God, Who Is Love, Creates No Hell – November 20

A sermon based on Luke 23:33-43 (THE MESSAGE)
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 20, 2022
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I do not believe in hell, at least not the one many Christians imagine God created, that place we hear about where after death –as my Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms puts it– “the wicked endure eternal punishment and the total absence of God.” Usually, we also hear that hell’s ruled by a lesser deity called Satan who keeps it fiery hot, full of evil and terrifying.

I often wonder how a belief in a lesser deity can be considered a part of a religion that is literally supposed to have one god. We are a monotheistic religion. Lesser deities are a polytheistic notion. I also wonder how this imagined god that creates a trash heap for souls is rectified with the Biblical assertions that God is love and loves us steadfastly and that love endures forever. Our responsive invocation based on Psalm 139 literally states that truth . . . repeatedly. I also wonder how come those who believe that a loving God or gods created an afterlife dumpster for souls seem to always define wicked to exclude the wickedness they do or support. It appears that the wicked deeds worthy of hell are always about people or conduct the hell-believer doesn’t like or support. In short, the polytheistic concept of an afterlife hell created by an unloving God seems to mostly be an idle threat to get people to believe and do what hell-believers want.

It is also commonly used as an idle curse on those who don’t believe or do what is wanted by many hell-believers. I’ve had many such curses tossed at me for preaching things like this sermon. I have no fear though because there’s no such hell in afterlife. I know that because the God I experience, the God of Jesus and the God of all the rest of us is, love. That love has no strings attached. Again, the Bible backs this up instructing us God is love and that God’s love for us is steadfast and endures forever. By definition such love cannot eternally punish the object of love nor be absent from it. We are the object of God’s love. Steadfastly. Forever.

Hell in the afterlife tends to be thought of by those who believe in it as a place of terrifying torture and moments of existence haunted by evil. While I do not think such a place was created by God, or run by a lesser deity or even exists in the afterlife, I do think hell created and run by humans can exist on earth. The scene in our lesson is proof. I chose the Message’s paraphrase for our reading so that we might hear it anew, re-visualize the wickedness and evil that’s depicted. We find Jesus in a place of terrifying torture and moments of existence haunted by evil. It’s hell, but not one made by God. And it didn’t take place in some afterlife realm. It was created by men behaving wicked and evil on earth.

I cannot imagine a more hellish scene in A human life than the one in our reading. Jesus is fully human. He is deeply wounded and in a lot of hurt. The lesson starts after Jesus has been brutally beat up, whipped, mocked and spat upon by agents of the Empire of Rome. Then they force marched him over to Skull Hill, a place Rome hung rebels naked on crosses for long humiliating and tortuous deaths with never ending taunting and shaming and merciless pain. It was made as awful as it could be to serve as a lessen to other subjects that anyone who rebels against the empire will be put through hell right now, right here, while still alive.
The irony that some hell-believers to this day make similar threats to religious rebels regarding an ethereal hell should not be lost on us. Evoking and creating the hell in our lesson and any other hell – imagined or real– are acts lacking love . . . God IS absent in them! They are a clear sign that God who’s love, and whose love is steadfast and endures forever, is not a part of such evocations and creations!

That is not to say that God is not IN the hellish places humans create. God is always there with the victims steadfastly loving them seeking their well-being. God’s always calling us to help such victims and seek their well-being. God’s always calling us to stop and end the creation of hellish places on earth. God always calls us away from evil.
We can find God’s presence in our story. God’s right there with Jesus and the two other criminals on crosses and the torturers and the executioners and the crowd. God’s there in the hellish scene just as God is in every single hellish scene our souls go through. Let me emphasize, though, that God is NOT there creating, causing or in any way supporting any act of harm to a soul. How do we know that? Because God is love – and love steadfastly desires and cares for the well-being of others. God’s love does that steadfastly and forever. forever.

So where is God in the hellish scene in Luke 23? Let’s take the easiest answer first. Jesus, in the experience of his followers, embodies God– love– in the Gospels. We can see him doing just that in the reading. God’s love endures in him even under the most dreadful conditions. Even as Jesus is in horrid pain and humiliation and dying he tends to others’ well-being as best he can. While going through hell Jesus’ love is remarkably steadfast. And it’s not just love for the un-wicked. In fact, the story goes out of the way to show Jesus providing enduring love for those who did evil to him. We are told he prayed for his torturers’ and executioners’ forgiveness. Those evil-doers did not ask for that prayer. They did not ask for forgiveness. Right in the middle of manmade hell Jesus tended to the hell makers, his tormentors’, sins. He did not condemn them but rather gave them unrequested forgiveness and compassion. That’s what God looks like. That’s what God’s love looks like embodied in a human.

We can also sense God’s presence right now, today in the reading. God’s presence reverberates off the page and out of the story and into our hearts and minds in the present. We are personally touched by Jesus’ acts. It’s Christ guiding us today on how to embody God. And that sense of wonder and awe we feel at Jesus’ kind acts . . . that’s palpable love here right now. In his pain and dying Jesus also gives love to one of the other criminals on a cross. One of the last things he does is give that man salvation. Not because the criminal believed a single doctrine of the church, or words in the Bible, but simply because the man himself – while suffering greatly– recognized that Jesus’ ministry was not criminal and because he simply asked Jesus to remember him in his kingdom. Jesus – while suffering and dying– not only listens to the other criminal, but offers words of comfort in both of their final moments, “Don’t worry, I will,” Jesus says, “Today you will join me in paradise.”

The criminal that Jesus comforted also offered love, God’s presence in the story. As he suffers and nears his own last breaths the other criminal summoned the strength to provide love by standing up to the bully who was taunting Jesus. “The Message” version indicates he made the bully “shut up” and he did so for the bully’s own salvation from his lesser way of being, as well as for Jesus’ sake. “Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as him, ” the man said. Then referring to Jesus he added, “We deserve this, but not him—he did nothing to deserve this.”

There’s still more love– God– in the hell that was occurring. I already alluded to love we can feel today from Jesus’ actions for others’ well-being, but love in us is also generated in the responses we have toward the hellish conduct. We personally don’t want it then or now for us or anyone. We experience a longing for the well-being of Jesus and even the others on the crosses. We experience a longing that wants no one to go through that hell ever, and we even feel pulled to stop such conduct in our own times. We are not the only ones. Crucifixion was around for a long time as an acceptable state act, but it went out of favor because of others’ longing for the well-being that we are talking about. Love stopped crucifixions. It is no longer sanctioned by states. And the torture Jesus endured is also frowned upon in many jurisdictions and by many people, certainly most (if not all) of those we personally know. God, love, is on all of that.

There’s at least one more place in the story that God can be found. Kings and royalty have long been understood to possess earthy power and wealth. They have what most humans are taught by the culture to long for and even idolize. Even today it is people with king-like wealth or power that we exalt and put above us by choice or circumstance. That sort of earthly elite typically reigns and rule over us to their benefit, not for everyone’s well-being. Caesar in Jesus’ day is a prime example. He was so exalted he was known as Lord and Savior and even son of a god. His reign brought peace on earth through violence in wars and violence in his criminal law system that sanctioned hellish scenes like the one in our lesson where Jesus was killed. In that lesson there is no doubt whatsoever that the lowest of the low to Rome was Jesus. He is the one who is mercilessly mocked and tortured and shamed and humiliated far more than the other criminals – one of them even joins in to put him down. Jesus, to almost every single person in the scene, is a nobody toss-away.

Similar to the hell some Christians imagine for others–always for others– Jesus is thrown away because Rome found him a wicked rebel for His loving theology and His loving actions. Caesar’s Empire put Jesus in that hell for the wicked deeds of embodying God and spreading love. Earthly power literally and lawfully makes Jesus as low in life as possible. He’s a convicted criminal tortured, mocked and executed naked in public. It’s the scandal of Christianity that Jesus dies a cultural lowlife. To use vernacular from my youth, Jesus is nothing but scum to Rome. Our lesson today provides that stark reality to us.
But the person earthly power sees as scum and puts in its manmade hell, we know, God knows, and at least one criminal on the cross knows, is the very opposite of a low life. Jesus is not scum. Jesus is the living water of life, the real Lord, the real Savior, the real Son of God– the one who ought to reign and rule in our lives. Rome saw Jesus as scum and Caesar as lord, savor and son of a god, but Rome got it all wrong. We are not supposed to let Rome or other earthly ways reign and rule our lives, let alone think of Caesar as lord, savior or son of a God.

Rome and Caesar’s way of peace through violence and terror is a way that can create hell on earth. Earthly power’s way still does that a lot. Jesus and God’s way of peace through love is the way of heaven. It’s the way of creating heaven on earth. It’s a way that stands against hell on earth – and certainly does not and never has created such a place in this life or the afterlife.
The Reign of Christ –which we celebrate today on the church calendar– is a reign of love. Since love aim
toward the well-being of others, we can rest assured that the Reign of Christ, now and in the afterlife, calls
us toward our better selves and celebrates our efforts to be our best, together and alone.

In a few moments we are about to lift up the names of saints of this church and saints in our lives. We will light a candle for them to remind us of the light they were and always will be for us. Each of those individuals provided love to one or more of us and helped the Reign of Christ – heaven– break in on earth. Each of those individuals is in the loving embrace of God. They are forever in the arms of God. We are also in that loving embrace of God. We are also forever in the arms of God. Don’ let anyone convince you otherwise. God loves our saints; they matter much steadfastly and forever. God loves you; you matter much steadfastly and forever. AMEN.