Jesus and Hell by Rev. Leah D. Rosso

Jonah 4; Luke 16:19-31

There are so many jokes about heaven and hell. Mark Twain once wrote that we would like heaven for the climate and hell for the company. It’s an easy thing to make fun of I think precise-ly because it’s so uncomfortable to talk about. A hundred years ago preachers talked about hell on a daily basis— and there are still some today who feel the need to decide for themselves who is going where. But ”hell” as a concept of God’s punishment is a fairly new notion to our faith. Look in the Bible and you won’t find it in very many places. The Hebrew people in the Old Testament had a notion of Sheol-- the place of the dead where we all go until God's judgment day-- but a dichotomy of heaven and hell-- of there being two different places where we are sent to eternally-- is something that was just starting to get traction in Jesus' day.

The Pharisees, or religious leaders of Jesus' day, thought they had figured it out. It seemed ob-vious to them that if you were sick, then it was a sign of God's judgment upon you. If you were paralyzed or poor, then these were signs of your sin coming to the surface. So, if we follow their logic, the people that would logically be going to a place like hell in the afterlife, were those that were already witnesses of God's judgment on earth. The rich, the healthy, the wise, the popular-- well these were all signs of God's favor; of God's blessing.

This was not Jesus' theology. It is why he and the Pharisees have such a hard time understand-ing each other. They can't figure out why he insists on hanging out with people who are poor; healing people who are ill or wounded; feeding people who were hungry. Those people, the Pharisees thought, were the unrighteous. And there was no reason to waste time getting to know them. Jesus, however, saw things very differently. For the most part, he spent his time with those who were willing to welcome him-- people who were in pain; people who were admittedly broken; people who weren't even trying to pretend they had it all together. But when he saw that the behavior and beliefs of the religious leaders were hurting the people, he didn't hesitate to speak up.

Which is where we get this story of the rich man and Lazarus. Taken out of context, it is an odd story without much grace in it at all. But back up a bit and look at the stories around this one, and things begin to fit into place. Just a chapter before Jesus has been sharing stories of the lost who have been found-- the widow who lost her coin; the shepherd who lost his sheep; the father whose son ran off and then returned with remorse asking for forgiveness. Grace abounds in these passages. God's love is abundant and we are told that God rejoices whenever anyone who as strayed from God comes back. Then Jesus' tone switches and he begins to relay stories about rich people and Luke points out that the Pharisees love money and get upset by Jesus' stories. And then he tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus. If you have seen A Christmas Carol or know the story of Robinhood; if you have an immigrant story from your family of coming to America with nothing and making a life for your family; if you are someone who cheers for the underdog just because they are the underdog, than you are familiar with the plot line of this story. It's not very difficult for us to follow where Luke is going, especially when the poor man who has nothing gets a name-- telling us he's going to be important; and the rich man who has everything wealth can buy, is only known as the rich man.

We have this story in our collective consciousness as Americans. There’s something we love about the guy at the bottom ending up on top. But on a basic level, most of us still live as though this is true. When we become ill or paralyzed or poor we ask God “why?” as though God is pun-ishing us. And most of us are not praying to become poorer with the idea that riches will corrupt us. We would rather think that we are smarter than that. So while the idea of the rich man being the one who goes to hell rather than the poor man, is not a complete surprise to us, it’s still quite unsettling. And it would've been shocking for the Pharisees. They believe in one dichotomy-- that your life here on earth reflects what God thinks of you and that will be reflected after death as well. So Jesus comes up with this parable of the rich man and Lazarus— he uses the opposite dichotomy to flip that notion on its head. Jesus is not so much telling us about who is going to hell as much as he is telling us who isn't going. Jesus is trying to debunk the bad theology that keep the Pharisees from reaching out to their neighbor. He is trying to challenge their notion of who God favors and how we can tell.

Hundreds of years earlier, God was challenging Jonah in the same way. Jonah is the guy who was called to Ninevah to preach to the people so that they could repent and be saved by God. But Jonah runs in the opposite direction (which we all do sometimes) and ends up on a ship headed directly away from Ninevah. Through a series of events, Jonah knows that God is angry with him for running away and he offers to be thrown off of the ship in order to save those on board. He gets swallowed by a big fish, spit out on shore, and eventually does go to preach to the people of Ninevah, only to find out that they are willing to turn their lives around and God saves them. So what does Jonah do when he realizes God is going to save them from being destroyed? Jonah tells God this is exactly why he didn't want to preach to them to begin with. They are his enemies! He doesn't want them saved. He wants them to be destroyed-- to be wiped from the face of the earth. And God chastises him, saying that they too were created by God, and God has every right to care for them.

What do we do with this God who constantly challenges us to forgive our enemies? To forgive our neighbor's seventy times seven times? What do we do with Jesus who refuses to let us get away with condemning people we don't even know?

Jonah wanted his enemies to be left out of God's grace, and God welcomed them in. The Phari-sees believed that anyone who suffered from pain or illness or poverty was living out God's judgment already and doomed to hell and Jesus flipped that notion upside down. So the question becomes, who is it that we are so inclined to leave out of the grace of God? Who do we think is beyond God’s grace in this world and the next? People of other religions? Atheists? People who lean to one political side or another? Terrorists? Drug dealers? What would Jesus say to our ideas of who is going to hell? And why do we so often find ourselves sitting under a bush like Jonah, sulking about who God chooses to love? Is God’s grace so offensive?

If you're a literalist, than this story from Luke is pretty clear about what Jesus thinks about hell. This story couldn’t be any clearer that rich people who put up divides between themselves and poor people are the ones going to hell. And when I look at our world and see how brilliantly this is being done, I think we can definitely make the case that when we put up walls — real or fig-urative— that we have already created hell on earth. But as for a literal hell, I think Jesus really leaves it open. In this parable he does what Jesus does best-- which is to flip our notions of who is righteous and who isn't upside down.

There is a passage of Scripture from the Gospel of John that we say at the beginning of every funeral. "Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. I died and behold I am alive forevermore, and I hold the keys of hell and death. Because I live, you shall live also.”

I used to inwardly cringe to state that metaphor of Jesus holding the keys to hell and death. But over the years as I have heard people proclaim who should or shouldn’t be going to hell, I have found comfort in thinking about Jesus holding those keys. For there’s no one I’d rather have holding them. While Jesus hung on a cross, during his own execution, he forgave those who called him enemy. Which means that God forgave the people who killed God’s own son. That is abundant grace. God’s ability to love and forgive far surpasses my own. That’s grace I can count on.