Why “Hell” isn’t Hell, How We All Die There, and Why We’ll be OK

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

James 5:13-20

We’re all going to Hell, but “Hell” isn’t really Hell, and it is actually a good thing in light of Jesus Christ. Please bear with me as we jump into this odd and multi-layered Gospel reading.

Jesus never actually says “Hell” in this passage. Our translations render it “Hell” but what he says is “Gehenna.” The place he refers to is not the same as the lake of fire described in Revelation where the great beast and the false prophet who had wrought violence, injustice, and tried to rip God’s people away from God are thrown (Rev. 19:20). The place is not Sheol described throughout the Hebrew Scriptures where the dead go when they die. It is a valley outside of the city Jerusalem where the city’s trash was burned. The Hinnom Valley called “Gai Hinnom” in Hebrew and “Gehenna” in Greek was the city’s dump equipped with an ever-burning incinerator.

This is important because the place where Jesus is speaking about is not a place of everlasting torment as popular imagination envisions Hell, but it is a place where trash is consumed completely. It might even be helpful to replace “Hell” or “Gehenna” with “incinerator” when we read the passage to get closer to how the disciples would have been immediately acquainted with Gehenna.

So Jesus tells his disciples, “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 the incinerator… 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 the incinerator. 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 the incinerator…”

Jesus’ message then is that it is a better thing to lose your hand, foot, or eye so that you might not miss out on hearing and living the Good News of Jesus. He is certainly speaking metaphorically and not literally, but it is nonetheless a powerful and disturbing image. Jesus says that it is better to cast off the things that we think are desperately necessary for us to live fulfilling and comfortable lives than to stumble and miss out on living an abundant life that is founded in the experience of God’s unconditional love, and of sharing that same love with the world. To live for ourselves and not the “little ones” be they children, strangers who proclaim the name of Christ even though they aren’t one of us, or the weak and vulnerable, is not a life worth living at all and we might as well be tossed into the incinerator and just stop living.

I’ve known some people who have lived their lives giving up their metaphorical limbs for God’s “little ones.” I know parents whose children struggle with mental illness who give up many a night’s sleep worrying about how best to take care of them. They invest much of their money, their time, and their tears into caring for this little one of God so that he might not stumble- so that he might know the love of God in the care shown toward him. I know adult children who are caring for a mother who is falling deeper and deeper into Alzheimer’s. They give up the hand of relentless care through time, money, and patience. Even after giving up just about every limb they can spare, they only see this little one grow more lost and grow closer to death.

If Jesus’ exhortations to cut off limbs for the sake of preserving our whole selves ended with just those words, we’d be in big trouble. We’d be left with a notion that we must keep trying harder to become more and more perfect, and if we aren’t succeeding, then we aren’t being faithful enough. We’re left constantly wondering about whether or not there was another limb that we could have given up to care for God’s little ones. The parents whose child struggles with mental illness will wonder if they could have cared for their child better if they had understood how to identify schizophrenia earlier. Or if they went with a different doctor their son wouldn’t have been prescribed that awful medication that almost sent him over the edge. The adult child whose mother suffers from Alzheimer’s will wonder if she could have spent more time with her mother while she was lucid. Or if she could have found a little bit more money to put her mother in a better care facility. Or if she could have brought more joy into her mother’s last days.

Jesus says you need to be willing to cut off your own limbs- you need to be able to give up yourself in order to live a life that is worth living. If that is the final word we hear, we will constantly be wondering if we’ve really lived a life worth living. And that’s not living at all.

Thankfully, that is not where this text ends. Jesus’ words take on an entirely different meaning when we hear his next sentence, “For everyone will be salted with fire…” Everyone. Everyone, Jesus reminds us, is toast. No one will live a life that is perfectly acceptable by Christ’s standards if we are trying to measure up to God’s perfection. We cannot do it. We will and God could always find a way in which we did not care for God’s little ones as best as we could. We will always find ourselves in the all-consuming, incinerator fires of our own guilt and sin.

But Jesus turns this image around. This fire of consumption is also one of salting or preservation. “Everyone will be salted with fire.” We are lost to our sins and ultimately we will be consumed in the fires of death, but in Christ even the fire of death is a great thing that preserves us to eternal life.

We are going to suffer the effects of sin and guilt. We will never be able to give up enough arms, feet, and eyes to preserve ourselves from the consuming fire of sin and guilt. But in Christ Jesus, our death paradoxically becomes the means by which we live. Death becomes not a wall that ends the joys of life, but it becomes a door that opens into eternal and abundant life and closes behind us to separate us from the sin and suffering of the world to which we just died.

In our baptisms we are drowned daily. In that drowning we die to sin, death, and the devil. Then, we are raised to new life to live into the reality of death’s domestication and sin’s utter lack of ultimate power. We die and we rise. We die to sin and we rise to life. Over and over again.

Paul writes in Romans 6, “Do you not know that we who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” We have died with Christ. Jesus went into the incinerator first and three days later came out of it in newness of life, so that as we are thrown into the incinerator because of sin and guilt, we too might come out of it in newness of life- preserved as though with salt.

I’d like to share a prayer written by Francis of Assisi as a final thought for us to meditate on. It is a week early from the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, but I suppose we could say that the US visit from the pope who bears his name occasions this prayer. For Francis, the life we share with Christ makes death into a welcome guest and even a family member who walks us into newness of life.

And you most gentle sister Death,

waiting to hush our final breath: Alleluia! Alleluia!

Since Christ our light has pierced your gloom,

fair is the night that leads us home.

Alleluia!

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