What is hell?

…the opposite of heaven …other people …the Metrocentre on the last weekend before Christmas?

We might not articulate what we mean by hell very often, but we all have a clear image of what we mean by that word; a place of seemingly eternal despair, a place with no redemption, no sign of hope.

In scripture hell – Sheol in Hebrew, Hades in Greek – acts as the bookend in the cosmological extremes of scripture: “as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven”, we hear in our reading from Isaiah. In the Hebrew scriptures Sheol is, on one level, the name for the place that lies beyond life, the dwelling place of the dead. It was to Sheol that Jacob says he will travel when he believes his son Joseph to be dead. However, it also carries with it an ethical dimension. Sheol becomes a place of punishment, where the godless are threatened with eternal misery, and some flaming fires to boot. This is of course much closer to our popular image of Hell with the ever circling descent to the deeper and more punishing levels of hell.

Dantes Inferno

Dante, in his Inferno, recounts the journey through the nine circles of hell passing gluttons, heretics, blasphemers before Cain and Judas and the other great traitors of history open the door leading to Lucifer, the arch betrayer at the centre of hell. This is a powerfully poetic and arresting image of hell as the ultimate religious torture chamber. It is a place of suffering, the land of eternal death. The problem with this image of hell is that it stands on a contradiction. This place of eternal death is a place where the damned experience this death eternally. This death of deaths is in fact a place where people are supposed to live through this torment of eternal death.

However, if we return to the pages of scripture we find a different account of hell. As we come to this final Sunday in Advent and the final of the Four Last Things it is important that we do not get stuck on this poetic caricature of hell, but instead reflect on what the idea of hell means in our own journey of faith.

Martin Luther, the greatest of the reformers, saw hell not as some place beyond, but as part of the experience of God through the person of Jesus Christ. Instead of being seduced by caricatures of hell Luther encourages to look for hell in the experience of Jesus. In particular Luther draws us to the final days and hours of Jesus’ life where we hear of his descent into hell.  Luther saw this descent not as a sojourn into Dante’s underworld, but as part of Jesus’ journey from the Garden of Gethsemane to Golgotha. In the experience of Jesus, we find this descent into hell was the experience of God-forsakenness: “My God, my god why have your forsaken me?” Jesus cries out from the cross. This hell is defined not by fire and sulphur; this hell is a place seemingly beyond the reach of God’s grace. Hell, is not the caricature of a bygone age or the one of the compass points of ancient cosmology. God-forsakenness is a universal experience, it is a contemporary experience. Hell, is a waste land we know and see all around us.

The Waste Land by T S Eliot

In 1922 T.S. Eliot took the literary world by storm in his series of poems known as The Waste Land. These complex poems hit the zeitgeist of European society still reeling from the destruction of the Great War. The landscapes of these poems are full of barren and polluted images, of the folly of war and decadence of the time, they are haunted by the lost youth of war. This waste land is truly a God-forsaken place.

In the first poem¸ The Burial of the Dead, a latter day Dante walks the streets of London seeing death all around him:

                            I was neither 
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, 
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

In the third poem, The Fire Sermon, Eliot draws allusions with St Augustine’s spiritual torments as a student in Carthage. But perhaps most powerfully is the image that opens the final, and finest poem in The Waste Land: What the Thunder said. Here Eliot takes us to the heart of that place of God-forsakeness. Drawing explicitly on Jesus’s final days Eliot moves through those moments of God-forsakenness, that hell that Jesus encountered: his betrayal and arrest in the garden, the agony of Golgotha, the destruction of the temple.

After the torchlight red on sweaty faces 
After the frosty silence in the gardens 
After the agony in stony places 
The shouting and the crying 
Prison and palace and reverberation 
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains 
He who was living is now dead 
We who were living are now dying

Through The Waste Land Eliot holds a mirror up to the spiritual emptiness a God-forsaken world.

The extraordinary thing about The Waste Land is not its insight into the years after the First World War. The extraordinary thing about this poem is that it speaks so deeply of our experience today. It speaks of a world which too often seems forgotten by God, if there is a God at all: whether in the unfairness of life; or the meaningless consumption of the season; or the streets of Aleppo. Eliot’s words reminds us that for so many it feels that God has forsaken them.

That is hell.

In this barren landscape, in this waste land, it would be easy to think that there is no way out. But in Advent God shows us something different.

In our reading from Isaiah we hear God’s promise to a God-forsaken world in one decisive word, in one decisive promise. And that promise is Emmanuel – God with us.

23 dec o emmanuel

It is worth us focusing on this word a little. In the promise of Emmanuel God is not saying “Don't worry, I'll swoop down from the clouds and sort this all out”, nor is God washing his hands of the whole sorry mess. Rather God is saying that he will come to be with us in the messiness and brokenness of our world. In a world of missed opportunities and political fudges, of human weakness and faithlessness, in world seemingly forsaken by God, God says Emmanuel: I will be with you.

In this passage from Isaiah we hear this deep decisive promise in the context of the slow collapse of the nation of Israel. Their leaders had lost faith in God, their end and exile seemed inevitable. And into this seemingly God-forsaken landscape God makes a promise: I will be with you.

As if we had not heard this promise clearly enough in Isaiah, we find it repeated and amplified a thousand-fold in our Gospel reading. That in this child to be born amongst the whole God-forsaken mess of our lives and world is truly Emmanuel, God-with-us.

And this is not a promise for thousands of years ago, but a promise for now. As we look at the waste land of our contemporary world, as we hear stories on the news, as we encounter the spiritual emptiness of a shopping centre the weekend before Christmas, as we reflect on our broken lives and broken relationships, we yearn for the fulfilment of that deep promise, for God to be with us.

We live in a world that for many feels forsaken by God. Whether we call it hell or not, it is a barren landscape of God-forsakenness. But in Advent we know this to be different. In Advent we hear again the ageless promise that this is not the case. We hear the deep promise of Emmanuel, God with us.

At the end of this Advent season and as we complete our journey through the Four Last Things we find that God answers our fears with that ancient promise, Emmanuel. In the places of death that surround us, even if we cannot see it, God is with us. When we stand in those places of judgement, we come to know that God is with us. In those glimpses and promises of heaven breaking in all around us we find again and again that God is with us.

And in a world and a time that for so many seems forsaken by God we are charged again to hold and proclaim to a forgetful world God’s deep promise: that in the heart of this barren waste land a child will be born, and his name will be Emmanuel.