|Vaux Passional (c.1500).|
National Library of Wales
The streets and the airwaves alike are now full of the virtues and themes of the season: comfort and joy, warmth and goodness, peace and love, death and judgement, death and hell. Oh wait…
Some of you may recall that in fact it was traditional to preach the “Four Last things” - death, judgement, heaven, and hell - on the four Sundays of Advent, which means we would indeed be up the last, and worst, and above all least “Christmassy” of all theological topics imaginable. But what was the last time you heard a sermon about Hell in The Episcopal Church? Strap yourselves in.
Peter Carey’s 1981 novel Bliss is the story of a man named Harry Joy, who seems to have a happy life. Harry has a loving spouse and two dutiful children, and a thriving advertising business that keeps them prosperous. Then Harry dies. Or at least he has a near-death experience - a massive heart attack while mowing the lawn leaves his consciousness floating above his body, watching as a hastily-summoned doctor first thumps his chest, and then attaches wires. Before the shock drags him back, Harry, we are told, “recognized the worlds of pleasures and worlds of pain, bliss and punishment, Heaven and Hell.” (Bliss, 12).
On revival from clinical death, Harry finds the shape of life is familiar, but its character is not. His wife and his business partner are having an affair. His daughter is a terrorist prostituting herself, and his son is a drug dealer. His advertising agency is promoting companies that pump out carcinogens. One thing only is possible, he believes; when he died, Harry had gone to Hell.
In fact, the reader can tell if he cannot, that Harry Joy simply discovered things that had always been the case; hell was already there, but had not been visible to him.
It is clearer in scripture that heaven actually does lie close at hand, something we experience now and not just in God’s future or as our ultimate destiny; Jesus says, for instance, that “the kingdom of God in in your midst” (Luke 17:21) or that “whoever believes in [him] has eternal life” (see John 5:24 etc.) But this may be as true of hell as of heaven. Hell, after all, is the realm of sin and death. When our lives are lived according to their logic, whether by our own choices or those of others, we are already in hell.
It may be that we need to understand, as Harry Joy came to understand, that what we may take for heaven - or at least for normality - actually is hell; that we need to be released from a bondage to the power of death so profound that we cannot even see how much we and the world need deliverance from it.
Hell is not a popular idea for Christians of a particular stripe - perhaps that means many of us - whose steadfast belief in a God of love seems to preclude the awful horrors dreamed up in Dante or even just in the Revelation to John - lakes of fire and demonic tortures and such.
There are problems with such imaginings indeed, but the world we now live in has horrors just as repellent. Hell has already planted its standard on the earth just as heaven has: ask the people of Aleppo these recent months, or those who sat through the trial of Dylan Roof this past week, or those who experienced the bombings in Cairo or Istanbul last week; and hell reigns much closer to home as well, in every act of violence and terror, every inaction driven by contempt and indifference. For hell among us is not just the spectacular, but includes the banal also.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury once said in an interview “My concept of hell, I suppose, is being stuck with myself for ever and with no way out. Whether anybody ever gets to that point I have no idea. But that it’s possible to be stuck with my selfish little ego for all eternity, that’s what I would regard as hell.” This more personal view is not dissonant with the hellish realities of war and politics; for violence and terror are the expression of that selfish ego, its infliction of itself writ large in the rejection of charity and justice. And while Bishop Rowan rightly expresses caution about what population if any hell has, the hellish realities we can see provide dread witness to what God may allow us to choose for ourselves, now and in eternity.
Today we do begin to glance across the wearying territory of Advent expectation to the land of Christmas promise fulfilled, in these familiar and hopeful readings of God with us, Immanuel, a wondrous child. Yet these are not unambiguous tidings of comfort and joy. Isaiah’s promise of a child - perhaps originally a new Judean prince, whose birth would offer reassurance of God’s faithfulness to the embattled house of David - is made in a time of warfare between Jerusalem and its near neighbors, and is a sign of judgement as well as of hope: "before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”
Christians have long read Isaiah as speaking not only of whatever event relevant to seventh century BCE politics, but of Jesus and to his coming. The promise of the child is a sign of God’s faithfulness, but also of necessity a sign of deliverance from the power of evil - from hell.
We do not need this child’s coming to add atmosphere to the holiday season, or because there is still a space on life's tree for one more ornament. We need the child because we live in hell - in the power of sin and death - and he promises to deliver us. In coming to earth, in his life, death and resurrection, he will not only “refuse the evil and choose the good” but face the power of hell, storm its stronghold, and free from its prison those who know they need God’s victory.
He calls us to come out of hell - out from our false heavens, our illusions of security and self-satisfaction. Hell’s power is false and its days are numbered. A child is coming, Immanuel, God with us. And if God is with us, who can be against us?