Leaving Hell - Langside Church

Three weeks ago I preached a sermon on a rather serious subject. It was based
on thinking about what happens to us when we die.
And one of the things I said then was that the message that God sends people to
eternal punishment in a place called Hell, was a belief that needs to be rejected.
This was a horrific idea and not worthy of our loving God.
Here’s the truth.
Think of someone you love who has died. God loves that person even more than
you do!
The sermon ended with these words.
“Whenever we face death, for ourselves or our loved ones, we know that we are
going to be with God, and we know that God is on our side.”
I got a more than usual response to that sermon. I have to say I didn’t get any
negative responses.
But it got me thinking anyway of some questions that might be raised in people’s
It was a nice message. It was a comforting message. It is indeed good news.
But maybe you could be thinking - is it actually true?!!!
Isn’t this just wishful thinking?
It’s all very well for David McLachlan to stand up and say that there is no place of
punishment called Hell, but surely the Bible says there is!
It’s impossible to deny that Hell is spoken of in the Bible.
Even if it’s probably mentioned much less than most people would imagine.
For example, the Old Testament (where there are bloodthirsty parts and where
you see most of the more primitive ideas about God) has no real reference to
And if that’s surprising, here’s something much more surprising.
The great majority of Bible verses on Hell, actually come from the mouth of
Jesus! The one person who consistently speaks about Hell is Jesus.
And it’s more than a wee bit fascinating that the most bloodthirsty idea ever
should come from the mouth of the least bloodthirsty and most loving and
forgiving person who ever lived.
Did Jesus mean that we should take these words on Hell literally?
Or is there another way to understand what he meant?
Lets bring this guy back again. Do you know who this is on the screen?
(It’s the stand-up comedian Milton Jones).
I was looking at an interview with him where he was asked about his life and
work. This included the fact that he is a practising Christian, which I didn’t
actually mention the other week.
In the interview he was asked about performing in other countries, and he
explained that although he does that, there are settings where he wouldn’t go
down well.
Some of his jokes are based on word play and that won’t always work in other
cultures as the meanings are not always obvious.
Now I’m not going to start telling you a whole lot more of his jokes, but here’s
one I like as an example of this.
If you Google “Lost medieval servant boy”
Up on your screen will appear “This page can not be found.”
Now if you don’t know medieval European history, and the meaning of the title of
page, and if the word for that in your language isn’t the same as the word for a
piece of paper, or screen image, then that joke will make no sense.
We know that different areas (even speaking the same language) will sometimes
have their own expressions. And there are all kinds of strange figures of speech.
In Jewish culture in Jesus’ time people used a strange expression to admit a
If there were two things to choose between (and you had to pick) you would say
you loved one and hated the other, even if the other thing was something you
actually liked.
To illustrate lets suppose you are asked which you preferred between a Crunchie
and a Snickers Bar.
(You are going to have to imagine that you are Jewish, living in the 1st Century
and also that Crunchies and Snickers have been invented and are available in the
local shops.)
Suppose you liked both, but on balance would give Crunchies 9/10 and Snickers
8/10, you would say:
“I love Crunchies and hate Snickers.”
Obviously you don’t really hate Snickers at all.
It’s a very strange way of saying you preferred one over the other.
Jesus uses this expression when he said “we must love God and hate our mother
and father, partners and children.” (Luke 14:26 AV)
Clearly Jesus isn’t wanting us to hate the people who are closest to us.
Jesus doesn’t want us to hate anyone!
He is trying to point out that love for God is the most important thing.
God needs to be first in our lives.
Now that Bible scholars understand what the expression means the verse is
usually translated we must love God more than our parents, partners and kids.
This isn’t what Jesus actually said but it is what he meant.
There are other occasions where Jesus uses extreme language to get his point
Here’s a classic example.
Jesus once said “If we say our brother is a fool we are in danger of going to Hell.”
(Matthew 5:22)
So lets just think about this….
If we call our brother a fool there is a chance that God is going to send us to a
place called Hell where we will suffer for all eternity.
(Thank goodness I don’t have a brother!!!)
Seriously, is there anyone who thinks that should be taken literally?
If we call someone a fool, then God will fry us in Hell for all eternity.
How about this… “If your right eye offends you pluck it out. Better to lose an eye
than to end up in Hell.”
(Matthew 5:29)
I don’t know anyone who thinks that Jesus meant people to take this literally.
And when Jesus talked about the fires of Hell he was using similar language.
People often use vengeful language to get a point across.
“See when we meet up with our friends tonight, don’t you dare tell them that
embarrassing thing that happened to me today. I’ll kill you if you tell them!”
Imagine someone says this to you.
If the speaker is making a strong point about you not embarrassing her, then you
can accept the words.
If the speaker is absolutely serious, and will literally kill you if you tell what
happened to her today, she needs to be locked up!
Think of parenting and the things that parents might say and do to discipline
their kids.
Send them to their room.
Stop their pocket money till they have paid for something they’ve broken.
Ground them for going out for a period to get across the meaning of curfew time.
From time to time such actions might be helpful.
But think about these words from parents on a long journey to noisy kids in the
back of the car.
“If you don’t pipe down we’ll tie you onto the roof.”
Or for non-roof rack car owners…
“If you don’t pipe down we’ll stop the car right here and you can find your own way
Now these are warnings, but if the parents who said this were actually to do this
- we would lock them up.
If God were to throw people into a place called Hell where they will be stuck in
torment that is unending, then God would be a monster.
God would be the opposite of who we know God is.
That’s why we know that these words of Jesus are not literal words.
What about the words we heard today from Jo?
This is the parable of the Last Judgement in Matthew 25.
Jesus says at the end of time we will be divided into two categories: sheep or
goats. The sheep get to go to heaven; the goats go to hell.
The ‘sheep’ are those of us who have cared for Jesus when he is a stranger,
hungry thirsty, sick, naked, or in prison. And the ‘goats’ are those who have
ignored him.
Each time we care for another person in those circumstances (in Gods eyes) it is
as if we are caring for Jesus himself.
Each time we ignore someone – its like we are ignoring Jesus.
But lets just take a second here. How many people here have ever helped
someone in need?
And how many people have ever failed to help someone in need?
Our hands have to go up both times.
The fact is that we are both. Sheep and goats.
Jesus says these things two days before his arrest.
“Within 48 hours these men will call Jesus a stranger, they will leave him in prison,
hungry, sick, thirsty and naked. They will do these things not to Jesus in one of his
disguises but to Jesus himself, (the Jesus that is right in front of them), the Jesus
that has been with them in person for three years.
What is Jesus response? Rather than punishing them Jesus welcomes his followers
who have abandoned him and says he will never abandon them.”
(M. S. + D Linn: Understanding Difficult Scriptures in a Healing Way p14-15)
And what about the eternal fire?
In John’s gospel the disciples meet the risen Jesus on the shore of Lake Galilee.
“When they had gone ashore they saw a charcoal fire there with fish on it and
bread…Jesus says to them “Come and have breakfast.” (John 21:9-12)
As spiritual author Susan Mech writes, ‘Jesus doesn’t say, “Here, hop on these
coals and begin your eternal punishment.” Rather, Jesus says, “Come and have
Nowhere in the gospels do we find a word of vengeance from the risen Jesus.
So why does Jesus use scary language? Why talk in such serious terms?
Why does he give us such warnings?
Because he wants to get something really important across to us.
Because actions have consequences.
What we say and what we do have consequences.
The way we live - the way we behave - has consequences.
Jesus wants to warn us about living well and treating others well.
He wants us to realise that seemingly innocuous actions (or words) on our part
can have far–reaching effects.
When we do things that are wrong, things that are evil, things that are hateful or
totally selfish - we end up cutting ourselves off from God.
We are not in tune with God in the way we could or should be.
So our bad actions and attitudes don’t just hurt other people (and that’s bad
enough) – they also stop us from being who we should be and keep us away from
a proper relationship with God.
Jesus uses exaggerated language to get across a very serious point.
How we live, how we behave, how we treat other people - matters greatly.
So there are two reasons for not taking these words of Jesus about Hell literally.
Firstly, because it makes the most logical sense. And fits in with Jesus as we
know him to be.
And secondly, because if the words are taken literally then God turns out to be a
hateful sadistic tyrant. And that is not true.
I’m not saying that everyone walks straight into heaven – that it doesn’t matter
how we’ve lived or what we’ve done.
Clearly some people have lived cruel selfish lives and are far from God and far
from the people they should be.
What I am saying is whatever time of trial, or correction or punishment we may
face we are going to in the end be reunited with the God who created us and who
loves us beyond our deserving.
In this life or the next God will finally break through to us with the healing we
One last thought.
Occasionally people will say something like “If God is just love, love, love then why
should we bother our shirt about God and how we live? God loves us anyway.”
What is the motivation for living a life that is less selfish for example?
Why not live the most selfish life imaginable?
There’s no motivation to change if God loves us anyway.
Now it is true that belief in hellfire, punishment etc can work as a motivator.
There is negative motivation and positive motivation.
We can do what our parents say because we’re scared of what they will do if we
don’t. Or we can respect our parents because we trust in their love for us.
It is love that best motivates.
We can try to live better lives because we are afraid of the consequences if we
don’t. Or we can try to live better lives because we are inspired by love.
Once we know deep within ourselves that God loves us, we are transformed.
Its unthinkable to give up on God.
It’s unthinkable to ignore Jesus.
Its unthinkable to live another way - because we have been gripped by love.
If you have some doubt about the value of paying attention to God don’t look to
fear as a motivator. The real reason for following Christ is our response to Gods
love for us.
If God’s love doesn’t motivate us, then we haven’t really experienced it, or we
haven’t allowed it to sink into our souls.
The founder of AA (Bill Wilson) said, “Punishment never heals. Only love can heal
It’s a long time since hell-fire sermons were in fashion. Certain churches still
peddle them. Probably most churches are very quiet on the subject these days.
But, in fact, we need to do more.
We need to make it loudly known that God does not send people to the eternal
flames of Hell, because to believe that is a distortion of who God is, and makes a
mockery of the gospel message of love.
The good news is much, much better than that!
Matthew 25:31-46
November 9 2014 (Remembrance Day)