June 12th Mark 9d “Heaven is Destiny, But Hell is a Choice”

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

As we are about to enter the last chapters of Mark, we get our first mention of hell.  The word that Jesus uses for hell is “Gehenna.”  Gehenna is a name of a ravine that ran along the south side of Jerusalem, where rubbish from the city was burned constantly.  It is not biblical, but some Jews believed it would be the place of the final judgment.

Hell is mentioned first as a place for those who would mislead believers.

Mark 9:42-50

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.  If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’

Everyone will be salted with fire. “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”

Since this passage closely follows the illustration Jesus made while holding a child, we can assume that he is still speaking of that child as “one of these little ones.”  So, this warning against false teachers (who lead people away from the truth) applies to the teachers of children as well as adults.  Jesus is saying that we should not cause anyone to lose their belief in God or to put them in situations of temptation.

The next thing Jesus says is a very harsh image that means more if we don’t take it literally.  If your hand, or foot, or eye causes you to sin, you should cut it off or pluck it out.  In some parts of the world, a punishment for being a thief was to lose a hand (pickpockets used their dexterity to steal).  In slave states before the American Civil War, one punishment for runaway slaves was to have their feet maimed or destroyed.  If you were a peasant in the Middle East, you could lose your tongue for insulting a person with social standing.  In other parts of the world, being a “peeping Tom” was punished by the loss of one or both eyes.  Of course, Jesus has already said that sin rises from deep within a person (from their mind and soul), so the actual maiming of body does no good. 

In the image that Jesus uses, he is not talking about punishment, but self-control.  In the violent imagery, he tells the person to cut away their own hand, foot, or eye: he is talking about self-control and drawing limits on your own behavior.  We all know the things that tempt us and we are to limit our bad behavior by eliminating moments of temptation from our lives.  For example, If we know that we are very tempted to drink excessively, we need to refuse alcohol.  If we know that we are tempted to steal, we avoid places where it would be easy to steal. If we are tempted to get what we want by violence, we need to shun violence altogether.  If we are tempted to criticize others, we need to stop being critical.  The illustration Jesus uses is also clearly against the temptation to sexual abuse and rape because “foot” was also a euphemism for male genitalia.

Jesus is telling us that if we are too susceptible to any sin, we need to cut it away from our lives by limiting our encounters with things that tempt us.  As we pray to God to “lead us not into temptation” we are also expected to avoid temptation as best we can.

The alternative to a loving and self-controlled life is a selfish flurry of sin that leads to destruction.   A wise person who knows that they have a temptation to gamble their family savings away never goes into a casino, but without self-control he rushes into the casino and loses everything.  It is better to edit yourself than to let your whole body to end in ruin.

Hell is not a place that God sends us, but a place we choose for ourselves.  Hell is not really a place, but a state of being where a person chooses to reject God.  Hell is nowhere, because it is nothingness. The flames of hell, like the flames of the Jerusalem city dump, never stop, but they didn’t just burn one piece of trash over and over again.   Hell is choosing to reject God and to suffer that separation if only for a moment… and then comes annihilation, because our souls are only eternal if we are connected to the eternal God.

Heaven, on the other hand, is not a state of mind, but a place.  Heaven isn’t limited in being one small territory, but it is everywhere that God is.  Heaven is being with God, eternally, anywhere and everywhere that God is.  Jesus tells us that God loves us and wants us to love and be loved forever.  We cannot choose heaven because God has already chosen heaven for us.  The only choice is between surrendering to God’s love or rejection of that love.  God wants us with him, but he will not force us to be with him.  God takes no joy in the suffering of people, but if they choose suffering and destruction, God lets them choose.

The words Jesus uses to describe hell are from the last verses of the book of Isaiah: 

Isaiah 66:22-24

“As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure.  From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord.  “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

Isaiah’s image is not of eternal suffering, but of eternal loss.  The bodies are dead, they are not writhing in pain.  They have become inert objects that will decompose and become dust.  Each body represents a person who rejected love and chose to be truly dead.

We usually talk about heaven and hell as if they were all about reward and punishment, but heaven isn’t won or earned and hell is just a choice of rejecting good .  We also talk about heaven and hell as if they were separate from this world.  But if you look at the Gospel of Mark, it suggests that both heaven and hell are with us here daily.  The first thing that Jesus preaches is “the domain of God has come near you.”  The journey Jesus walks is through a world of suffering.  We have already met people who have the light of heaven about them and some others who already live a hellish existence (like King Herod).  The Gospel of Mark speaks of demons that possess people:  For us, those demons seem like powerful images of temptation and the addiction to sin.

There are some terrible images that we have of hell that we have read in books and seen in movies, but there are much worse places in this world than in the strange fantasies of peculiar minds.  Between concentration camps, slave ships, Gulags, ghettos, prisons, battle fields, abusive families, human trafficking, the halls of power, the cruelty of billionaires and extremists, the world already is much more hell than any notion of hell can be.

But heaven is here, too.   In the places you expect it, and even flowering in the shadows of hell.

Many good-intentioned church folks have emphasized a threat of hell to scare people into line, but while threats may help fill pews with people who are motivated by fear, God’s message is love.  Christians need to set aside the idea of hell as punishment because it makes people think that heaven is a reward for good behavior.    God loves you because he is good, not because you are good.

The last things that Jesus says in chapter nine are about being salted.  It might make more sense to us if we use the word “seasoned.”  We are all seasoned with fire.  We have all been bunt by our own sins and well burnt by the sins of others.  Everyone is made stronger by fighting their own sins and by overcoming and recovering from the sins of others.  Self-control is difficult, but it can lead us to be more empathetic, humble, and loving.  We are all season by fire, but we are not burnt up.  When Jesus says to have salt among ourselves, he is saying that we should share in the strength that comes from surviving and rejecting sin.

You are destined for heaven.  Jesus already paid the price and has made the invitation.  The only way you can avoid heaven is by rejecting love and choosing to make hell in this life for yourself and others.

Questions to ponder:  What was the most heavenly experience you have ever had?  Have you ever told anyone about it?


Pastor Rick