Rev. Julie Yarborough
Romans 8:31-35, 37-39
Christ Church, Summit
August 26, 2018
On Salvation, Heaven and Hell
When I was in the eighth grade, I had a crisis of faith. My sister and I were active in our church, but the youth group was very small, so we would often go on other church’s youth retreats. I was on one of those retreats when I heard something that I had heard many times before, but this time I heard it in a new way. We were told that the only way to heaven was to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus gave his life for our sins and we needed to confess our sins and believe in him in order to be saved. Now, I had heard this before – it was the underlying basis of the Bible-belt culture in which I grew up – but I hadn’t really given it that much thought.
I was a Christian: I had grown up in the church, was baptized in the church and I loved Jesus with all of my heart. I had no doubts that I would be spending eternal life in Heaven. But this time it dawned on me… my best friend, Melissa, was Jewish and another good friend was a self-proclaimed atheist. How could the God of LOVE send them to an eternal damnation in hell? That didn’t sound very loving. I spent hours and hours thinking about this and worrying. I was worried for my friends, but I was also worried for myself. If I didn’t believe this doctrine of the church that seemed so central to Christian belief, could I still call myself a Christian? I agonized over this question, but was afraid to ask anyone about it. What if they told me that I could no longer be called a Christian? My whole identity was at stake. I even got to the point where I told myself that if my friends weren’t going to heaven, then I didn’t want to go there either. What would be the point of spending eternity in heaven if my friends weren’t going to be there?
In my junior year of high school (three years later!) I finally found the courage to confide in our youth minister, who was a theological student at Vanderbilt Divinity School. To my surprise, he told me that there were different understandings about heaven and hell, and that not all theologians believed the same thing! To prove his point, he gave me copy of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology, vol. 3: Life and the Spirit: History and the Kingdom of God. It was a little over my head, but it gave me comfort to hear that there were other ways of understanding salvation. Looking back now, I realize that this conversation probably laid the groundwork for my attending divinity school!
There are several different doctrines of salvation, but the one most commonly known in our culture is one espoused by Evangelical Christians. It’s called the “Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory” (Penal as in punishment), and it’s the idea that humans are born inherently sinful and that Jesus was sacrificed on the cross, shedding his blood in order to pay the price for our sins. In this understanding of salvation, God is a judge who demands payment for the sins that we humans have committed and Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice in our place – as a substitute – paying the ultimate price with his life on the cross. In order to receive eternal life, we need to profess in Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior. Those who refuse to do this will go to hell for all of eternity.
This theory of substitutionary atonement came out of the Reformation Period. It was a modified version of the “theory of satisfaction,” first postulated by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th Century. But for a thousand years up until that time, the Christian understanding of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was more focused on the concept of “Moral Influence,” the idea that Jesus came to earth and lived and died in order to help humanity become better – that Jesus came to teach us how to live our lives in order to have a moral influence on humanity; and he died on the cross as a result of his life and teachings on earth and also in order to show us how much God loves us. This doctrine of moral influence places much more emphasis on the life and teachings of Jesus and much less emphasis on the crucifixion, and it’s more or less what we espouse at Christ Church.
While there are several different Christian understandings of salvation, most of them find their roots in one of these two theories.
The church in which I grew up was much like Christ Church. I wasn’t taught about Substitutionary Atonement there, but it was a part of the very evangelical air that I breathed growing up in the South and it’s a popular understanding of sin and salvation in our wider culture today. In fact, many people don’t realize that there are other Christian interpretations of salvation.
In college, I took a course on Christian Thought, in which we read the book Sexism and God-Talk by the theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther. It’s a book about feminist theology, but when I read this particular paragraph about the afterlife, I finally felt a great weight lift from my shoulders. Ruether writes: “It is in the hands of Holy Wisdom to forge out of our finite struggle truth and being for everlasting life. Our agnosticism about what this means is then the expression of our faith, our trust that Holy Wisdom will give transcendent meaning to our work, which is bounded by space and time.”
In other words, our doubts and fears, our questions and concerns, while still believing and trusting in a God of love, are the truest form of faith there is. We trust that Holy Wisdom will give meaning to our work and to our very lives, which are bound by space and time, whatever that may look like after our souls leave this earth. That trust is what faith is all about. Faith is not about having all of the answers, or believing in creeds and doctrines, but trusting that, come what may: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” (Lady Julian of Norwich)
Jan Richardson puts it this way, in her blessing entitled, “Known.”
we will need grace.
we will need courage.
we will need
We will need
to die a little
to what we have
what we have allowed
ourselves to see
what we have built
our beliefs upon.
We will need this
we will need
to let it all go
to leave room enough
for the astonishment
that will come
should we be given
of what the Holy One sees
in seeing us,
in knowing us,
no part of us
no piece of us
fashioned from other
all our days.
In our first scripture today, we heard a passage from John 14 that is often read at funerals. It’s a passage about heaven being like a house with many rooms or “dwelling-places,” and the assurance that Jesus has gone ahead of us and will be preparing a place for us so that it will be ready when we arrive. It’s a comforting image for many, yet it’s not meant to be read literally. The Gospel of John is full of metaphors. We don’t know what heaven is actually like or whether it’s even a place at all.
And what about hell? Rob Bell in his book, Love Wins, points out that there are two different words that are translated as “hell” in the New Testament. One is Gehenna, which refers to an actual place – a valley on the south and west side of the city of Jerusalem, which was used as a garbage dump. The other is Hades, a Greek word, which is an obscure, dark, murky place, similar to the Hebrew word Sheol, which can simply refer to the grave.
Jesus was much more concerned about how we live our lives while we’re on this earth than he was about what happens after we die. There are plenty of people living in hell right now on this earth – some as a result of choices they have made, many because of the choices of others.
I think of soldiers who come back from war haunted by images that they can’t shake from their minds, even when they sleep; of women and children who are trafficked as prostitutes; of addicts who can’t stop using. I think of the parents of young men who entered schools and shot classmates and teachers; and of the parents and siblings of those who were killed. I think of the young women kidnapped and held as sex slaves by Boka Haram, and the families fleeing the violence of war in Syria, and the Rohinga people, forced to flee their villages in Myanmar with only the clothes on their backs and now living in squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh.
I know that hell exists, I just don’t believe that it’s a place of eternal damnation to which our loving God sends people when they die. On the contrary, I believe that God is present even in the midst of this very real and present torment.
Poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “I never spoke with God, nor visited in heaven, yet certain am I of the spot.” We don’t know where our souls will go after we die, yet I believe that they will be with God. Death does not have the final word. We have been given the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ. We know that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. As we heard this morning from our second scripture reading: “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.” (Romans 8:38-39) That promise of being “beheld entirely all our days” is good enough for me.