St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

The Temperature of Hell?

The Tem­per­at­ure of Hell
Ser­mon preached at Enmore, 5th Sunday of East­er, 24th April 2016
Read­ing: Rev­el­a­tion 21. 1–6

“Then I saw a new heav­en and a new earth; for the first heav­en and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more.”

Rev­el­a­tion is all about vis­ions. It begins with the words, “The rev­el­a­tion of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his ser­vants what must soon take place.” Being a book of vis­ions and images it is not always easy to under­stand. The Book of Rev­el­a­tion is undoubtedly the most dif­fi­cult text in the New Test­a­ment and a book that has been fer­tile soil for the growth of all kinds of strange inter­pret­a­tions and pre­dic­tions for the future. In our own day it has spawned the very pop­u­lar ‘Left Behind’ nov­els with their fright­en­ing descrip­tions of life on earth after God’s elect are beamed upwards into heav­en leav­ing the hap­less inhab­it­ants at the mercy of the anti-Christ. Alarmed by such bizarre and unhelp­ful theo­lo­gies many Chris­ti­ans past and present have simply avoided Rev­el­a­tion as being both dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous and hence bet­ter left alone. John Calv­in wrote com­ment­ar­ies on all the books of the New Test­a­ment but gave up on Rev­el­a­tion. But to take Calvin’s option is a pity because des­pite its strange­ness this book con­tains pas­sages of great beauty like the one we have read this morn­ing and also, in my view, it does have a mes­sage very rel­ev­ant to Chris­ti­ans liv­ing today. Look­ing at the text before us I want to con­sider the ques­tions: “What does it tell us about heav­en and does it mat­ter what we believe about it?” But first let me give some brief back­ground to the book.

Most schol­ars believe that Rev­el­a­tion was writ­ten towards the end of the first cen­tury, around 90–95A.D. It is a pas­tor­al let­ter to Chris­ti­ans in Asia who are con­fron­ted with a crit­ic­al reli­gious and polit­ic­al situ­ation. Much of the imagery used in the book is taken from the Apo­ca­lyptic books of the Old Test­a­ment like Ezekiel and Daniel and these images would have been famil­i­ar to many of the hear­ers. The author, John, writes to encour­age Chris­ti­ans at a time of change and upheav­al in the Roman world. The empire was troubled by war and rebel­lion like the one in Judea that led to the destruc­tion of Jer­u­s­alem in 70 A.D. Even the earth seemed unstable: there were earth­quakes that dev­ast­ated parts of Asia in the six­ties and in 79 Vesuvi­us erup­ted bury­ing Pom­pei and neigh­bour­ing towns and cre­at­ing a pall of dark­ness that sent fear through­out the empire. 

Chris­ti­ans were also com­ing under increas­ing sus­pi­cion from many of their neigh­bours and also from the polit­ic­al author­it­ies. They refused to wor­ship idols, many of their mem­bers were from lower classes in soci­ety and they fol­lowed a lead­er who had been pub­licly executed as an enemy of the state. Fur­ther­more as Chris­tian­ity grew it became more and more a Gen­tile reli­gion and was dis­owned by the Jew­ish com­munity. At times this gen­er­al sus­pi­cion developed into out­right hos­til­ity and per­se­cu­tion — Chris­ti­ans were easy scape­goats as Nero had found dur­ing his reign. The reign of Dom­itian brought a new crisis because he developed the idea of the divine Emper­or, insist­ing on divine hon­ours and mak­ing every­one who addressed him in speech or writ­ing begin with the words “Lord & God.” To refuse to acknow­ledge the Emperor’s divin­ity was to risk impris­on­ment, exile or even death.

This is the con­text in which John writes and he does so with the inten­tion of help­ing Chris­ti­ans to make sense of what is hap­pen­ing around them and to under­stand that God has a plan for his world which will not be thwarted by human mach­in­a­tions. John also writes to give fresh inter­pret­a­tions of the East­er event and the reign of Christ in the light of cur­rent cir­cum­stances. He writes to affirm that des­pite the appar­ent chaos and con­fu­sion of our world, God remains faith­ful and the future is in his hands. The pas­sage read today comes at the end of the Book and in poet­ic lan­guage describes what that future will look like. Giv­en the sym­bol­ic nature of the writ­ing one must take heed of Rein­hold Niebur’s state­ment that “It is unwise for Chris­ti­ans to claim any know­ledge of the fur­niture of heav­en or the tem­per­at­ure of hell.” Mar­cus Borg described Rev­el­a­tion as a book “to be taken ser­i­ously but not lit­er­ally.” Nev­er­the­less the sym­bols can give us import­ant clues that point us in the right direction.
John’s final vis­ion is of heaven.

In the pop­u­lar ima­gin­a­tion, heav­en is the per­fect place, some­where up there in the sky where we hope to go when we die and earth is the second rate, slightly taw­dry place where we cur­rently live. We got that view from Pla­to not from the Bible. John’s vis­ion is of a fresh begin­ning with a new heav­en and a new earth, joined togeth­er com­pletely and forever. “The heav­ens and the earth” means simply everything in the whole cre­ation from the bot­tom of the deep­est ocean to the most dis­tant star in the sol­ar sys­tem. Some com­ment­at­ors have taken this to mean that the old heav­en and the old earth will be dis­ap­pear or be dis­carded but this is not how the vis­ion unfolds. The vis­ion is of the heav­enly city, the New Jer­u­s­alem com­ing down to earth and renew­ing it. We enter heav­en not by escap­ing what we don’t like but by the renew­al and trans­form­a­tion of the place where God has placed us. John’s vis­ion ful­fils the peti­tions of the Lord’s Pray­er – in the uni­on of heav­en and earth, God’s name is hal­lowed, his king­dom come and his will is done ‘in earth as it is in heaven.’

But in some ways the vis­ion is not what we expect. The Bible began with a garden, a place of verd­ant abund­ance. We expect the end will be a return to Eden, a place of peace and serenity but instead we find a city. Cit­ies are noisy, crowded, messy places and Jer­u­s­alem was the city that Jesus wept over, the city that rejec­ted him and cru­ci­fied him. How can this be a mod­el for heav­en? But God can trans­form even that rebel­li­ous city into some­thing beau­ti­ful. John writes, “I saw the holy city, the new Jer­u­s­alem, com­ing down out of heav­en from God, pre­pared as a bride adorned for her hus­band.” It’s a power­ful image. Three weeks ago Rose­mary and I wit­nessed our son’s wed­ding. Andrew and Carly were mar­ried in St. Philip’s Anglic­an Church in York Street — it’s a church with a very long aisle, so we could watch Carly com­ing down the aisle with her eyes focussed on Andrew and we could see Andrew who had eyes only for his wife. That’s the pic­ture John gives to us — God choos­ing to come and dwell with us, his way­ward, often rebel­li­ous chil­dren. God mak­ing all things fresh and new.

God is com­mit­ted to his cre­ation and we should be too. We are fre­quently being reminded of the fra­gil­ity of our envir­on­ment and the ter­rible dam­age we have done to it through our greed, and our care­less­ness. John’s vis­ion helps us to ima­gine new pos­sib­il­it­ies for a world renewed, where there are no hungry chil­dren, no exploited work­ers, no domest­ic viol­ence, no deten­tion centres and where the city becomes a place where com­munit­ies flour­ish and people care for each oth­er. For us city dwell­ers, John’s heav­enly vis­ion opens our eyes to the beauty around us. In Eliza­beth Bar­rett Browning’s words: “Earth’s crammed with heaven/ And every com­mon bush alive with God/ Only he who sees takes off his shoes/ the rest sit around and pick black­ber­ries.” God calls on us to be involved in mak­ing God’s dream come true in his world.

We are still in the East­er sea­son so we take note of the words of ‘the one on the throne’ in verse six of our pas­sage: “to the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” In John’s nar­rat­ive of the cru­ci­fix­ion Jesus cries out “I thirst.” John gives us the word in the present con­tinu­ous tense, ‘I am thirst­ing.’ Jesus con­tin­ues to thirst, in the one in nine people world-wide who do not have access to clean drink­ing water. He goes on thirst­ing in the one bil­lion people who live on one dol­lar a day or less. On the cross Jesus pro­claimed humanity’s need. Today’s read­ing tells us that all thirst, phys­ic­al and spir­itu­al- is slaked by the abund­ant grace of God with his ever­last­ing spring of liv­ing water. We are com­manded to attend to the world’s thirst. As Resur­rec­tion people we are drawn into God’s future and encour­aged to work for it with all our being.
Your king­dom come, Lord, your will be done on earth as it is in heav­en. Amen

Philip Brad­ford