All heaven will break out

Here is the sermon that I croaked this morning. Not having much voice, I’ve no idea whether people could hear it or not. The snuffling of the mancold which I’ve been afflicted with prompted me to dip into the file of “old sermons about the rich man and lazarus” and pull this one out. Last seen in B of A three years ago.

I used to work with someone who had a PhD in Hell.

This always impressed me.

Well, to be strictly accurate, I think that it was all about the effect that different forms of belief in hell make to the way Christian people go about caring for one another. And very interesting that idea is too. For there are many different ways of understanding the afterlife that are current in the church today. Indeed, where two or three Christians gather together, you are likely to find two or three different understandings of hell.
Do you want to know what the truth about hell is? Want to know what the Bible really says about hell?
Well, too bad – for there are as many ways of understanding the afterlife in the Bible as there are ways of understanding it now. You won’t get a definitive answer out of me about hell this morning – there isn’t one, but I am going to be thinking about some of the ways of thinking about the afterlife.

The parable that Luke puts on Jesus’s lips this morning is, to say the least, a rather odd one. I’ve preached about the rich man before. I’ve preached about Lazarus before. I’ve preached, in the context of this parable about Abraham and Moses before. This morning, I want to talk about hell.

The first thing to note about this morning’s gospel reading is that there is a clash of cultures going on. Moses and Abraham appear from the mythic era of Judaism. And Hades appears from the myths of Greece. And that, to say the least, is very odd indeed.
You can see in this story, different worlds colliding. Different ways of thinking about eternal life colliding. Different ways of thinking about punishment, reward, death and hell are all muddled together in this story and it would take quite a while to sort them all out.
Hades is the surprise, of course. Hades is the place in Greek myth ruled over by Hades himself. It is the place of punishment. It is a place that people were frightened of. And it is a place which does not fit terribly well into Jewish thinking.

You have to remember that questions about the afterlife were some of the key questions of the time – the Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed about the afterlife. The Pharisees believed in life after death and the Sadducees did not. [And you all know my joke about the Sadducees – they didn’t believe in life after death – that is why they were sad, you see].

The point is, that people were forming new ideas – borrowing a bit of Greek myth from here, a bit of Jewish myth from there and muddling it up together in a hodge-podge of spirituality. Something similar is going on in our own time. Some people call it New Age thinking, but I am not sure whether there is anything new about it at all. Do it yourself spirituality has been around for a good long time and like most things that have the words “do it yourself” attached to them, can be good or can be awful.

However, back to hell. Let us not be distracted from hell. In referring to the place of the dead as Hades, Luke’s Jesus is making a rather clever point. For the people the would have known something that most of us sitting here do not know – that Hades, the personification of the ruler of the netherworld in the Greek myths – he was called, “the Rich one”. In the myths, he owns the riches of the world.

This is very different to the idea from Jewish life that all bounty comes from God – who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. It is not Death who owns the money for the Jews, money and life go together.

The gospel reading has Jesus playing around with some of these ideas. I have a suspicion that his story would have satisfied neither Pharisee nor Sadducee. He may be teasing one lot about the idea of a place of punishment. He might be teasing the other lot about their own faith in being the children of Abraham living under the law of Moses.

And he teases them all with a story which says – life as if there were no tomorrow. Live with compassion as though you had no debts and no debtors. Live with generosity as though you could afford to do so. Live with love in your heart and compassion in your soul.
And if you do, all this worrying about death and hell can be swept aside. All this debate about life after death, all this sectarian nonsense between Pharisee and Sadducee, all the divisions between the children of Abraham must all come to nothing. For if the kingdom of heaven is to break out on this earth and dispel the hell that we seem bent on creating for ourselves – if that is to happen, human hearts must be changed.

For war amongst the children of Abraham is wrong.

or poverty amongst the children of God is wrong.

For the withholding of clean water from children of this world is wrong.

The trafficking of God’s children is wrong.

All these things are wrong. And God’s judgement is shared amongst us day by day. For we all know that things are not the way they should be.

Do you want to know the truth about hell?

God wants you to know the truth about life.

God wants you to know that giving love back to God and living with compassion towards your neighbour is the way back to life itself.

To understand this morning’s parable, you need to understand the underlying tension which gripped people in the days in which it was told. Was there a heaven? Was there a hell? Was their life after death at all?

Jesus is having none of it. Believe the words of the prophets, he says.
The writings that the Jews attested to Moses say this: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live,

Do it. Choose life.
And all heaven will break out.


  1. Heard your sermon very well, and had no knowledge that it was ‘porridge reheated’. My late father-in-law, a one-time canon of St Mary’s, once said, as he repeated a previously used sermon…’If it was worth saying at one time, then it is probably worth saying again’.
    That applied on Sunday.

  2. Poor wee lamb. Get well soon.

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