Tuesday, July 15, 2014

My Theology of Hell (I Think)

Yesterday I wrote about the foolishness of this Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), questioning why any farmer would wait until the harvest to separate the wheat and weeds. It’s time consuming. It limits the yield of your harvest. It’s better to eradicate the weeds as early in the growing process as possible. The point of the parable, therefore, is that the only “farmer” who would do that is God. But that leaves us with a big, tough question: why would God do that?

I’m especially fond of what Steve Pankey wrote yesterday because, like him, I try my best to avoid allegory when interpreting parables. Usually, when I try to make everything in a parable represent something in real life, the image breaks down or fails to reflect the nuances of the story. Instead, I like to treat parables as brain teasers that leave you wondering and searching for answers rather than knowing exactly what is being said. (Unfortunately?) Jesus doesn’t give us that chance because, for the second week in a row, he gives us his own allegorical interpretation of the parable at hand: “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil…” Don’t worry, however, as Jesus’ explanation leaves us with as many questions as answers.

Jesus declares, “the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.” Wait, what? The end of the age I understand. Weeds in the hellfire. Wheat in the kingdom’s silos. Actually, I’m not sure I understand the last judgment, but it’s a fairly familiar image to me. But angels? It’s times like this when I wish I understood a lot more about the eschatology of Second Temple Judaism and its first-century Palestinian variants. Maybe a later post will delve into the intricacies of the role angels play in eschatology, but, for now, let’s stick with wheat and weeds, heaven and hell.

Who is hell for? What purpose does it fill? This is one of many sayings of Jesus that divide up the afterlife into a pleasant kingdom experience we call “heaven” and a miserable torturous experience we call “hell.” That each member of humanity is destined for one or the other seems to be Jesus’ understanding and expectation. But why? What purpose does hell serve? Does the divine economy of justice depend upon some people suffering for all eternity because of their sins? Not if you believe in the startling grace that is at the heart of Christianity. Sure, maybe the abstract concept of punishment needs to exist so that the reversed consequences of our brokenness can stand in our minds as God’s clear victory, but we don’t really need hell, do we?

Actually, I think we do—or at least some of us do. In my mind, the part of the parable that governs the whole image is 13:29-30a. When asked by his servants whether they should go ahead and pull up the weeds (the worldly logical approach), the master replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” That’s the real sticking point here. That’s the real kernel of the parable. That’s the point at which the audience scratched their heads and said, “Wait, what?” And that’s the part we’re supposed to focus on.

Why doesn’t God rid the world of “bad people?” Why doesn’t he command that all of us “good people” build a flotilla of arks so that he can flood the whole earth and start over as he did in Genesis? Well, because he promised not to, which is to say that we recognize that God has the power and the justification to do just that but still chooses not to. The world is full of good people and bad people. And sometimes the good people feel outnumbered. Sometimes the oppressed ask why God doesn’t just come in and pluck their enemies off the face of the earth. Sometimes those who suffer wonder why God doesn’t just strike their enemies down with a plague or a lightning bolt. But wondering and asking and praying and hoping won’t make it so. Too often, justice isn’t to be found in this world—only in the next.

All of us depend upon God’s promise that one day everything will be made right. All suffering will cease. The prisoners will be set free. The lowly will be lifted up, and the mighty will be pulled down. We look for that day, but we know that we have to wait until “the end of the age” for it to happen. And so we need hell—at least the concept of hell. We need to know that someday oppression itself will be imprisoned. We need to know that torture itself will be tortured. Does God need it to work that way? I don’t think so—otherwise he’d go ahead and pull those weeds out. But those who will live their entire lives under the threat of evil must cling to the hope that, in the next life, those weeds will be thrown into the fiery furnace.

This parable isn’t simply about good people going to heaven and bad people going to hell. It’s a promise that, even though bad and good dwell together in this age, in the next all will be made right. How will that work? Will the angels of God toss the wicked, unrepentant sinners into a giant furnace of everlasting torment? Maybe. But the specific destination isn’t as important as the promise. As the parable is told, no one is surprised that the weeds are thrown away. It’s the growing together that baffles us all.

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