given on Sunday, October 27, 2013
Welcome to the end of October! The days are getting shorter and by the time we meet again, we will lose daylight savings time. Shorter days will be even shorter. Halloween is just around the corner and the store shelves are filled with images of ghouls, goblins and ghosts. Every commercial, every DJ on the radio, even the stores make it feel like you are walking into the doors of hell with all sorts of hype.
Halloween may have begun with the tradition of All Saint’s Eve, a time to honor those who have died over the past year, but instead of honoring special saints in our lives, it looks more like a living hell on earth.
Obviously Halloween is really no threat any more. The idea of hell comes from all the hideous, grotesque, bloody costumes that kids, teens, and even parents don just for a little fun. The images that people choose to portray ranges from the silly, cute, and sweet to the ogres, the ghosts, goblins, and villains that have become familiar through all the media blitzes for movies, television shows, and events designed to scare one to death, so to speak. This one day a year, so many feel compelled to dress up in an alter ego that conceals their very identity.
Sometimes the “alter ego” models the wearer’s idea of what hell might be. Hell may be full of the living dead, the zombies, ax murderers, vampires, or worse; but surely hell is not filled with the neighbors we visit with over the fence or those we sit beside during Sunday morning worship. The images we develop of hell are all figments or our own imagination. There is no concrete way to know what the Bible’s hell is.
There are still several days until Halloween, but the question of what hell is or how one avoids hell seems like a timely question. References to hell are found in the Bible, but most of the images are from prophets’ dreams or John’s vision as described in Revelations. The scriptures also include ways one can go to hell, but I struggle with understanding how a loving God can assign someone to hell.
Consider this statement: God does not send people to hell. What is your first reaction to that statement? Maybe you want to take issue with it saying that only God sends people to hell. Or maybe you agree and believe that only people can send themselves to hell.
John Wesley even had his own perception of hell that is identified as a Wesley core term in the Wesley Study Bible:
Most notions of hell are influenced by John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Wesley’s were too. In his notes on Revelations, Wesley comments, “How far these expressions are to be taken literally, how far figuratively only, who can tell?” Wesley did believe in a literal “lake of fire” as a place where the damned are eternally tormented.
A Biblical reference to this image is in Revelations 20, where John shares his vision beginning with verse 11, in the section subtitled “The Dead Are Judged,” in verses 13-15:
“And the sea gave up the dead that were in it. Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
But the discussion of Wesley’s core term of hell continues including what was written in his Sermon 73, “Of Hell”:
. . . Wesley also describes hell as the experience of loss. Hell is the loss of beauty, music, pleasant memory, kindness, loved ones, friendship, love, and a sense of having been created by God—knowing that rest will never be found except in God. Hell is also felt experience; a place of hate, horror, greed, rage, lust, unsatisfied desires, envy, jealousy, malice and revenge, characterized by fear, guilt, and shame. While all of this will “incessantly gnaw the soul” like a vulture through all eternity, most hells begin here on earth. (p.1556)
This definition of hell shows that God does not send people to hell; people send themselves to hell.
Wesley’s list somewhat echoes Proverbs 11:16-19:
16 A gracious woman gets honor,
but she who hates virtue is covered with shame.
The timid become destitute,
but the aggressive gain riches.
17 Those who are kind reward themselves,
but the cruel do themselves harm.
18 The wicked earn no real gain,
but those who sow righteousness get a true reward.
19 Whoever is steadfast in righteousness will live,
but whoever pursues evil will die.
Granted the verses show both sides, the good and the bad; but the message is much the same. Going a little further into the chapter, Proverbs 11:30-31:
30 The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life,
but violence takes lives away.
31 If the righteous are repaid on earth,
how much more the wicked and the sinner!
The argument as to who sends people to hell is found in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament. Wesley himself created his own perception of hell, and so do we. The one point that remains in common is that God does not make the decisions as to who goes to hell or not, rather people do.
Maybe those alter egos we will see this week, especially on Halloween, reflect more truth than one might want to share. As people, Halloween might be an appropriate time to evaluate whether they are living a God-centered life or whether they are working to send themselves to hell. Do the decisions people make this one night of the year honestly reflect their life-style? Do the behaviors uphold Jesus’ teachings? Is all the fun simply fun or is there a more twisted meaning behind the masks?
Our Halloween should be filled with giving. We should see Halloween as an opportunity to share our beliefs openly. Hand out the candy with love! Play a safe trick on others, only if you know they will laugh. Figure out how to tell others your story without looking at the surface of a fiery lake. Is your costume pretend or is it real?
Remember that each of your decisions year round is your responsibility. God is not planning on sending anyone to hell because he loves everybody. He wants everybody to be in heaven with him.
God is pained by the people who are living with a sense of loss as Wesley listed: the loss of beauty, music, pleasant memory, kindness, loved ones, friendship, love, and a sense of having been created by God He weeps for all the people who feel hell as the negatives in life that Wesley outlined: a place of hate, horror, greed, rage, lust, unsatisfied desires, envy, jealousy, malice and revenge, characterized by fear, guilt, and shame.
Does God send people to hell? The answer lies within our own heart, our own knowledge of God. No one can tell us exactly what follows our life on earth. No one can tell us whether we are going to heaven or hell. As long as we are living a God-centered life, loving one another, looking at each other through God’s eyes, following the teachings of Jesus, and working to serve one another in love, then our decisions will make the decision for God.
Halloween is ahead, have a little fun. This is one of those times that living a God-centered life is key to assuring the safety of others. It is a time when giving treats delights our hearts. It is a time when we can share God’s love in so many ways, in such silly ways, and maybe even ‘scare’ someone into believing.
Dear loving Father,
We know you to be a loving God,
one who sees each one of us as your children.
Protect the littlest ones this Halloween
from those who play tricks out of meanness.
Keep the tummies healthy
even when filled with sugary treats.
Let the hands of parents safely
hold children in love and joy.
Lord, we ask one more thing, too.
For some, Halloween is more
than silly tricks and treats.
For them, the day is All Hollow’s Eve,
a time for remembering.
Wrap them in your love
as they wipe away tears of loss.
And let each one of us serve
as your hands and arms.
May we give to bring joy.
May we play to share laughter.
May we hug one another in love.
May we offer a shoulder to lean on.
Help us to show others how living
our faith will lead us to heavenly life. –Amen