1 Corinthians 3:10-15
Well friends, it’s time to talk about hell. If you are new with us this morning, we talk about hell an average of once a year here. The reason we don’t talk much about it is because frankly Jesus doesn’t talk much about it. But we are going week by week through the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren, and this week is about hell, so here we go.
As I said I have preached on hell before and if you want to dig into the topic I’d encourage you to go find those podcasts and sermons because one of the challenges of preaching about hell is that, although there’s not very much about it in the New Testament, what stories we do have are very different from one another. Which is one of the reasons that I personally do not believe in eternal conscious torment for anyone. There’s too many stories that don’t line up with each other. I do not think that a belief in hell as eternal conscious torment is part of what it means to be a Christian. You can be a very faithful Christian and not have that belief.
So since I can’t in one sermon unpack all the ways that “hell” shows up in the New Testament, what I’d really like to spend a few minutes talking about is anxiety. The highlight of our worship this morning is our celebration of Communion, so I hope that I can say some things that will prepare our hearts for that celebration.
While 99% of the Bible is about how we live here and now, many people are overwhelmingly focused on the 1% that’s about the afterlife. And the reason for that is because the stakes are very high. If eternal conscious torment is a possibility, we really should figure that out. That possibility produces a lot of anxiety. And the reason it produces so much anxiety in us, in me, is because it makes me feel uncertain about who God is.
The book of First John chapter 1 says that God is love. But if I believe in eternal conscious torment then I have to somehow work that possibility into what I think love is. Which means either I don’t really know what love is, or God’s love is different than my love. Because I could never consign someone I love to eternal conscious torment. You see how that idea of hell causes anxiety in us about who God is?
Some people are willing to live with that anxiety. They have chosen to interpret the Bible in a way that requires them to live with both the idea of a loving God and also eternal conscious torment. But it’s not necessary. We can also interpret the Bible in a way that does not cause a conflict between God’s love and God’s judgment. The judgment is in there. There is no way to get around that. However there’s a difference between judgment and punishment. There’s also a difference between punishment and discipline.
The Bible talks about God judging and God disciplining, but the word punishment shows up very rarely. Here’s what that might mean. God will judge. God had always made clear to humans what is good and what the Lord requires of us: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. And when we transgress those requirements, it’s serious. When we transgress those requirements we wound others and ourselves and because God is loving, God is not OK with our wounding each other because God does not want to see us hurt. What could result from that is discipline; the kind of discipline that a good and loving parent would use on a child.
Discipline that is designed to correct behavior and put the child back on the right path. That’s very different from punishing someone, which is just inflicting suffering in response to their undesirable behavior. Now that Sam and I are parents we are discovering that punishment is easy, but good discipline is much harder to figure out. The book of First John chapter 4 says that perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. If we believe that God judges our behavior and applies the loving discipline, then eternal conscious torment is impossible because there’s nothing redemptive about it. Nothing good comes from it. It can’t change us for the better. It’s just suffering.
There is an explanation in the Bible that involves both judgment and the image of fire, but isn’t violent, and that’s what I want to close with this morning. It is First Corinthians chapter 3. The apostle Paul is talking about the work that we do in the world and comparing it to constructing a building. Let’s read verses 10 through 15.
“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.”
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
In these verses Paul says that what we do in this world matters. It is possible for the good that we do to last into the next age. Fire is used not only to burn things up but also to solidify them and to burn out impurities. And so the question for us this morning is what are we building with our lives? Are we building with precious stones and metals, building lives of self-sacrificing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Are we building things that are good for other people? If so, those things are going to meet God’s white-hot standards of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. When God moves us all into the next age, those things will come along with us. Or are we building with crappy materials, building lives of greed and violence and religious hypocrisy, living simply to please ourselves and have a good time with our own small families? If so, those things are not going to meet God’s white-hot standard, and they will not survive to be brought with us into the next age. Imagine the pain of having God look with total clarity at your life and watching everything you spent your time on disintegrate. We don’t need eternal conscious torment. That one moment would be awful enough.
Now I don’t think this is going to be all or nothing for anyone. Hitler will have some things that survive the fire and I personally will have plenty of things that turn out to be worthless in the next age. But at least according to these verses, everyone survives. The only question is how much goodness we have to start with when the next age begins.
Do you see how that image has room for God’s judgment and discipline and some incredibly serious consequences for how we live now, but is not at all rooted in punishment and is totally consistent with an infinitely loving God? I think it’s wonderful. Terrifying, and also wonderful. It’s hopeful. It includes everyone. And it reminds me to get my act together now.
Which brings us to our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Because Jesus is our example for what it is to live a life where everything survives God’s fire of judgment. With tears and agony and blood, he was faithful every single time to God’s requirement of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. His life was not easy. And in the end his faithfulness brought about his own death. But goodness like that cannot be destroyed. It comes back. And at this meal, Christians believe that we take into ourselves the goodness of the Risen Christ. We are fortified by his body that suffered and served and his blood that carried the life of the sacred through our secular world.
We eat this meal to remind us that we can do this. We can do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God. Not perfectly, but perfection has never been what God asks of us. God is love and love covers a multitude of sins. That is what we celebrate and take into ourselves today. Freely and fully available to everyone. Which is why our ancestors in the faith insist that this is the joyful feast of the people of God, where people of all ages, races, and sexes — people in every type of body — come from the north, south, east, and west, and are met by Christ, who is the host at every table.