Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

He Descended into Heck...

Sermon: He Descended into Hell
Text: Ephesians 4:710
Date: November 2, 2008

Hell, it seems, has fallen on hard times. Back in the days when Jonathan Edwards preached about "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", the fear of hell was strong enough to scare people into righteousness. But times have changed, and now we like to talk about the love of God more than His wrath. I'm glad things have changed, because the fear based approach doesn't seem to be that to which we're invited today, as I'll share below. Still, while it seems that Edwards had some misguided notions about God's wrath, the reality of God's judgment is supremely important, because it declares two things:

1) there is both good and evil in the universe
2) evil will not be forever tolerated

Of course, there's much more to the gospel than these two statements, and when the gospel is reduced to these two statements, we end up in some sort of fear based approach to God, exactly the opposite of what we're invited to enjoy.

But we make a severe mistake when we try to erase those two important points because they too are part of the good news. I quote CS Lewis at length in order to make the point:

Blake wrote, "The marriage of heaven and hell" some sense or other the attempt to make that marriage is perennial. The attempt is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable 'either-or'; that, granted skill and patience,and time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain. This belief I take to be a disastrous error.

Lewis goes on to declare the reality of hell, and the reality that those who are there, are there by their own choosing, not because an angry God condemned them to this against their will. As I'll share on Sunday, this is in keeping with what the Bible teaches hell to be, and what the Bible has to say about God's judgment.

Hell is the English word we use to describe several different things in the Bible: the grave, the abode of the departed, and the lake of fire are all referred to by the same word 'hell' in English, though they're different words in Hebrew and Greek. So when the creed says, "he descended into hell" there are lots of questions about 'which hell' is meant: the grave? the place of departed souls? the lake of fire? Commentators and scholars argue about it. I'm not sure it matters.

The more important matter, by far, is to note the depth of Jesus sacrifice and love for us. Philippians 2 speaks of this, and Ephesians 4:7-10 speaks of Jesus ascent being tied, of course, to His descent into 'the lower parts of the earth.' Here are some questions to spark your thinking as we look at Jesus, hell, and our callings to follow Him -

1) Tim Keller's excellent book: "A Reason for God" talks about the doctrine of hell as being one of the more offensive points for many who are considering the faith. Keller's reply is that if God didn't intervene and confine all evil to some specific place, God's intent for the universe as a place filled with life and beuaty would never be realized. Furthere, he'd argue, like Lewis, that God doesn't send people to hell; people choose hell because of their condition. Read the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 and share your own thoughts about this.

2) Whatever you think of hell, most of you would agree that hell is hell to the extent that it is the absence of God. By this definition, Jesus experienced hell because He experienced the absence of God when he died on the cross. Read Philippians 2 and ponder how Jesus life intersects with the convential wisdom we have today about putting limits on our compassion (a word which means 'to suffer with'). If Jesus had learned the language of limits, would He have continued to the cross?

3) Based on your answer in #2 above, ponder the reality that we're asked, in Philippians 2, to empty ourselves in a like manner as Jesus did, following in His example. What does this mean? Can you share an experience of this in your own life? What were the results?

We need to ponder the thought that Jesus carried all the guild, all the absence of God, and that these were the judgments of God poured out on one who absorbed them willingly so that we'd be able to become not only forgiven, but transformed. But our way of transformation is no different than His - we ascend by descending, we gain by giving away, we really live by being the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies. Let's ponder that as we prepare for the Lord's table this Sunday


At 30/10/08 08:49, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came of college not really believing in a hell, rather a return to nothingness... or a return to ex nehilo.... a slow process of dying and loosing the "breath of God" until you return to non existence (probably wishful thinking but who knows). I'm not totally certain about where I stand now... I'm a little more comfortable with unknowns (hopefully not complacent).

Something about loosing the breath of God, or the life of Christ or the "Spirit" IS tragic to a Compassionate God... rather, just plain tragic. So much so that He has continually intervened on the matter. Therefore, I believe there is indeed a mystery in the end that awaits those who do not accept Christ's invitation to life.

There is also a verifiable hopelessness to life outside of the life of Christ right now, which I think is even more relevant to this group of generations than say, the Jonathan Edwards era. Not to say that we can't subject ourselves to a "hell" of sorts as Christians either, because Christians can and do venture outside the life of Christ too.

This can be challenged for sure but I think in some ways we've become so uncomfortable with suffering and sharing our suffering (or validating our own suffering enough to call it such)... that we have diminished opportunities to show compassion unless we get off our seats and go look for it. It could also be argued, that we at Bethany (or a church with a similar make up) suffer less because we have used the means given to us to limit our own opportunity to suffer in the first place.

So maybe we need to point out that the argument that "I am Christ ministering to my family, friends and Church" is wonderful only to a point (one that is still necessary and valid but can only go so far). Christ was an active minister who went to the suffering, thus He increased his opportunity to feel compassion, and then respond with compassion. Obviously he started out with compassion, but I do believe it is a circular action/feeling/behavior that gets reinforced.

Maybe compassion needs to be developed in us, not just expected. We are so good at doing what we feel and responding to the feelings that well up within us (at least this is a general truth about our generation as compared to other generations). But if we only have so many opportunities to feel compassion and respond then it may not be enough to "transform" us or become a way of life... is it was for Jesus.
Maybe we need to take the little that we have, and go somewhere with it and see what happens next.

At 31/10/08 15:16, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of my friends shared something his professor said to him about hell and judgment.

"Our faith demands that we believe in the existence of hell. However, it also demands that we pray it be empty."

What do you all think of that? Can a person really follow Christ without HOPING that all will be saved?

At 5/1/09 23:59, Blogger Rebecca said...

This sermon has stayed with me for a while now and keeps coming up in how I think about God. I talked about it with my sister and she asked how can Jesus descend into hell (ie the absence of God) when He is in fact God. I'm not sure how to think about that. Any thoughts?


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