By Shane Claiborne
On ministering to those trapped in hell on earth.
I figure anytime you are about to talk about hell it's good to start with a joke, so here we go….It was a busy day in heaven as folks waited in line at the pearly gates. Peter stood as gatekeeper checking each newcomer's name in the Lamb's Book of Life. But there was some confusion, as the numbers were not adding up. Heaven was a little overcrowded, and a bunch of folks were unaccounted for. So some of the angels were sent on a mission to investigate things. And it was not long before two of them returned, "We found the problem," they said. "Jesus is out back, lifting people up over the gate."
I remember as a child hearing all the hellfire and damnation sermons. We had a theater group perform a play called, "Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames" where actors presented scenes of folks being ripped away from loved ones only to be sent to the fiery pits of hell where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, and we all went forward to repent of all the evil things we had done over our first decade of life, in paralyzing fear of being "left behind"… the preacher literally scared the "hell" out of us.
But have you ever noticed that Jesus didn't spend much time on hell. In fact there are really only a couple of times he speaks of weeping and gnashing of teeth, of hell and God's judgment. And both of them have to do with the walls we create between ourselves and our suffering neighbors. One is Matthew 25 where the sheep and the goats are separated, and the goats who did not care for the poor, hungry, homeless, and imprisoned are sent off to endure an agony akin to that experienced by the ones that they neglected on this earth. And then there is the story of the rich man and Lazarus, a parable Jesus tells about a rich man who neglected the poor beggar outside his gate.
In the parable we hear of a wealthy man who builds a gate between himself and the poor man, and that chasm becomes an unbridgeable gap not only with Lazarus but with God. He is no doubt a religious man (he calls out "Father" Abraham and knows the prophets), and ndoubtedly he had made a name for himself on earth, but is now a nameless rich man begging the beggar for a drop of water. And Lazarus who lived a nameless life in the shadows of misery is seated next to God, and given a name. Lazarus is the only person named in Jesus' parables, and his name means "the one God rescues." God is in the business of rescuing people from the hells they experience on earth. And God is asking us to love people out of those hells.
Nowadays many of us spend a lot of time pondering and theologizing about heaven on earth and God's Kingdom coming here (and rightly so!), but it seems we would also do well to do a little work with the reality of hell. Hell is not just something that comes after death, but something many are living in this very moment… 1.2 billion people that are groaning for a drop of water each day, over 30,000 kids starving to death each day, 38 million folks dying of AIDS. It seems
ludicrous to think of preaching to them about hell. I see Jesus spending far more energy loving the "hell" out of people, and lifting people out of the hells in which they are trapped, than trying to scare them into heaven. And one of the most beautiful things we get to see in community here in Kensington, is people who have been loved out of the hells that they find themselves in—domestic violence, addiction, sex trafficking, loneliness.