Feb 7 – To Hell and Back

Texts:  Luke 8:22-39

Neither the dark queen
nor the lord who rules the underworld could deny
Eurydice. She was there among the shades
just recently arrived, and now she walked toward them
slowly, the wound still fresh upon her ankle.
Orpheus took her, with the one condition:
if he should turn to look at her before
they had passed the dismal valleys of Avernus,
the gift would be revoked.

They climbed the path
through the deep silence, wrapped in total darkness.
They had almost reached the rim of the upper world
when he, afraid she might slip, impatient
to see her bright, beloved face, looked back:
and in an instant, she began to fade,
reaching out, struggling desperately to hold on
to him, or to be held; but her hands could grasp
nothing but thin air. She didn’t blame
her appalled husband for this second death
(how could she blame such love?) and, calling out
a last Farewell! which he could barely hear,
she vanished. – Ovid, Metamorphoses X, 46ff.

An Illinois man left the snow-filled streets of Chicago for a vacation in Florida. His wife was on a business trip and planned to meet him there the next day. When he reached his hotel, he decided to send his wife an e-mail.

Unfortunately, when he typed in her email address,  he accidentally missed one letter, and his note was directed instead to an elderly woman whose husband had passed away only the day before. When the grieving widow checked her e-mail, she took one look at the screen, let out a piercing scream, and fainted.

At the sound, her family rushed into the room and saw this note on the screen:

Dearest Wife, just got checked in. Everything prepared for your arrival tomorrow.

PS. Sure is hot down here.

It feels right to begin sermon on hell with a laugh.  Perhaps this is the problem — Some Christians seem to take the hell way to seriously.  You know the type:  You sit down in a crowded place to wait for a bus or a train or you take your seat in the airplane, and your seat partner begins to question you and your beliefs with the intent to warn you about the nastiness of hell, as if you were born yesterday and did not know the popular mythology of hell.

On the other hand — the mythology of hell which is partly retold in that beautiful poem by Ovid — demands some serious reflection.

II.

As you know, I grew up in Michigan.  What you may not know is that Hell is located in my home state.  Some people might think I refer to the winters we suffered through.  But in my opinion, winters in Vermont are closer to hell, than the winters in Michigan.  We got snow there.  It’s my tenth winter in Vermont — and I am just cold.  I like winter OK.  I love the skiing, when it not so cold you can’t step outdoors or so warm the snows all turned to slush.  When it is that rare perfect winter day, there’s nothing like it.  But as my daughter said the other day to me, so I feel — “I’m tired of winter.”

No, in Michigan we had a town called Hell.  It was a perfect excuse for cursing.

Hell, Michigan

“I need some flour.” “Go to Hell.”

“Mom, I don’t know what to do.”  — “You can go to Hell for all I care.”

“Where’s your husband?”  — “Oh, he’s gone to Hell.”

Aside from the jokes and from the name of a crazy place in Michigan, we use it to refer to extreme conditions — to the extremities of life.  Did you at one point in your earlier life say to yourself or to a friend, “It’ll be a cold day in hell when I get caught in church.”

We could use it for any such adamant position — but I use it with reference to the church because for those of us who ever said things like this — and are now here worshiping and involved in church– we have played right into the serious and ancient mythology of hell.  The ancient mythology of hell prevails through time because it speaks somehow about the strange, twisted journeys we take — to Hell and back. About the struggles we take to deal with the most important complexities of our lives.

I think there is something religious about this struggle.  While  none of us likes to find ourselves in the clangor of the storm, life without it, lacks interest.  And yet, the popular Christian mythology would have us avoid it at all costs.  And most theologies are wedded to the idea that life’s aim is guided by a singular and unified vision.  That theology then becomes, in our churches and our lives, a single, perfect moral standard to which, of course, none of us can attain.  Pessimism is the natural outcome of this strange state of affairs in the church.  Hell is its most obvious expression

Hell is one of the consequences of conceiving of moral life as an approximation to a perfect moral standard.  What this means, is that if we rethink hell, we rethink what it means to live together as a people seeking flourishing for all in right relation.

III.

In the New Testament, the word translated hell, Gehenna, is a word borrowed from the Old Testament where it referred to the valley of Hinnom.  The valley of Hinnom forms the west-south boundary of Jerusalem and has an unsavory reputation as the place of pagan cultic activity including child-sacrifice.  According to II Chronicles Kings Ahaz and Manassah offered human sacrifices here.  Because the land had a bad reputation, the city later used the gorge to burn their trash.  These two elements gave Gehenna a distinct meaning – destruction by fire.

When Jesus used this term, Gehenna, he used it always in an existential sense.  What I mean by that is that he used picture of hall to describe something of the experience we humans have as we make decisions about really important matters, as we attempt to wend our way, as people guided by an ideal, through the less than ideal conditions of life.  Because most of the time, those conditions require us to decide between potentially competing good options, it we are caught in a place of anxiety;  storm of doubt.

Sadly, by the 4th century AD, hell become a twisted tool for evangelism.

The story is probably more shrouded in the mist of ancient history that I can present here, but Origin is as good a place as any.  Origen was one of the most significant theologians and leaders of the early Christian church.  He struggled against a growing church bureaucracy that aimed to stifle disagreement, and become more and more powerful in order to compete with the empire, with which, by this time, it was in bed.  He was a creative thinker, and he wanted desperately to make the now 300 year old texts come alive for the people of his church.  He was thwarted at almost every move and eventually was declared a heretic at the Council of Constantinople.

Ironically, it was at the Council of Constantinople where Origen’s  idea of hell as a place where people could be rehabilitated, a place where the demon could be cast out, and life regained, was once and for all rejected in favor of the view of hell as a place of eternal punishment, and therefore as a tool for scaring people into the fold of the church.

What do people believe about hell today? While over 80% of Americans believe in a heaven where people live with God forever, only 63% of Americans believe in hell where people are punished eternally. But it gets more interesting. When the question becomes more pointed, “Do you think you will go to hell after death?” only 1% say they are going to hell. Nearly 2/3 of Americans believe in hell but virtually no one thinks they’re going there. Jean Paul Sartre was right; “Hell is other people.”

IV.

If hell is not an actual place, what is this journey of inner torture?

Unlike the hell of western Christianity, the ancient mythology of hell seems a fuller and more Jesus-like version.  Hell is a condition you find yourself struggling against because you have, traveled down the wrong path.  In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says:

God’s Kingdom is within you, and it is outside of you. When you know yourselves, then shall you be known, and you shall know that you are the sons of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty, and you are poverty.

Hell is not a condition that other people, or God, put you in. Hell is the poverty in which you find yourself when you forget who you are in the midst of the struggle.  The temptation, in the midst of the storm, is to let go of the tiller, for fear of going ahead.  There is something about the struggle that makes looking ahead very, very difficult, and yet, looking back only makes the situation worse.   Perhaps this explains why, even after Jesus cast out the demon and had done a kind and good thing for another human being, people feared him.  Looking ahead can have its own dangers and is itself frightening.  But there can be no doubt that William James was correct when he said that “need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void.”

William James was, at least on this reading of the void, more Jesus like than those who see Hell as the result of being in the struggle, who see the struggle as anti-thesis to Christianity.

V.

Is there a resolution to hell, and our experiences of it?

Let me turn to the Greek myth of Hell, told by the great poet, Homer.  He told the story of Persephone the goddess of the underworld. Persephone’s mother Demeter was goddess of agriculture and fertility. One day Persephone was gathering flowers in the garden when the earth opened up and Hades, god of the underworld, abducted her. Demeter desperately searched for Persephone and in the process sparked a massive global famine. Eventually Hades relented and allowed Persephone to return to Demeter, unleashing earth’s fertility once again; the movement from winter to spring.

However because Persephone had eaten the forbidden Pomegranate fruit in the underworld she was sentenced to spend several months a year in the underworld. Each year, during her absence, Demeter wept the world into winter.

How do you get out of the trap of hell?  The same way you get through a Vermont winter. You go through it.  You have a chili cook off.  You gather with friends and eat and engage in friendly competition. And before your know it, the famine is over and spring rises in the land.

Emerson once said, “When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.”  To that version of Christianity which uses hell to hold you captive in fear, stand up and pull its beard.  You will find that it comes off.  For the creative process which includes the dying and freezing of winter resolves into the re-greening of the earth which as inevitably resolves into winter again.

To go to hell and back is just exactly what we do when we’re really alive and deeply engaged in the realities of our world.

Like the persistent goddess Demeter you will find that love prevails eventually. And like the god Orpheus, you will find that the disappearance of the loved one leads not to death, but to new life.  May you have the strength and courage to go to hell and back, and in love, conquer the power of fear and judgment.

Amen.

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