Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 103) transports me to a special Sunday night service youth service sometime in the early 70s at Gashes Creek Baptist, where Preacher Crayton showed us a new movie by the Reverend Estus Pirkle, called The Burning Hell. The movie was designed to literally scare the hell out of us juveniles, and to scare certain behaviors out of us, particularly those behaviors related to sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Many a youth walked the aisle at the end of the movie, some for the second or third time, just to make sure. The focus on the movie was on the eternal nature of this torture chamber, a place where the worm would never die and the fire would never be quenched, a place where the lost would be forever separated from God and heaven’s paradise. While our religious culture has trouble stomaching images of psychotic parents who “hear the voice of God” instructing them to discipline their children with torture techniques, such as burning the skin with lit cigarettes, it somehow has developed the capacity to picture the Heavenly Father doing far worse – throwing the unrepentant juveniles into a lake of fire, not to be consumed and killed, but to be tortured without relief for all of eternity. Estus Pirkle knew that young people would have trouble stomaching the prospects of themselves in that torturous pit, though; he knew how to motivate young people to walk the aisle and into the baptismal pool, (if not completely give up their sex and drugs and rock and roll, for the scare seemed to wear off for many when the temptations of the flesh reappeared, oftentimes on the church bus on our way to youth retreats).
The theology of Estus Pirkle and his interpretation of scripture was not always the orthodox teaching of the Church. In fact, the doctrine of hell was not considered part of orthodox belief until well after the Church became empire, when the Caesars adopted Christianity and made it the official Roman religion in the fourth century. The earliest creeds do not warn of any impending eternal punishment, only that Jesus descended into hell to preach the gospel. Once the Church gained Empire status though, the Estus Pirkles of their day found the concept a surefire way of maintaining social control, warning people away from their versions of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. This is in contrast to the biblical world view, which portrays the fires of hell, aka the destruction of the Pit, as having a redeeming role. The fire was seen as a refiner’s fire by the prophets (cf. Zech. 13, Mal. 3), and by the New Testament (cf. I Peter 1, also John the Baptist’s description of Jesus’ baptism by the Holy Spirit and fire). And then we have passages like today’s, with the Psalmist singing praises to the God of universal salvation, who forgives all your sins, who heals all your diseases, and who redeems your life from the Pit, from that place of eternal destruction and ruin. It echoes an earlier Psalm, when David asks, where can I go from your Spirit? If I make my bed in hell, Thou art there. Psalm 103 ends with another ALL statement, that God has established a kingdom in heaven, and this kingdom rules over ALL. Jesus understood that God’s sovereignty extended into the realm of this inferno, when he told Peter that not even the gates of hell could withstand and lock out the force of this kingdom of love.
Does that mean hell isn’t real? No, of course not. There is a refiner’s fire, a fire that destroys the dross and leaves the pure gold. So what exactly is this dross that is destroyed in the lake of everlasting destruction? It is the principalities and powers, forces of evil, materialism, greed, hatred, prejudice, discrimination, violence, animosity, enmity, all the addictions that bind us and keep us captive. Destroyed. Forever. In the refiners fire. So that, once freed from those chains, once the eyes that have been blinded by worldly power are open, people willingly respond to the wondrous grace gift. Their lives are redeemed from the Pit. They are rescued from hell, and all that’s left there in that fiery lake are those forces of evil, those alluring powers, to be forever bound and shut out of the Kingdom. For God’s kingdom, as the Psalmist sings, rules over all. All. As in the old Baptist hymn “when we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.” All, as in Paul’s great treatise on salvation in Romans 11, where he first proclaims that “ALL Israel will be saved,” and then expands that to the rest of the world: “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them ALL.” All, everyone, as in the ancient hymn of the early church that Paul quoted in his letter to the Philippians, speaking of the day when at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, that the Way of love rules every heart. But wait, doesn’t that take away the motivation for young people to quit their evil ways and come to Jesus? What’s to motivates us to walk the aisle if we don’t have Estus Pirkle’s threat of eternal doom in a blazing pit filled with worms and weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth hanging over our heads? Doesn’t it give everybody free reign to engage in sex, drugs, and rock and roll? Here’s what Jesus said would motivate people – If I be lifted up, I will draw ALL people to myself. I take Jesus at his word here. He doesn’t force everyone into receiving salvation, but his sacrificial love will eventually draw all people into his kingdom of love. The power of Jesus, that’s the motivator. You don’t need a B-movie about eternal doom to scare the hell out of people. Simply trust in the power of sacrificial love, the power of what Jesus did on the cross. Do we have to accept it and follow the Way in order to participate in the abundant life of the kingdom? Of course. The love of money, hate, discrimination, violence, oppression – they have no place in the kingdom. Jesus preached his share of hellfire sermons against people who held such values. But even the fundamentalist Pharisees and the rich young ruler are not lost forever. They are part of the all-inclusive ALL who will be refined by the fire, who will be forever freed from the captivity to the principalities and powers of evil and destruction, who will be drawn to Jesus, who will bow and confess the Lordship of love. It’s all there in the Bible, God’s holy word, for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and to share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.