Advent From Hell
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. – 1 Peter 3:18-20
For some reason, I’ve been thinking of heaven and hell. It must be Advent. Perhaps it’s a combination of Advent and going to a concert last week in which one song was about one man summoning Satan to ask the eternal questions about life, death, suffering, and meaning. Perhaps it’s the memory of one man, years ago, insisting that the entirety of the Gospel message concerned itself with whether or not he, or I, or anyone else, would spend eternity in hell. Perhaps it’s all those “Christians” who are so quick to consign to hell much the rest of humanity that ever was or ever will be. It’s probably a combination of all these things.
In any event, I’ve been thinking about heaven and hell. I’ve been thinking about how wrong we Christians have it. Not just today, not just one or another branch of the faith. Pretty much since the beginning, there have been those who have insisted that part of the drama of salvation includes the damnation of the reprobate, however defined. Believe it or not, there continues to be serious debate and discussion among some “theologians” over whether or not the dead are allowed to make their confession so as to avoid hell. A completely unBiblical, unanswerable question is the source of so much discussion, it could make your head swim.
Meanwhile, there are 14 children at just one of the elementary schools here in our small city who are homeless. Last March, in the midst of the coldest, snowiest winter in years, the police shut down a church-run homeless shelter because, they insisted, the church had not applied for a permit, and the building’s carrying capacity was exceeded. Because, obviously enforcing those codes is far more important than making sure men and women trapped outside in frigid, killing cold have a safe, warm place to sleep. Once a minute, a person in sub-Saharan Africa dies from malaria. Muslims are beaten to death in India. Christians are beaten to death in Pakistan. Ancient Christian communities in Iraq flee for their lives, while ancient relics of the diversity of religious life in Afghanistan are destroyed in the name of Islam. Christians are hounded, imprisoned, and sent in to internal exile in China, while the government continues to encourage internal emigration to the occupied nation of Tibet, to remove through sheer numbers not only ethnic Tibetans but to end the influence of Buddhism. American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen continue to face the threat of maiming and death in Afghanistan, in a war largely forgotten by a populace far more concerned with Kim Kardashian’s naked ass on the cover of a magazine.
When I think of hell, I don’t think either of Dante’s vision of the nine circles descending to the deepest pit where only one person – Judas Iscariot – resided. I don’t think of red beings with horns who are waiting in the air to snag our souls after we die. People who cannot see hell around them aren’t seeing. This Advent, as we prepare both to recall the birth of the Messiah and to remember to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Final Coming of the Kingdom, perhaps we should remember that this world, its sin, its evil, its pain and suffering, its wars and injustice, is the world to which the Son of God came. It is this place, filled with hatred and spite, pettiness and ruthlessness, mass death and the silent tears of parents over the body of their child, in to which Jesus came, as the Fourth Gospel says, to bring the Light of the World.
If the Christmas story is all about heaven and hell, because God likes some people and hates others, I’m not sure why we waste our time. I certainly don’t want anything to do with a God whose sole reason for becoming human and living among us is to tell us that the vast majority of us shall spend eternity in eternal torment. That isn’t the God of the Gospels, of the Law or Prophets. That’s a monster, a creature of the sadistic imaginations of the powerful, willing to sacrifice billions to ensure their own privilege and power. If we’re preparing ourselves for that, I’m taking down the trees, returning the gifts, and will no longer be associated with such a “faith”.
Thankfully, the Nativity story, capturing the Good News of the Bible in miniature, isn’t about any of that. On the contrary, it’s the story of God becoming a human being, a baby, to live with us and for us in the midst of all the pain and suffering, temptation and weakness, that is our lot in this world separated from God. In his person, Jesus brought together both the human and Divine so that Creation and Creator would be together again.
That work isn’t finished, of course. It has only begun. We, the Church, the Body of Christ, need to bring the Good News that, at Christmas, Jesus didn’t come to tell most of the world it’s going to hell. Rather, the Church needs to tell people that Jesus became a human being so that we could see, around us, the hell this world is. This world, with its pain and meaninglessness and wars and the millions who die forgotten, unnamed, is so beloved of God that God was willing to send the Son so that the world will be as God intended it to be – very good.
We spend this Advent in hell, because that is our lot in this life. Jesus was sent to this hell, this place of physical pain and torment that seems never to end, because of the deep, abiding love God has for this world. We in the Church are called to go out to this hell and remind people through acts of mercy and love and justice, through prayer and worship and the sacraments, that this reality is not the final word. That God intends for this world to be as God created it to be. And that is our work.
Hell is an idea that seems to suggest our God is a sadistic monster, a demon in disguise. The reality of the hell we all face, here in now even in this Advent season, tells us that our God is a loving, self-sacrificing Creator of something better, something perfect. This is the message of the Nativity. This is the Good News. This is what we will celebrate two weeks from today, as we recall the birth of a baby who will change the world through death and resurrection, defeating that old enemy by taking into the life of God all the pain and condemnation that comes from sin.