We are in the liturgical season in which we look backward to the first coming of Christ and forward to his second coming. His second coming will herald the time of the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Despite this being Rose Sunday, I am going to speak to you today on the latter. When Fr Dan, Fr Sean, Fr Mark and I were figuring out when and on what we were going to preach in Advent, I put in my bid for this topic. They seemed pleased to give me Hell.
The Church at all times and places has affirmed the reality of hell. It would be hard not to affirm it since it is abundantly attested by our Lord. However, while the scriptures are certainly not silent about the reality of Hell, they can be rather allusive. I think that speculation about Hell, particularly those that focus on St John’s Apocalypse, can be a rabbit hole that can suck in the energies of certain types of people (maybe like me?) who could better spend them in more productive ways. The paucity of details of the damned may be a discouragement against such speculation.
My first observation is that Hell is where the Devil wants you to be and that we’re to strive against him and all his works, as this passage from Ephesians indicates:
Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.†
Jesus usually references Hell obliquely, in parables, contrasting it with the Kingdom of God. At one point he is describing the kingdom of heaven to his followers and he compares it to a net tossed into the sea that catches some of every kind with the good stored up and the bad thrown away (Matt 13:49-50):
So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just. And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Jesus uses hell as a warning when he urges his disciples to watch not just their actions but also their words and hearts (Matt 5:21-22):
Ye have heard that it was said of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment; But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
The most direct thing he says, though still in something of a parable, is when he speaks for the Son of man sitting on the throne of his glory—a close identification to be sure. He has the sheep on his right hand side and the goats on his left. He bids the former to inherit the kingdom prepared for them but condemns the latter (who neither fed him, visited him, housed him or clothed him) with the words (Matt 25:45-46):
Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels…Forasmuch as you did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
There is something similar in Mark where Jesus advises (Mark 9:43-48):
And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
So what is obvious from these passages is that our God, King and Savior believes that Hell:
is a place of torment
is where those unworthy of the kingdom of heaven find themselves
And He is certainly indicating that the loss of a limb—or even one’s life on earth—is not worth comparing to the wonders that abound in Heaven or the deprivations that await one in Hell.
Our King James Version indicates that Hell is “eternal”. But the underlying Greek word for eternal in this case is aion which means an indefinite age or period of time. When Jerome wrote the Vulgate, he translated that as eternal (aeternam). All the Latin fathers describe hell as eternal (when they describe hell) while the Greeks Fathers, as a group, are much more nuanced about the temporality of hell since they had access to the original language.
I have found CS Lewis’ writings on hell to be quite compelling. Clive Staples is perhaps the closest that we Anglicans have to a canonized saint of the 20th century—and I don’t say that lightly. What we believe about mankind in hell must be relative to what we believe about what God intends for us. Lewis describes hell as a mercy of God and I’d like to explain how it is possible to consider hell a mercy. This is important so I’m going to try to go slowly and illuminate a few things by way of illustration. I want to emphasize three points.
The first premise is that God is good and wants us to be with Him.
Genesis 1:31 His creation—and this includes us—is declared by Him to be very good.
2 Peter 3:9 He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
1 Timothy 2:4 God will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
1 Timothy 1:15 This is a true saying and worth of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
1 Corinthians 15:22 All will be made alive in Christ
Colossians 1:19-20 It pleased the Father that in [Jesus Christ, the Word of God] should all fullness dwell; and, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him…whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.
Philippians 2:10-11 At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
1 John 2:1-2 If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the Propitiation for our sins.
John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
The second point is that, while God has all power (omnipotence), He does not want slaves or automata but rather children who will freely choose to grow into His goodness so that they may know Him face to face even as He knows them (1 Corinthians 13:12). To this end, He restricts Himself so that we are not overwhelmed or compelled to follow Him. This limitation or self-abnegation of God’s power is what creates space in His creation for the possibility of Hell. Our freedom and the freedom of the angels—including the fallen ones—is real. We can choose to reject the way of God.
My last point of emphasis regards the nature of evil. Evil does not have an independent existence. It is, instead, parasitic. Something has to first exist for an act of evil to erase it. Evil is the negation of good. That’s what evil is. And that’s what advocates of evil do. The Devil cannot create and, since he chooses not to fabricate and build, he can only mar. He can bring disorder to order but he cannot annihilate existence. If he could, he would vaporize, atomize, and abolish the whole creation. But he just wasn’t made to wield that kind of power. What potency he does have he uses to influence the creation for the worst. Where humans are concerned, his influence (and those of his legion of followers) is always toward murder and suicide. In the creation, while violent weather, catastrophic tectonic motions, falling meteors and tsunamis may not all be Satan’s doing, there is a respectable school of thought within Christendom that says he does have something to do with it. How this happens is (to me at least) a mystery.
Bringing these things together gets us to the Lewis’ conception of Hell as a mercy of God. Once a being begins to practice evil for its own sake, in direct opposition to the God Who is Good, there would be no limit to his spiritual decay unless God imposed one. Evil cannot stop itself. The boundary beyond which a creature is not allowed to get worse we call hell. C.S. Lewis said that the doors of hell are locked from the inside. Those in hell don’t demand forgiveness—God has forgiven them already; their sins taken away via the death, Resurrection, and Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ. But to leave hell and to accept forgiveness they would also need to accept that Lordship:
The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words ‘Better to reign in hell that serve in heaven.’ There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery.
The damned essentially try to demand that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.
There may come a time—and I believe Hell exists within the temporal creation—when all those in hell repent and accept the forgiveness freely offered by the Lord Jesus. However, the Church has not been vouchsafed with the revelation that this must come to pass. The possibility exists that the damned will cling to their rebellion forever, no matter how foolish or how horrible it seems. I do believe that it is acceptable to hope for and pray that all come to the beatific vision.
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.†
 “The name Gehenna comes from a deep narrow ravine south of Jerusalem where some Hebrew parents actually sacrificed their children to the Ammonite god, Molech, during the time of the kings (II Kin. 16;3; II Chron. 28:1-3; cf. Lev. 18:21; I Kin. 11:5,7,33). This pagan deity is also referred to as Malcham, Milcom, and Moloch…This valley later served as the city dump and, because there was continual burning of refuse there, it became a graphic symbol of the place of punishment for the wicked. It was named the “Valley of Hinnom,” which translated into Greek becomes Gehenna. The passages where the word is found in the New Testament plainly show that it was a commonly used expression for Hell by that time. The word is found twelve times in the Scriptures, being used eleven times by the Lord Jesus and once by James.” W.E. Bedore 2007, https://www.bereanbiblesociety.org/hell-sheol-hades-paradise-and-the-grave/