Sunday, December 20, 2015

Advent IV: hell

Almighty, eternal, and merciful God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: we pray that as we meditate upon your Word you will lead us deeper into all truth that we may better know and do your will and grow in holiness day by day. Amen

Today is the final Sunday of Advent. This means that it the last of our series of sermons looking at what are called the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. And although it may seem somewhat grim to speak of such things this close to Christmas, this means that today we turn our attention to the topic of hell.

Perhaps it is necessary that we do so. At a function recently I met a person who over the first course decided they would like to discuss theological matters – an occupational hazard for a priest! So over the soup they told me: 'I don't believe in hell. Why would a merciful God create such a place or send anyone there?'

It is a question I have been asked before; and in an age when people's thinking have been more formed by the secular media and Hollywood's output on on television and cinema screens, perhaps not a surprising one. So let us consider it.
But before we consider why God would do such a thing, let us first consider whether or not he has. Does hell exist? And the answer to that is a very firm 'yes.' And we know this because Jesus taught us that it does. And that is why the Church has always taught that hell is real, a place for those who rebel against God.

There is another issue that is related to this. And it goes something like this: 'yes, hell exists; we cannot deny that it does, or else Christ would not have warned us against it. But it is empty! There is no one in it! For God loves his children so much that he sends no one there.' This is a suggestion that has been made by more than one theologian in modern times. And again it is an idea that is false. Not only is hell real but people do indeed go there. And we know this because Christ himself told us that they do. We need only look to the parable of Dives and Lazarus, where the rich man who neglected his poor neighbour in this life is in hell in the next; and also the prophecy/parable of the sheep and the goats where Jesus speaks of his own second coming and separating one from the other, welcoming the faithful into his kingdom, and the wicked going to eternal punishment.

So hell is not something that man for some perverse reason or other invented to frighten people; it was something that Christ taught us about and warned us against. Because of that it is something that we can not have any doubts about; and the Church, who was commanded by Jesus to teach all nations all that he had commanded them too, must also teach people of hell, now, and always, unto the end of the ages.

But knowing that it exists does not necessarily tell us why it exists. Perhaps to answer that, we should look at the matter from the opposite direction and instead ask the question that no one seems to ask: why heaven? The person who says they do not believe in hell are quite happy to believe in heaven. But who is heaven for? It is the place that God created us to be; but God forces nothing upon us. We have free-will. And just as our first parents through the misuse of their free-will lost the paradise that was Eden, so too may we lose the paradise that is heaven if we misuse our free-will by being disobedient to God and sinning.

Heaven is the place for those who love God. And, as Christ tells us, those who love God are those who know and do his will. So how can those who commit serious sin, freely, knowingly. and deliberately, without any sorrow at what they do, be said to love God? More, if they will not trust in his mercy and ask his forgiveness, if they will not do as Christ asked and repent and believe in his good news, how can they be said to love God? The merciful God the person who told me they did not believe in hell spoke of will grant this mercy to all who ask; but he will not force it upon them. And neither will he force into to heaven to dwell in his presence for all eternity those who refuse to love him.

They have rejected God and so have rejected heaven. But God has created them with an immortal soul and he will not annihilate them. What then is to become of them if they will not enter into heaven? They must go somewhere; and that somewhere is hell. And they go there not because God is without mercy and condemns them in spite of their begging him for forgiveness; they go there because they will not repent and a merciful God respects their freely made decision to reject him. Hell is their choice.

Advent is the time when we remember that Christ came into the world to show us how we may best avoid making such a choice, so that all who listen to him may instead have eternal joy with him in heaven. I pray that all here will choose to listen to him.


To the Almighty and Eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to him be all honour and glory, now and unto the ages of ages: Amen. 

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