Sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Advent (15 December 2013) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Advent (15 December 2013) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

The Very Reverend David Ison discusses hell and says 'God is not Mr Nice or Mr Nasty - God is Mr Love.'

Our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 11.29). You can tell your friends when you go home that it’s been hell with the Dean at St Paul’s this morning…

Do you ever think about hell? Do you even use the word? It’s become almost a caricature: the medieval nightmares of a place of endless torment presided over by horrible demons have been tamed by our consumer society as battery-powered flashing red tridents, devil masks and stick-on forked tails.

But however we might try to laugh it off, hell is a reality for many: hell, like heaven, is all around us. We can begin to get glimpses of heaven here on earth; but we see plenty of what we might call hell on earth. Many of our fellow human beings already suffer its torments. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s play ‘Huis Clos’ includes the famous line, ‘Hell is other people’, suggesting how we manipulate and use others: human trafficking, slavery, abuse of all kinds are bits of hell made real in people’s lives. But a Christian definition of hell is that it means being in a state of self-inflicted separation from God: to turn your back on the source of love and light in this world means to be ultimately alone, without friendship, love or hope.

A wonderful Christian friend of mine – let’s call her Liz – has four children whom she loves dearly. The older three are active Christians who have a strong relationship with God. Her youngest child is a lovely person, but has no particular Christian commitment, which means in the teaching of her local church that she’s destined for hell. Liz said to me once that she prays to God that, if her daughter goes to hell, then she wants to be in hell with her, because she loves her so much. She does not want her to be alone.

The Last Judgement in the New Testament is an either-or choice, a final sentence: eternal life or eternal death. The question then is: what does eternal death really mean? Is it annihilation, the final end of a person? Or, if the reward of the righteous is eternal bliss, then should not the reward of the ungodly be eternal pain? Ideas about the Last Judgement changed in tone over the centuries: a judgement to decide who deserves Life and who deserves Death becomes a Judgement between bliss and torment, because every soul was seen as immortal and so will live for ever, in heaven or hell. Indeed, many theologians like Aquinas saw the bliss of the righteous being enhanced by the suffering of the unrighteous for their evil deeds, because of the joy of knowing that God’s justice has been upheld.

Many people recoil from this idea of a God of love inflicting endless torment on people: surely no one can deserve endless torment, whatever they’ve done in this relatively short life?

It’s important to note that the idea of eternal torment in hell for sinners hardly features in the Bible, and is only mentioned in passing in two parables by Jesus. There’s something called ‘the second death’ in the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible, when all evil creatures and people are thrown into a lake of fire. This isn’t portrayed in the book though as a place of torment; the lake of fire is the symbol for how the evil and impurity in us and the world will be burnt up, in the way that metal is refined by being heated so that its impurities burn away. In this picture, hell isn’t a state of torment, but a one-off event which is soon over; because nothing evil can survive in the kingdom of God.

The reason for this biblical disinterest in hell is that the important question which Jesus asks so strongly to those around him, and to us, is not, ‘What will happen to me and to other people when we die?’ but, ‘Will you turn to God and do God’s will now, because you might die at any moment?’ In other words, hell is about now, not about the future; it’s about us, not about them; it’s whetherwewill choose God now, not about what choices other people make.

A few years ago my wife and I went to visit our daughter in Cyprus, and visited an ancient church, the walls of which were covered with painted religious pictures. I found one of them particularly moving: it was a picture of a figure with outstretched arms reaching down into darkness, towards a group of miserable people who were stretching up their arms pleading for help, and he was pulling them up into the light. In the Eastern Christian tradition, the picture of Christ going into hell to rescue those who cry out to him is a very strong one, a picture which my friend Liz is living out in her own life: the power of love to break down the gates even of hell, and bring people back into relationship with God.

Many religious people including Christians have a dis-integrated approach to God. We project onto God our own experience of a punishing or violent father or authority figure. When we are good, then God is loving; when we do wrong, God is angry. God is Mr Nice and Mr Nasty, and we’d better watch out that we don’t make him angry and end up in hell.

But God is not Mr Nice or Mr Nasty - God is Mr Love.

In the late 600s in Iraq there was a Arab Christian hermit called Isaac of Syria or Isaac of Nineveh who wrote these words, later echoed by St Theresa of Lisieux: ‘As is a grain of sand weighed against a large amount of gold, so in God is the demand for judgement weighed against his compassion. As a handful of sand in the boundless ocean, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with God’s providence and mercy. As a gushing spring of water cannot be stopped up with a handful of dust, so the Creator’s compassion cannot be conquered by the wickedness of his creatures.’

This is the fire of the love of God: the consuming fire of Sinai which the author of Hebrews refers to, the burning lake of fire which is God’s love consuming all that is evil in us. What we call ‘the wrath of God’ is that purifying aspect of his love, the love which burns so brightly for us that it will not rest content until our sins and failings are burned away.

And how does Isaac of Nineveh speak of hell? This is what he says: ‘Those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love…. Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments…. It is absurd to suppose that sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love… is offered impartially. But by its very power it... torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful… That is what the torment of hell is in my opinion – remorse.’

When you have betrayed the love of a wife, a lover, a parent, child or friend: how do you feel when they keep coming back to love you and remind you of what you’ve done, but have yet to acknowledge to them? The fire of the love of God burns in heaven and in hell for us all, and yet we so often betray God: the question, as Jesus reminds us, is how we ourselves will respond to the fire of God’s love – here and now.

Do we say yes to God in Jesus Christ, yes to facing up to our sins and despair and betrayals, in the sure hope that God will love and hold us and lead us through the pain of remorse into the joy of eternal life?

Or do we run from the light and truth of God’s fire of love, hiding our heads in the sand like an ostrich while the love of God beats down upon us without ceasing?

God’s love in my friend Liz will take her to be in with her child even in hell. Christ loves no less: he breaks down the gates of hell and comes with outstretched arm to all, for no one is beyond the reach of the fire of the love of God. Not even in hell.