The Four Last Things: Hell


Sermon for December 20th, 2020


And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.

Be it unto me according to thy word.

Let it be with me according to your word.

May your word to me be fulfilled.

When our Lady responds to the Angel Gabriel she says “yes, Lord!”

I don’t understand how this is possible. I don’t know where this is going. This doesn’t make any sense; but, yes Lord. May your will for me be done. Mary said “yes.”

It could have been otherwise you know. 

When that angel came to Mary and explained to her how God was going to use her for the salvation of his people, she could have said “No.”

Not me Lord.

I’m too busy. This is too dangerous. This really isn’t a part of my five-year plan. It’s not a good time for me. I’m not interested. This will be too hard. What’s in it for me? Choose someone else.

No. Mary could have said no. God didn’t create little drones or robots. God created free human beings. And free human beings, with free-will, have the power to say “No” even to their creator. Yes, we believe that God is all powerful, but we also believe that our God is a god of love. God created us out of love; God wants us to love him in return. But in order for love to be real and meaningful, it must be freely given. God doesn’t take, and God doesn’t want prisoners. Mary is not God’s prisoner. She can turn away. She can refuse God’s offer. She can refuse God’s grace. She can say no.

But she didn’t. Thank God she didn’t. But can you imagine if she had? If Mary had refused God’s offer of salvation, where would we be? What would our hope look like? 

We owe so much to a brave little girl that had the courage and the faith to say yes to God. She is worthy of our utmost admiration and respect for her role in our salvation.

And yet, each and every one of us is faced with a similar dilemma to the one Mary was faced with. No, we don’t all encounter angels in quite the same way, and we haven’t all been asked to bear our Lord into the world in the way she did. Her role in that is unique. But we are all faced with the choice of whether to say “yes” or “no” to God’s salvation. There are so many moments in our lives when God offers us grace and forgiveness. Sometimes they are big moments; sometimes they may seem completely insignificant; but time and time again God offers us grace and we have the choice to say yes to it…or no.

Those who hunger and thirst for God’s grace; those who long for salvation, are unlikely to say no to it when it is offered. Those that are self-satisfied and filled with their own conceit, those that are mighty in their own eyes, the self-righteous and those who don’t long for God, well it is quite possible that they won’t recognize what is being offered them and turn away. We all have the power to turn away from God.

The popular image of hell, is of a place where God sends you for being bad. Lakes of fire and devils with pitchforks and pointy tails. Like popular images of heaven, this is far too simplistic and based on very little scripture and actual church teaching. In our scriptures, when Jesus uses the word “hell” the word he is really using is an Aramaic word “Gehenna.” Gehenna means the valley of Hinom, which is a valley just outside of Jerusalem, where scripture tells us that long before the time of Jesus, children were sacrificed and slaughtered. People, even kings, were worshipping other Gods, and this worship led them to sacrifice their own children. Jesus uses Gehenna, whenever he wants to talk about the opposite of God’s kingdom. And yes, he uses the images of fires in Gehenna, because that is how those children were sacrificed, by fire. But here is the question: who started those fires in Gehenna? It wasn’t God that lit those fires in Gehenna, it was man. Hell is something we created by trying to worship false Gods. Hell was the work of our own hands. Hell was a choice that we made.

Maybe you think it is unlikely that people would actually choose hell. I’m not so sure. When I look at history, and when I look around even now, I see plenty of evidence of people choosing their own destruction. It seems hard to believe that people would actually say No to God, but the evidence would indicate that they do. I don’t want to believe in hell, but much like heaven, I see glimpses of it all the time. The hell that I see though, is not something that God has imposed upon us; it isn’t God being vengeful towards us; it is simply the natural result of our turning away from the source of all life. If you choose to walk away from the light, you can’t be angry at the darkness. 

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, and in conclusion of my series on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell, we come to the subject that nobody wants to talk about: hell. We really don’t like talking about or thinking about hell. People will say that they don’t believe in a God that would allow hell to exist, but you see without at least the possibility of hell, without the possibility of turning away or saying NO to God, then a YES to God could have no meaning. Love is meaningless unless it is freely given. The truth is, what I think disturbs us the most about hell, is that deep down we know that it isn’t God’s choice, it’s ours. Hell is a choice that we make. 

There was a very famous French Jesuit priest in the 20th century named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote in the conclusion to his book the Divine Milieu:

You have told me, O God, to believe in hell. But you have forbidden me to hold with absolute certainty that any single man has been damned. I shall therefore make no attempt to consider the damned here, nor even to discover-by whatsoever means-whether there are any. 

The words of scripture, the words of our Lord and a faith in the free-will of God’s created children, bind us to a belief in the existence of hell, but we needn’t speculate upon its population. Nor should we speculate on who walks its lonely streets. The population could be zero for all that we know. People aren’t bound to say no to God any more than they are bound to say yes. Perhaps when the true light of God is revealed, no one will choose to walk away from it. Time will tell. 

Our concern, must be to simply show the world what “Yes” looks like. What does it look like to seek God above all things? What does it look like to be humble and lowly? What does it look like to follow God even when you don’t know where he is leading you? What does it look like to invite and allow God’s grace to transform you and your life? Well, we have seen what it looks like. It looks like a little girl talking to a mighty angel and saying “be it unto me according to thy word.” That is what not looks like to say yes to God. 

Very often you will see the Virgin Mary depicted slamming her foot down on the head of a serpent. That is the power of saying yes to God: it casts the powers of hell right down under your feet.