Today we have the last topic of the sermon series, five big questions that we are asked, and today’s topic is the Hell. I never preached on it and it’s the first time for me to preach about Hell. As you may guess, I am nervous, very nervous. So, I found a joke about heaven and hell to ease my nerves. One night, God talks to a preacher who is preparing a sermon on heaven and hell. The preacher asks God: What is heaven like? God replies, “Heaven is like a city. It has the best of everything. For example, the French are the chefs, the Italians are the lovers, the English are the policeman, the Germans are the mechanics, and the Dutch are the politicians. “What is hell like?” the preacher asks. “Well, God sighs, “The French are the mechanics, the Italians are the politicians, the English are the chefs, the Germans are the policeman, and the Dutch are the lovers.
If the sermon series is Five Big Question I have, I won’t choose hell. I don’t have any question about it. If I go to hell after I die, it’s up to God. My interest or worrying about it now won’t change one bit of that situation. My question for myself is “Am I in peace with God right now here trusting that God is God and I am a child of God?” But when we try to talk others to invite them to church this question is a big one. Even among Christians it is a big question, especially, when we face our loved one’s death. If and when you are asked about heaven and hell what would you answer? Are you ready to give an answer?
We, Methodists, are big on God’s love and grace. John Wesley’s whole theology is based on the Grace of God in Jesus Christ who are patient with us, forgives us, and saves us. It’s natural for us to believe that a loving God could not sent anyone to hell, a place of eternal agony. But many Christians insist that God is also a just God, who cannot overlook evil. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, once said, “When you adopt universalism and erase the distinction between the church and the world, then you don’t need the church, and you don’t need Christ, and you don’t need the cross. This is the tragedy of nonjudgmental mainline liberalism.” Like him, some Christians are very serious about Hell because they believe there should be judgement and punishment. To be true to our faith in both loving God and just God we need to look at the Bible and see what the Bible says about it in what contexts.
Generally saying, the hell has two names in the Bible: In the Old Testament it is called Sheol. It is the place for the souls of the dead, both the righteous and the wicked. It is a land of darkness – a place where the shadowy souls of humanity dwell. In the New Testament, the Hebrew word, Sheol is translated as Hades. As we see in today’s gospel reading, Hades has two compartments: Hades proper where the rich man is sent, and Abraham’s side where the angels carry Lazarus. Hades proper is a place of torment. Abraham’s side, on the other hand, is separated from it by a great chasm and it is a place of comfort and rest. The righteous who died prior to Jesus dwelt in Sheol with Abraham, and though they were cut off from the land of the living, they were not tormented as the wicked were. Remember today’s gospel lesson is a Jesus’ parable which has a teaching point for his particular audience at that moment based on their religious and cultural knowledge of heaven and hell. That’s the context of this parable.
Who was his audience at that moment? It was Pharisees who were rich religious leaders. In the previous chapter, Jesus was teaching people about up-side-down- nature of the Kingdom of God with his parables of the lost son, the lost coin, and the lost sheep. Pharisees didn’t like any of them because they were up-side-down of their world view. Then, Jesus began to talk to Pharisees directly with the parables of a money manager and this one: a rich man and Lazarus. No name is mentioned for the rich man. But it is obvious that the rich man is a Pharisee. Pharisees were the leaders in both religious world and secular world at that time. They had power and wealth through governing both worlds. The rich man wears purple and fine linen and feasts luxuriously every day. And the beggar, Lazarus, longs for some crumbs from his table but nothing comes to him from this rich man’s table. Both of them die and one goes to Abraham’s side and the other goes to Hades. Now, it is the rich man who longs for a drop of water from Lazarus’ fingertip but he doesn’t get anything. God’s love for Lazarus is fulfilled and God’s justice for the rich man is served. Does it sound fair to you? Do you believe that’s enough for our understanding of both loving and just God?
All these Sheol, Hades, or a tormenting place are the general understandings of hell in the long history of Judaism and Christianity. That doesn’t mean all Jews and all Christians believe in that way. What do we, you and I, believe? We believe that both God’s love and God’s justice are fulfilled and served through Jesus in his life, death and resurrection. I want you to grab a hymnal in your pew box and open page number 881. There is the Apostles’ creed, a traditional version. Let’s read it together.
What does it mean, “He descended into hell?” It was a part of Christian beliefs but we, the Western Christians, lost it when the Western and the Eastern churches were divided. However, the Eastern orthodox Christians still keep it. It is based on the Bible in the first Peter chapter 3 verses 18 through 20. It says, “Christ himself suffered on account of sins once for all the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human but made alive by the Spirit. And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison.”That means he descended to Hades to preach to them and to save them. In a church in Cappadocia there is a fresco, a picture, showing Jesus visiting Hades. In that picture, Jesus broke the gate and the bars of it and put the custodian of Hades under his shepherd staff and takes all of them who are there with him to go up with him. Do all Christians believe that? If you ask Western Christians, like Roman Catholics and Protestants, they may say “Ahee….” And if you ask Eastern Christians, like Greek Orthodox, Coptic and Armenian Christians they may say, “Sure Jesus died for all and saves all. There is no place Jesus wouldn’t go and no one he wouldn’t save.”
What do I believe about heaven and hell? Based on the gospel of John chapter 1 verse 4 saying, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” I believe that when we die we will be united with the light of God and our darkness and our sins which deserve God’s wrath and punishment will be melted away by the light because darkness doesn’t overcome the light. That’s what I believe. I want you to ponder on what you believe based on the Bible, the teachings of the church, human reasons and your personal experiences of God in Jesus Christ. I hope that we talk about it freely and deeply in our fellowship or small group meetings without worrying about offending others or making them uncomfortable because some believes hell and some believes don’t. At the end, anyway it’s totally up to God. God is the judge. Let us pray…