The Reverend Seth Ethan Carey
September 28, 2008
First Congregational Church,
Introduction to the Scripture:
You might think of my sermon this morning as a sequel to Pastor Lillian’s message last week, insofar as both of our sermons deal with the subject of punishment. Only whereas her primary metaphor was water, mine will be fire. Whereas she dealt with the question of being tested or punished in life, I will be dealing with the subject of eternal punishment in the hereafter.
This morning, my subject will be Hell.
Now, this is a highly metaphysical and theoretical topic. Please be aware that my own beliefs on the subject are mere conjecture. My goal is not to tell you what to expect in the next life, but rather to help you think about the afterlife in a more nuanced way.
This is not an easy topic to address in the United Church of Christ, but I pray that I have earned enough respect and credibility in the years that I have been your minister that you will trust me to take you on a journey to that place from which, it is said, none have ever returned.
That journey begins with a troubling scripture from the Gospel of Matthew, a text of fire and dismemberment. But I promise to bring you through this in one piece.
Scripture: Matthew 18:6-9
‘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 fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!
‘If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.
In the sanitarium on the hill, Dr. Duncan MacDougall conducted an unorthodox experiment.
The good doctor, like so many before him, wanted to prove the existence of the human soul. So, in 1907, MacDougall weighed the bodies of his dying patients at the hour of their passing, in an effort to demonstrate that the soul has mass, that it weighs something. He hypothesized that as the soul departs, the body should lose a nearly imperceptible amount of weight. After six patients died on the scale in his office, MacDougall concluded that the human soul weighs exactly 21 grams. He later repeated the experiment on fifteen dogs, and declared that they didn’t have souls at all. Even in his own time, MacDougall was widely criticized for practicing poor methodology, for abusing the scientific method, and for disrespecting the dignity of his patients. But his dream lives on.
I recently heard on the BBC World News that a doctor in England has received funding for an experiment of his own. He is also trying to discover the soul, this time by measuring the validity of near-death experiences. This intensive care physician is placing a variety of pictures on the walls of the critical care ward. The thing is, they’re angled such that you can only see them if you happen to be floating on the ceiling.
The reason for this is simple. The experiences of the nearly-departed always exhibit the same details—a tunnel of light, a reunion with loved ones, and a memory of floating, looking down on one’s own body as it lay dying. Now, the recollections of those who have been to the other side and back are overwhelmingly positive. In a few rare cases, some claim to have had visions of torment, memories of being torn apart by their own personal demons, and of being suspended over a river of fire.
One man—who has already died twice—claims to have seen both realms of the otherworld. As a child, Matthew Dovel nearly drowned in his swimming pool. But at the brink of life and death, he was enveloped in a brilliant white light and visited by an angelic creature who told him that he had to go back. He grew up angry with the God who thrust him back into this broken world, trying in vain to recapture the euphoria of his divine experience with alcohol and drugs. In time he decided that he would force his way back into Heaven, chasing a bottle of sleeping pills with his favorite brand of gin as he sat in his car one night.
But this time around, he was plunged into darkness.
Now, I realize that Congregationalists are allergic to Hell. However, that was not always the case. Back in our infancy in the 17th century, we were actually rather fond of it, even going so far as to burn witches for associating with its demons. It was renowned Congregationalist minister, Jonathan Edwards, who wrote that infamous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, in which he reminded his congregation that we are all of us hanging over an ocean of fire, suspended by the gossamer thread of God’s grace.
Nowadays, as the United Church of Christ, we tend to stand over and against more conservative churches that preach a gospel of fire & brimstone. In fact, we don’t talk much about the afterlife at all. In the UCC, we tend to focus on the world we’re living in now, and how we can make it a better place. Beneath that quest for justice there lies a vague and unspoken belief that if we do our best here on this earth, then things will work out for us in the end. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s not such a bad attitude. It’s certainly better than the preachers of the damned, who would have us believe that homosexuals and Jews are condemned to eternal punishment for spitting in the face of God.
Personally, I think that any talk about the hazards of Hell should be taken with a large grain of salt. It’s probably worth mentioning that when Matthew Dovel tried to kill himself, he experienced a vision of being suspended above a horrible black pit. At the time he had that vision, his car was parked on a cliff, overlooking a swamp. Go figure.
It’s important to realize that our contemporary ideas of Hell are colored by a long history of imagination. Jesus is a part of that history. It was Jesus who introduced the metaphor of fire, an image which has since been taken very literally. The word he used to describe Hell was Gehenna, which may sound strange to us but probably made a lot of sense to his audience at the time. You see, Gehenna was the name given to a well-known trash heap just outside the walls of Jerusalem. It was where the inhabitants of the city burned their trash and dumped the bodies of criminals, a place where the fires were never quenched and the air reeked of refuse and smoke. Jesus used Gehenna as an image to signify a kind of spiritual wasteland, not necessarily a parallel dimension of fire and brimstone.
Not everyone sees it that way. When I’m feeling masochistic, I tune into a TV show called Way of the Master, hosted by fundamentalist child-star Kirk Cameron and some Australian guy I’ve never heard of. The program seems to consist of Kirk Cameron nodding his head in feverish agreement as the other host carries on at length about the infernal nightmare that awaits everyone who disagrees with him.
He made an analogy once that I find interesting. “If you have a neighbor,” he began, “and that neighbor’s house was on fire, wouldn’t you do something to let him know?” Kirk Cameron agreed that he most certainly would. “And how would you go about that, exactly?” the host inquired. “Would you call him on the phone, leave a message on his machine? Would you stroll over to his house and knock quietly on the door?” Kirk Cameron shook his head vigorously, sweat beading on his forehead as he became caught up in the danger of this dramatic scenario. “Of course you wouldn’t,” the host carried on calmly. “If there’s a decent bone in your body, you would run over there and knock his door down and drag him out of that flaming death trap.” This was, of course, his justification for aggressively harassing people until they accept Jesus into their hearts.
This guy makes a fundamental mistake—and a fundamentalist mistake, I might add—the same mistake that people have been making for hundreds of years. He assumes that faulty beliefs are just like faulty wiring—that both of them are a fire hazard.
I’ve never much liked this passage from the Gospel of Matthew. Its brutal depictions of self-mutilation and fiery torment are, I think, more than most people can stomach. I’ve been studying this scripture very closely, and I think I’m finally beginning to pierce the merciless veil of the text. I think I understand what Jesus is trying to say.
If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of Gehenna.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t address sin in this passage. Rather, he attacks the cause of one’s sin—the root of evil, if you will. Every Sunday, we gather here and we ask God to forgive our sins. And God does. But that doesn’t stop us from sinning again, and that’s because the source of our evil still lives within us. Not even God can get rid of it, because it’s an integral part of who we are. It is, simply, the human ego.
While not inherently evil, our ego is the nesting place of our anger, our greed, our lust, and our pride. It is the progenitor of our thirst for wealth, our fantasies of revenge, and our uncontrollable desires. It is the hand that causes us to sin, the eye that causes us to stumble. It’s not a sin that can be forgiven, but a part of us that must be torn out and thrown away lest it weigh down our souls.
Let’s put out the fires of Hell for a moment, and focus instead on the metaphor of weight. What if some souls weigh more than 21 grams?
It would be better for you, Jesus says, if a great millstone was fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depths of the sea.
What if certain aspects of the human ego could anchor the soul to earth? It’s an interesting theory, one that is well attested in ancient mythology. The Egyptians believed that after they died, the god, Anubis, would weigh their souls against a feather. If the soul weighed more than the feather, then it fell into the gaping maw of the goddess, Ammit, the devourer of souls.
Similarly, the ancient Persians believed in a place called the Chinvat Bridge, a place where souls of the dead must cross before entering the gates of paradise. The righteous cross the bridge with ease, but those who have grown fat on a diet of evil find that the bridge is as thin as a razor, and they inevitably plunge downward into their doom.
For our purposes, let’s try to avoid using words like “doom,” shall we? I want to reiterate what Pastor Lillian told us all last week, that God does not punish us for our sins. God is neither judge nor jury, nor executioner. I don’t believe that we are judged or punished when we die. God wants us in Heaven even more than we want to get there.
There is, I think, a catch. It’s not a threat of punishment, but rather a reality of natural consequences. Let’s say for a moment that you’re fourteen years old, and you decide to go out and get drunk with your friends. There are, to simplify matters, two possible consequences for this behavior. The first is that your parents will find out and ground you until you’re 21. That’s a punishment. The second consequence is that you may find yourself getting rather sick the next morning. That’s what we call a natural consequence. I want to think of the afterlife, not in terms of punishment, but in terms of natural consequences.
I believe that when we die, we’re subject to the natural consequences of our choices. If we’ve gotten drunk on our own desires, if we continue—even after death—to hold fast to our ego, clinging to painful memories or unforgiven enemies or material possessions, then we run the risk of anchoring ourselves to the earth as surely as a chain-rattling ghost. Our ghosts will stay here, locked in a Hell of their own design. Or, we can choose to let go. We can choose to tear out all of the desires and obsessions that have come to define us and shed the weight of a lifetime. We can leave body and mind behind, as our souls—our truest selves—rise toward the God who made us.
The good news is, it’s never too late to make that choice. C.S. Lewis once wrote that,
“…the doors of Hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of Hell, in the vague fashion wherein a man wishes to be happy; but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good.”
The choice is ours to make, not in a single moment, but for all eternity. We have all the time in the world to let go of our pride and our lust, our greed and our wrath, all the time in the world to throw our garbage into the fires of Gehenna.
When I was living in a college dorm, it seemed like everything was supposedly a fire hazard. I guess I can understand policies about smoking in the building or running extension cords all over the place, but some of these rules were just plain stupid. For instance, we were told that we weren’t allowed to hang anything on the outside of our doors. I figured that the administration was afraid we’d hang up something offensive in the hallways, but they told us that hanging up pictures on the door was a fire hazard. Yet, on the inside of the door, we were required to hang the fire escape plan for the building. If we took it down, we were warned, this would also be a fire hazard. So if we hung up a picture on the outside of the door, it was a fire hazard; and if we took down the picture on the other side, this was also a fire hazard.
Have you ever noticed how much people throw around the phrase “fire hazard”? If you want to do something and someone else doesn’t like it, then it’s probably a fire hazard. Perhaps it’s your desire to smoke a cigarette, or even your idea for a furniture arrangement. No one ever says, “I don’t like it,” because you can always reply, “Too bad.” But who can argue with a fire hazard?
For as long as anyone can remember, people have tried the same tactic when it comes to religion. If some people don’t agree with your beliefs, or your ideas, or your actions, then it must be a fire hazard―only it’s not a house that’s in danger of burning down, but your immortal soul. I might believe it, too, if I worshiped a sick pyromaniac, but I worship God. God didn’t give us the free will to choose, only to strip it away from us at the crossroads of our eternal destiny and set us on fire. The choice is ours, now and forever.