe.

Unless you have been under a rock this week you have probably heard that Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church, has been visiting the United States and even addressed a joint session of Congress. For the most part he has been welcomed warmly by Americans of all faiths, but in some instances his visit has seemed to stir up many of the bitter differences that divide Roman Catholics from Protestants. What an important reminder today’s Gospel is that the work of God is bigger than our divisions. Let us welcome with joy all who come in the name of Christ or who do the work of God whether we are in communion with them or not! Jesus says, “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose their reward.”

The second extreme we should avoid when speaking of judgement comes from those who take tolerance to such an extreme that they seem to lack moral seriousness and make it appear as if the choices we make in life have no ultimate consequence. It is all too easy to hear Jesus’ inclusive words of grace and mercy while neglecting to hear his solemn warnings. 

Love and justice or love and wrath are not opposites. They belong together. It is precisely because God is love, because he is perfect goodness, that he must utterly reject and destroy all that opposes or threatens righteousness. The one thing that love cannot love is hate.

No there are horrible consequences for those who would harm those whom God loves. Jesus says, “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.”

Although—obviously—I am not a Roman Catholic, I really admire Pope Francis, because I recognize in him the same balance I see in Christ. Is he hard-minded or soft-hearted? Liberal or conservative? He is difficult to classify because he avoids the extremes. It doesn’t stop the media from trying to pigeonhole him. 

A couple of years ago Francis made headlines after making the following comment, 

“You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.”

The headlines the next day said that Pope Francis proclaimed that no one needed to believe in Christ and that atheists could go to heaven if they led a good life. Is that really what he said? Wouldn’t that put him in the category of the wishy washy people who are so broad that they lack substance?

If that were the fact I would be deeply disappointed. It is a fundamental teaching of the Christian faith that no one attains salvation merely on the basis of their good works and that we all need a savior. Despite what you may have heard, Catholics and Protestants agree on this point. Here is what he actually said,
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

This is another way of saying what Jesus said, that anyone who does a deed of power in his name—who does the work of God and of his Kingdom—will not be able to soon after speak evil of him. If you do not yet confess the Christian faith, start by embracing the truth that you do understand, follow the witness of God in your own conscience and he will lead you on. 

C.S. Lewis once wisely wrote,
 “The world does not consist of 100 percent Christians and 100 percent non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so.”

The redemption that Christ accomplished is for all people. Christ died for the atheist as well as the believers, but that does not necessarily mean that all will ultimately be saved. God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, we can hope and pray that this might be the case, but we also must take heed to the awful possibility of damnation.

Elsewhere Jesus says,
Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, either in this world or in the world to come.” He warns everlasting destruction to all those who persistently resist the Holy Spirit, the witness of God in their conscience, all motion of goodness, who actively oppose the work of God and instead align themselves with evil. We cannot afford to be lax or indifferent to the things that God commands!
Sin is not to be trifled with. It is a cancer that must be removed at all costs. It is like gangrene, a hideous infection that if not removed will spread to our hearts and kill us. Jesus recommends drastic action, 

“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 to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And 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 to be thrown into hell. And 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 the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”
If his words are shocking, it is because the situation is so urgent that he must grab your attention. His words might seem hyperbolic, but the situation is actually even worse than his words imply! Even if we literally took Jesus’ advice it would not be enough. No amount of external behavior modification is sufficient, because the infection isn’t in our hands, feet, or eyes but in our heart. We need a full heart transplant! Only Christ can give us that.

He thirsts for you. He knocks at the door of your conscience through his Holy Spirit. He comes to you in the distressing guise of the poor and most vulnerable. Will you let him in? Will you give him a drink?

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