Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Hell, Heaven


This passage from 2 Peter talks of hell, punishment, judgement and destruction. Interestingly it talks about them in that order.
  1. Hell. In this case, hell is the 'waiting room' for judgement.
    It ties in with the pit of Revelation, in which the beast, the devil, is chained – released at the end of time – and then destroyed with its followers. (Ties in with Revelation 20)
  2. The verses talk of the punishment and judgement of the ungodly, the lawless, the unrighteous: v9: "the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment"
    And the verses tell us what happened to people at the time of Noah's flood and of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. They are an example of what will happen to the ungodly, the unrighteous. 
  3. And the verses talk of final destruction:

2 Peter 2:12 (NRSV) talks of those who follow the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and who despise authority: "These people, however, are like irrational animals, mere creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed. They slander what they do not understand, and when those creatures are destroyed, they also will be destroyed, suffering the penalty for doing wrong".
I wonder what you thought when you heard these verses read earlier? What are we to make of it all?
I suspect that for many, even within our churches, this teaching about hell, judgement and destruction is considered a bit of a joke: we think of the sandwich board man, or the street corner hell-fire preacher. And I am aware that this teaching has been abused in the past, and has been used to justify some of the most ghastly things – even the burning of those who held different ideas. 
But that does not mean that we can simply swap passages like 2 Peter 2 for something different. 
And we have done that. 
There are four modern versions that I will mention:
  1. We die and we all go to heaven (apart from the very worst)
    And heaven? Well I quote from a best seller by Maria Shriver, wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but quoted by Tom Wright.
Heaven 'is somewhere you believe in .. it's a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk to other people who are there. At night you can sit next to the stars, which are the brightest of anywhere in the universe .. If you're good throughout your life, then you get to go to heaven .. when your life is finished here one earth, God sends angels down to take you up to Heaven to be with him … [And Grandma is] alive in me .. Most important, she taught me to believe in myself … She's in a safe place, with the stars, with God and the angels .. she is watching over us from up there …
'I want you to know' [says the heroine to her great-grandma] 'that even though you are no longer here, your spirit will always be alive in me'.
It is actually a very good description of what most people think we are talking about when we mention heaven. And it is astonishingly self-centred and self-serving. It is about me, being happy with the people who make me happy.
2. We die and become part of the universe
There is a well-known poem that was used at Princess Diana's funeral, and which is often asked for at funerals.
"Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain ..
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there. I do not die."
Or there is Nick Hornby who wrote, 'It would be nice to think that I could hang around inside the stadium in some form, and watch the first team one Saturday, the reserves the next; I would like to feel that my children and grandchildren will be Arsenal fans and that I could watch with them. It doesn't seem a bad way to spend eternity … I want to float around Highbury as a ghost watching reserve games for the rest of time'. 
I appreciate that for some, watching Arsenal for eternity could be a version of hell. 
3. We die and we come back again in some form. What is known as reincarnation
4. We die and that is it. The John Lennon version, 'Imagine there is no heaven, no hell'
The problem is that there is a mile deep canyon between these theories and what Jesus taught. 
Jesus in fact is the person who spoke most often about hell, judgement and destruction.
Why? Because Jesus was passionate that men and women should find God and find life. He gave everything for it. He left heaven for it. He gave his 33 years of life on earth for it. He died for it. 
And Jesus knows how desperate our situation is. There is not reincarnation; when we die we will not be merged into the universe; when we die we will not automatically go up to heaven – even if we have been good all our lives (whatever that means). 
We have rebelled against God – against 'the authority' (Pullman in his Dark Materials), and we are lost. We are the lost sheep of the story that Jesus tells. We are the son who has rejected his father, gone off to live in the distant land, and who is eating pig feed. We are Zaccheaus who has grown fat by milking others for himself, and yet who is up a tree. We are the self righteous, self satisfied Pharisee, who prays, but he prays to himself about himself for himself. 
We are the ones for whom Jesus came to die.
Why, if our situation was not that bad, did Jesus need to die for us – and die in such an awful, literally God-forsaken way? 
Jesus spoke of hell and judgement and destruction because there really are serious consequences for those who reject him and who reject God.
You see, when we reject him, we reject light and prefer darkness; we reject truth and prefer lies; we reject God's love in favour of our own stunted definition of love.
In rejecting Jesus, we choose to reject the one who can set us free from our slavery to our self-centred physical desires. They lead to destruction: it might be a dramatic destruction as it was for the people in Sodom and Gomorrah or the flood. But it could equally be destruction not by explosion but by implosion. By implosion I mean we gradually become nothing: we live enclosed self-centred worlds of self-pity, self-service, self-justification, that shrink in until they become zero. Like the talking beasts in Narnia who rebel against Aslan and become silent and dumb beasts; like granny in Roald Dahl's, 'George's Marvellous Medicine'; like the vision of what Voldemort becomes in Harry Potter – shrivelled up, beyond mercy and beyond pity.
One of the great men of God of the past said, 'Set your mind on hell and do not despair'. Hell is the eternal fire of God's consuming love that will burn up all that is not of him. Hell burns up all that is not love and life. It burns up all that denies what God is: all that stands against friendship, intimacy, warmth, trust, laughter, vision, healing, beauty, music, feasting, light and truth. The bible teaches that hell is eternal because God's love lasts forever. It does not teach, or at least I need to be persuaded that it teaches, that it is the individual soul that suffers for eternity. No, the final mercy of God is that after judgement there is destruction. 
But Jesus came so that we might have life. 
John 3:16 (NRSV): "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."
He offers life to those who know they are dead; hope to those who are aware that we are slaves to the corrupt desires of our sinful nature – that we do not do what we know God would want us to do; who are aware of the pride which makes us reject authority, and especially God's authority. 
And he offers us a way out.
And so the last of the four readings speaks of heaven. 
And notice that it is a very different vision to the vision of Maria Shriver. The bible talks of heaven as being up there, until the day when Jesus returns. And then we will not go up there, but he will come down here (along with those who have died) – to a radically transformed, transfigured creation: a new heaven and a new earth – not separated, but joined together. It is the vision of a new world, the Kingdom of God, space and time as we have never known them. 
As the hymn we've just sung, Hark the Glad Sound, puts it, 
"He comes, the broken heart to bind,
the bleeding soul to cure,
and with the treasures of his grace
to enrich the humble poor"
And our reading is the vision of a city [the bible starts in a garden and ends in a city]. And this city will be a place of light and life and fruitfulness. And at the centre of this city will not be us, not those we have loved, but God: "The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him".

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