On August 16, 2015, Dr. Neill Johnson delivered the following sermon to University Baptist and Brethren Church of State College, Pennsylvania.
I Don’t Want to Go to Hell—Do You?
“Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. . . . This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”
I’m going to address four related themes today: 1) reading Matthew 25: 31-46 and similar scenes in Revelation as judgments of nations, rather than individuals; 2) examining how people in Biblical times thought about concepts related to what we call “heaven” and “hell”; 3) exposing popular Rapture/Apocalypse narratives as non-Biblical and countering the damage done by Christians who see no point in saving an earth that will disappear soon anyway; and 4) finding theological grounding and inspiration in Pope Francis’s encyclical for taking on the work of “ecological conversion” as Gospel work.
Jesus’s parable or prophetic story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 is consistent with the last judgment in St. John the Divine’s Revelation. The two texts were probably written about the same time, 20-25 years after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans in A.D. 70. However, I will argue that both this parable and the book of Revelation describe not only a last judgment of individuals, but also and more significantly a judgment of nations—primarily Israel, but, by extension, all nations and civilizations. This is consistent with Jesus’s other teachings in the Gospels and his role as a prophet, the man described by John the Baptist as coming to baptize the people by fire.
Our text begins with a reference to the return of the heavenly king with his angels and with justice: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne of heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him.” Even though it is very clear that this king will address the two groups (sheep and goats) as collectives, “Come, you who are blessed/cursed, take your inheritance/depart from me,” the church has taught and we usually hear this as an individual judgment: Which side am I on, and how can I avoid being sent into the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”? It’s good that we are called to self-examination by this passage, but if we ignore the call to our own nation for widespread repentance, we stand in grave danger of missing the gist of Jesus’s warning. In short, I hold that what Jesus is saying here is this: “Those nations who are not in the habit of caring for the least of these in my family will become accursed and separated from God, but those nations who are in the habit of caring for these least ones will inherit what was always theirs—perfect communion with God.”
When I first read Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, the core precept of which is quoted in our Meditation, I cried tears of joy. Finally, the institutional church is starting to build a theology which demands that we take care of the planet, our sister, our common home, with the same uncompromising habituation we apply in caring for “the least”—those who hunger and thirst, the stranger, the unclothed, the sick, and those in prison. Only by doing this will we gain our inheritance. And what do we inherit if not the earth, the earth as created from the beginning for us and for all creatures, the earth which we have been rejecting since our first sin in the Garden of Eden, the land, the air, the waters, the minerals, the flora, the fauna, this inhabitable realm, this shining and blessed planet, this inseparable-from-us thing we call “the environment”? Shouldn’t it be obvious to us and to our leaders that taking care of our common home equates to providing affordable, sustainable agricultural resources and potable water to those of all nations, giving shelter to refugees, clothing the naked, nursing the sick and injured, and visiting, defending, and attempting to free those in prison? Does this not describe the main problems we face now, now!—not in some future Armageddon or WWIII that we imagine will usher in the second coming of Christ? What makes us think Christ wants to wait for things to get worse? How much worse are we willing to let things get?
In The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, two contemporary historians of science, a fictional science historian from the Second Peoples Republic of China looks back from the year 2300 to examine why people of the 20th and 21st centuries failed to stop global warming, even though they had full knowledge of its causes and effects. Instead, they let global warming reach a tipping point that melted Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, inundating whole countries such as the Netherlands and Bangladesh, not to mention over half of Florida and most US cities on the East coast. This tipping point was breached when the rise in average annual global temperature exceeded six degrees C and was not abated until after the rise peaked at 10 degrees C in the year 2093. By the start of the 22nd century, the nations had relocated 1.5 billion environmental refugees from flooded coastal plains and islands as well as from the desertification of continental interiors and two whole continents—Africa and Australian. Why, this historian of science asks, weren’t ameliorating policies put in place soon after scientists developed computer models in the 1970s showing that greenhouse gases would cause global warming? By 2012 when temperatures had risen 1 degree C and sea levels not quite one third of a meter, why then with a bounty of plain evidence at hand provided by the International Panel on Climate Change and national environmental agencies across the globe, was the combustion of carbon-based fuels still increasing exponentially instead of being stepped down as rapidly as possible? Why did public policies favor global shale gas development and oil exploration in places like the Arctic keeping fossil fuels cheap and delaying for half a century the widespread adoption of zero-net-carbon sources of electricity such as solar and wind to power factories, businesses, homes and most means of transportation?
I don’t know about you, but Oreskes’ and Conway’s science-based look-back from the future sounds like Hell to me, and I don’t want to go there. Earlier this summer in the middle of June, Columbia, South Carolina experienced 13 consecutive days when the high temperature was between 97 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit. In the summer, I check Columbia weather almost daily because my brother lives there and because I want to remind myself why I don’t. During that June hot spell, one Youtube video that went viral featured a middle-aged African-American business man sitting in his air-conditioned car in his dress suit looking out at the waves of heat rising from the Columbia pavements, shaking his head slowly, and singing softly to himself, “Hell is a hot place, I don’t want to go [repeated twice more]. Hell no, hell no, hell no!” Columbia is profoundly hot from May through September, and it gets hotter every decade. Even in the 1980s when I lived there, the heat was punishing. My anthropology professor at USC did his research on natives of the Amazon rainforest. When one of my classmates asked him how he prepared his research team for the Brazilian heat and humidity, he said, “Oh, you must not be from here! We just pitch our tents in my back yard for a week or two in the summer.”
Common Christian images of Hell as a place of eternal torture have been used by the church (and by pagan religions and states, as well) to intimidate an unruly populace into behaving less badly. So it’s not surprising that the Church jumped on that bandwagon. Much of the difficulty of tracing the meaning of “hell” in the Bible is that our early English translators forced four different words (one Hebrew and three Greek) into those four little letters. The word most relevant to a fiery torture furnace is “Gehenna,” a valley outside Jerusalem that Jesus references quite often in the gospels. Gehenna was a place of ignominious sacrifice to pagan idols and, later, Jerusalem’s stinking city dump where waste was burned continuously. It’s ironic that we are turning our planet into a vast dump that resembles Jesus’s Gehenna.
Jesus and other prophets before him warned an unrepentant Israel that as a nation, it was going to Hades—the land of the dead, the unseen, the place of shadows, and the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “sheol” in the Old testament. Both words were translated as “hell” in many early Bibles; however, there is one major difference: the Greek underworld was divided into two districts, one for the righteous and one for the wicked. Hades is the place where Lazarus goes before Jesus brings him back and where Jesus himself goes between his death and his resurrection. Hades is inhabited by vanquished peoples, nations, and city-states. In Revelation, Jesus holds the keys to death and hades and at the last judgment, he casts death and hades into the lake of fire after they have given up their dead. Jesus warned his people that without repentance, Israel would disappear from the earth. And it nearly did.
Like Israel 2000 years ago, our nation is in danger of going to Hades—this I firmly believe. How long can we endure when our leaders appease the powerful energy companies who are obstructing all efforts to mitigate climate change? How long can we remain the most influential nation in the world when our interests are controlled by companies whose annual income is greater than the gross domestic product of most countries and who are intent on burning as much fossil fuel as possible before finally exhausting all available reserves? How long can such a nation’s leaders dare to claim to be following the teachings of Jesus?
As Christians, I think it’s important for us to understand and counteract the damage that has been done to our common home by many of these so-called Christian leaders in the name of fulfilling Biblical prophecy. In The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, Barbara Rossing traces the origins of the Rapture to a 19th-century British evangelist named John Nelson Darby, the founder of the Plymouth Brethren. Based on a young girl’s vision of a two-stage return of Jesus, Darby developed an elaborate and strained interpretation of scriptures claiming that Jesus would return a first time in secret to remove his church to heaven so that believers would escape a seven-year period of global tribulation at the end of which Jesus would return a second time to establish his Jerusalem-based kingdom on earth. Rossing says Darby developed “a grand timetable for world events” based on “seven distinct dispensations, or ages” claiming that “during each time God has dealt with people according to a different set of rules. Dispensationalism thus lays out a rigid master plan for all of history.” Darby won many converts on his mission trips to the US, and his ideas were popularized in the Schofield Reference Bible published in 1909, a book that had a huge influence on US Protestantism. I know from growing up Southern Baptist that our teachers and preachers made regular use of that Bible.
Rossing argues convincingly that the Rapture is a persistent and widely-believed, but largely escapist fantasy popularized most recently by the left-behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins published in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These novels portray an increasingly polluted and violent world as a necessary evil so that Antichrist can take over, Jews can convert and fight back, and Jesus can return to slaughter his enemies and to establish a new Heaven and Earth. Rossi argues that Revelation’s return of Jesus as a king with a sword coming out of his mouth and as a scarred and blood-stained lamb (both incongruous images for a warrior) debunks the left-behind novels’ portrayal of a violent and epic routing of the enemy. In Revelation, Jesus and his followers do “conquer” the forces of an evil empire (think Rome, think American carbon-combustion complex), but they do so with their words and with their faithfulness.
Revelation is ultimately more about the healing of nations and the establishment of a city of God on a planet restored to an Eden-like state than it is about the battle of Armageddon. In 22:1-2 that I read earlier, the headwaters of the river of the water of life flow from the throne of God and the Lamb, then down the middle of the great street of the city. The fruits of the tree of life are edible and its leaves have the power to heal and bring peace to a war-torn world. Revelation’s infamous whore of Babylon is as apt an image for a self-serving, unregulated, consumerist America run amok as it was for the glutted superpower that was Rome. Pope Francis’s encyclical says that our ecological crisis calls both active and passive resisters to “ecological conversion, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” Protestants as well as Catholics must take seriously this call for an ecological conversion of the faithful as a means of reversing the harm done by the self-serving doomsayers, those who want the world to come quickly to an end, as well as the deniers of responsibility for climate change and its consequences.
If we continue to reject Jesus by ignoring the plight of the planet and its poorest and most helpless inhabitants—human and other species, we will surely be cast into Hades and oblivion. But the Bible is a book of hope, not despair. The word “heaven” appears at least ten times more than “hell” even in the least accurate translations. The Gospel does point the way forward in the current crisis. It’s crucial not only that we personally attend to “the least of these,” but also that we demand this of our leaders. Impassioned appeals to members of Congress, the application of steady pressure over time, the promotion of policies that will reverse our reliance on carbon-based fuels, the generous funding of scientific research, the immediate implementation of practical stop-gaps, and our speaking out boldly as people of faith—these collective efforts will enable us as a congregation, a nation, a civilization to authentically and habitually address the urgent needs of “the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.” We have accomplished seemingly impossible tasks in record time before—think of government-sponsored programs such as NASA putting a man on the moon within nine years of President Kennedy’s vow to do so. Until the will of the executive and legislative branches of our government is committed to a man-on-the-moon-before-the-end-of-the-decade approach to stopping global warming, it is up to us to take civil action and generate that national will, starting right here in our local community. This work is worth doing, and it is Gospel work!
Now, to close: don’t ever let anyone persuade you that it’s too late. One degree Centigrade and one foot of ocean rise into the global warming future is not far, and we can turn this around. Scientists may eventually find a miracle breakthrough. In Oreskes’ and Conway’s View from the Future, that breakthrough is a tiny, genetically-engineered black lichen that thrives in almost any environment and that is enormously efficient at capturing carbon-dioxide. But we don’t know the hour of that breakthrough, so we must be vigilant in taking action now. Our reward will be far more than survival; it will be the promised kingdom of heaven, the New Jerusalem right here on Earth. Do not despair. Let the closing words of Revelation live in your thoughts, your prayers, and your actions as you make your way forward in this exciting time of ecological conversion: “Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” We’re ready, and we’re not going to hell!
Repent and rejoice. Convert your families, friends, and neighbors by your words and deeds. By the witness of your faith-activism, hold the rich and powerful to account. Attend to the least of your fellow creatures—including your sister, the earth. Save our nation from Gehenna. Work and pray for the healing of the nations and for the preservation of our common home. Behold, the kingdom of heaven is at hand! The time is now, the work has begun. Amen.
 Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis, On Care for our Common Home. (2015, May 24). Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1-2.
 Wayne Jackson. (2015). When was the Book of Revelation written? Christian Courier. Retrieved from https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1552-when-was-the-book-of-revelation-written. Jackson makes a strong case for the latter date based on historical evidence. The alternate date is just before the destruction of Jerusalem. Barbara Rossing in The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation dates the writing of Matthew as around 90 A.D., making it more or less contemporaneous with John the Divine’s Revelation. A date for Matthew after the temple destruction is increasingly favored by today’s Biblical scholars.
 Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. (2014). The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 33.
Oreskes and Conway, p. 19.
 Samuel G. Dawson. “Jesus’ Teaching on Hell.” Retrieved from http://www.truthaccordingtoscripture.com/doucments/death/jesus-teaching-on-hell.php#.VbWRRPIVhBc. The online materials are based on ch. 11 of Dawson and Dawson’s The Teaching of Jesus: From Mount Sinai to Gehenna: A Faithful Rabbi Urgently Warns Rebellious Israel. Amarillo, TX: Gospel Times Press, 2007.
 Barbara R. Rossing. (2004). The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, p. 22.
 Rossing, p. 23.
 Rossing, p. 111.
 Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis, On Care for our Common Home. (2015, May 24). Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 217.