Tile: Angels and hell
Texts: Rom 8:26-39; Matt 13:31-33, 44-52
Date: July 24, 2011
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
I used to live in a house in Durham, in Walltown, where we tried to create an environment of hospitality, of letting needy people stay with us, of hosting meals throughout the week for people in our community, and of reading the bible with our neighbors.
One evening Michael joined us. He was new to the neighborhood. I can’t remember which Scripture we were studying that evening, but I do remember the topic that dominated our discussion that week: hell, and we quickly started using some of the language from Matthew 13, the passage that Elaine just read—where Jesus mentions “the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 50). Jesus sets up a fiery furnace as the flipside, the underside, of the kingdom of heaven.
As we argued about the reality of hell and decided who would be there “at the end of the age” (v. 49), Michael sat quietly on the sofa. I couldn’t tell if he was uninterested or annoyed.
Finally he leaned forward in his chair and spoke up. “Hey, I’ve been there.” All of us went silent and looked at him, curiously. He saw the questions on our faces and continued: “That’s where I grew up—in hell. You don’t know nothin’ about hell. I’ll tell you about this place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Michael had our undivided attention. He went on to tell us about what it was like to grow up in a house of prostitution, an urban brothel. We heard the sounds and sights of hell echo through his memories of childhood: the gnashing teeth of an addict’s withdrawals, and the cries of weeping women.
He told us about the terror, as a child, of waking up in the middle of the night and seeing a dead man lying on the floor next to him, the victim of a drug overdose. “That’s hell,” Michael told us. That day I learned that the flames of hell—“the furnace of fire,” as Jesus says in our passage from Matthew—this fire burns people in the land of the living. For many, hell is a place on earth.
Just turn your eyes for a moment to East Africa, where people have been plagued by a severe drought, intense heat, and scarce water and food. One reporter even used the language of hell to describe what she saw: Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya, just across the boarder from Somalia, 19 square miles filled with close to half a million starved and dying people, with masses still flowing into the camp. It is, the reporter said, “a vision of hell.”[i]
After the gunman in Norway killed over 80 people at a youth camp this week, the Prime Minister, who spent his younger years at the camp, mourned and said: “my youth paradise, and now it’s been changed to hell.”[ii] Hell, it seems, is everywhere these days.
Is there good news that can reach even into the depths of hell?—that can reach into the lives of people like Michael in Durham and the masses in Dadaab and those affected by the violence in Norway, and all the others around the world who live in hell, hell on earth?
I find hope when I get to a line in the middle of the Apostles’ Creed, that ancient Christian declaration of faith. Take your hymnals and turn to the back, to # 712: that’s where we can find the Apostle’s Creed. And let’s say it together: “I believe in God, the Father almighty…”
I find hope in the middle, when we confess that Jesus “descended to the dead.” In his death, Jesus plunges into the hidden recesses of the unholy, of the lifeless, the domain of evil. Jesus makes himself present to those who know the furnace of fire, the outer darkness, the places of weeping and gnashing of teeth. As the apostle Paul says in today’s passage from Romans:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39)
God’s love goes all the way down, Paul says. Jesus’ pilgrimage into the depths of the dead reveals the yearning of God’s love, the gnawing ache within the heart of God when the Lover is separated from the beloved, when the creature is torn away from the Creator—“neither death, nor life…nor height, nor depth…will be able to separate us from the love of God.” Not even the angles, Paul says, which makes me wonder about the angels Jesus talks about in Matthew 13. It’s the angels, after all, who throw the unrighteous into the fire:
The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous [Jesus says] and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 13:49-50)
Yet, as Paul says, “neither death, nor life, nor angels… shall separate us from the love of God.” Not even the angels, because nothing will stop the abundant love of Jesus. Because Jesus descended to the dead: the life of the risen Christ is an overflow of love that seeps through every border, even between heaven and hell. The God of life became present among the prisoners of death. Now even the angels, the gatekeepers of heaven and hell, cannot restrict the reconciling love of Christ, God’s eternal ministry of companionship, of being present to those who have been laid low.
Because Jesus descended to the dead, I have hope that he also visits those who find themselves living in hell on earth—people like Michael, who cannot forget being thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. When we confess, in the Apostles’ Creed, that Jesus went to the dead, we proclaim that the agony of hell is not foreign territory for God; that the Holy Spirit does not abandon the abandoned; and that Jesus Christ is a companion to the forsaken.
As Mennonites, we confess our faith not just with our mouths, but also with our lives. Jesus invites us into his way of love, a love that descends to the tormented. When the eternal love of Jesus flows through us, we find ourselves caught up in this same movement. The Holy Spirit invites us to follow in the way of Jesus, the One who went into the abyss to reveal the good news of God’s love for the world (1 Peter 3:19, 4:6).
Hell has an address in our neighborhoods and in our cities, at least that’s what I learned from Michael, and it’s what we hear and see as people describe violence and devastation throughout the world—it’s hell on earth.
To walk with Jesus is to find the places on earth where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, and to wait with those in the abyss of hell for the Holy Spirit to bring God’s comfort. Jesus descended to the dead; so the question for us, his followers, is: will we join him?