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Sermons

Is there Really a Hell?

October 20, 2002

Bible Reading

And he said unto me, "Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand. He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he that is filthy, let him be filthy still; and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still; and he that is holy, let him be holy still. And behold, I come quickly, and my reward is with me, to give to all according as their work shall be. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last."

"Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For outside are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whoever loves and makes a lie. I Jesus have sent my angel to testify to you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star." (Revelation 22:10-16)

Read also: Matthew 25:14-30

Reading from Swedenborg

Hell consists of spirits who, when they were people in the world, denied God and affirmed the material world. They lived contrary to divine order, and loved evil and false things--though for the sake of appearances, they did not do this openly. Therefore they were either insane when it came to the truth, or denied the truth at heart, if not with their mouths. Hell consists of all who have lived this way since the creation of the world.

These are called either "devils" or "satans." Those in whom selfish love has predominated are called devils, and those in whom materialistic love has predominated are called satans. (Apocalypse Explained #1142.2)

Sermon

Do you think there is a hell? In Christopher Marlowe's drama of Dr. Faustus, the venerable doctor says, "I think hell is a fable!" Mephistopheles answers, "Ah, think so still, 'til experience change thy mind." How many people today think hell is a fable? They can imagine a heaven, but a hell is unthinkable! They ask, "How can you reconcile hell with a loving God?" Anyway, hell is so repugnant, so dreadful that we do not care to think about it.

In our modern world where facts reign supreme, there remain corners where we simply refuse to face reality. We believe what we want to believe, and close our eyes to the rest. In spite of all reason to the contrary, we can be the most ardent optimists. For instance, do you know even five people who admit that they might go to hell? We all tend to think things will be better in the future. We believe that every story has a happy ending. Tomorrow is another day; surely things will be different! But will they? Why should they necessarily be? Put the question on the basis of experience, since that is one thing, at least, that we seem willing to trust.

We all know homes that are caricatures of "Home, Sweet Home," where we witness constant quarreling, bickering, friction, and too often, hate. Within the family circle the bars of restraint and appearances are down, so that the members of the family appear outwardly just about what they are like within. What are these homes but little hells of disorderly living?

We all know marriages in which the partners have forgotten the vows of love and faith, have forgotten their promise to seek the eternal welfare and happiness of the other. They have destroyed heavenly happiness by selfishness; they have torn the marriage bonds apart in their perverted desire to hurt and humiliate their once loved one. What is this for each of them but hell?

That home and marriage might be yours. Did you ever think of that? We see other people ruining themselves, debasing their ideals, and blasting their chances for happiness. But did you ever stop to think that the "other person" might be you? There is much that goes on inside us of which we are honestly ashamed. Much of what we do, we hate--but we do it nevertheless. The dirty, envious, selfish, and mean thoughts that flood our minds; the delight we find in toying with their suggestions; the evil and uncharitable impulses that they arouse; what is all this but hell brought home to us in terms of our own experience?

Looking at life as we know it, can we close our eyes to the wrongdoing, the perverseness, the inhumanity? Can we assume that people who prefer a disorderly and wrongly-centered life will suddenly desire the opposite?

What would change their minds and hearts? Experience? But we know that this only settles people more firmly in their ways. It only cuts more deeply the crooked mental paths to which the heart has given assent. Would external force, or law, change their minds? We well know that these are flouted at every opportunity. At best, people may be forced into outward conformity, but inwardly they remain exactly what they are. Would fear of consequences change them? Fear of consequences never really prevents people from doing what they want--though it may force them into finding more subtle expression for their desires.

Can we imagine, therefore, that a person who has ruined his life here will suddenly and miraculously be freed of his evil past? Not if we believe that our Lord respects human personality; that he keeps human freedom inviolate. He respects us so much, in fact, that he lets us do what is wrong and love what is bad. If he were going to override the result of our free choices, would it not be easier for him to prevent our wrongdoing in the first place?

No, we cannot imagine a confirmed wrongdoer separated from his wrongdoing when he dies. It would not be immortality to be raised up in the spiritual world an entirely different person than what he had been here. Change overnight all that a person has come to treasure and love and prize, change his ideals, his standard of values, his attitudes, his longings, and you have created another person. For after all, "love is the life of man" (Divine Love and Wisdom #1). Change a person's love and you have a different person. This is what happens gradually over a lifetime. If it took place in the twinkling of an eye as we step into the world of spirit, there would be no continuity of experience, and therefore no personal immortality. We would simply cease to exist, and in our place would be an entirely different individual.

Therefore, just as we are, we pass on to the further adventures of life. We are the same persons there as we are here. No miraculous change takes place. We continue to think, feel, love, and act in the same way we did here. As the risen and glorified Lord Jesus said, "He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he that is filthy, let him be filthy still; and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still; and he that is holy, let him be holy still."

If this is the immortality that lies ahead of us--continued life in which we remain basically ourselves--what about the "unjust" and "filthy" and the "righteous" and "holy"? On the basis of experience here, what would you expect? Would you expect the straight-minded and the crooked-minded men and women to be friends and neighbors there? Do you think that a person of high ideals and unselfish language would have much in common with the self-centered person who sees nothing beyond himself? Their interests, ideas and attitudes are as different as day and night!

Suppose we follow the group of men and women whose states of mind and heart make up what we call "hell." Here are the liars, cheats, adulterers, murderers, misers, and the rest of the spiritual delinquents. We see people in an environment that is admirably adapted to their natures. Gone are the restraints that kept them from fully expressing their desires and ambitions here on earth. Lifted away is all fear of the law, and of the loss of self-respect, reputation, and economic and social standing. In their new environment, they find themselves apparently free to give full rein to their lusts and passions, and to do just what they want.

But they are not free! They can never be free! A murderer here on earth can follow out his desire when the opportunity arises. But imagine this murderer placed in a group of thousands of murderers, all of whom burn with the desire to kill! He will try to injure others, only to find they are just as ready to injure him. So he learns by hard experience that his own self-interest depends on curbing his murderous passion.

Think of California in the gold rush days. Men from all walks of life came pouring into that territory, drawn by gold, adventure, and the excitement of the new country. They found no law enforcement there other than their own guns. All the restraints to which they were accustomed were suddenly lifted. And they reacted differently to this new environment. Men who had been considered solid citizens back East, such as staid deacons from New England, as often as not became criminals and outlaws.

Oddly enough, it was the gamblers and others usually associated with lawlessness who formed the Vigilantes and brought law and order to California. They did this not because they loved law and order, but because they found that without it no one was safe. What was the use of trying to become rich if your gold was not safe, and you might be robbed and murdered any moment? So they backed law and order for their own self-interest.

It is the same in hell. A person there discovers that it is to his own selfish advantage to conform to a certain type of behavior. And while cursing at not finding an outlet for his desires, like a bird beating against the bars of its cage, his all-consuming passion continues to burn, and to leave him frustrated. That is hell, whether we call it so or prefer to call it by a nicer name. We are truly happy only when we are free and can fully express ourselves.

Just imagine a hell of dictators, where self-love and egoism reach their depth. Here are the Caesars, Napoleons, Mussolinis, Hitlers, Stalins, and others of their ilk. They would either have to suppress themselves or one another, or take turns playing Big Dictator! And it would be hell for every one of them. From what we see here on earth, plus what we can imagine, plus the descriptions given to us by Swedenborg, we get a faint idea of what it is like. It is enough of a picture to make our hearts sink and our flesh crawl.

It is not surprising that the people who live in the spiritual condition called "hell" should reflect their own environment even in their outward features. Evil does that to people. We cannot be borne down by continual frustration without its showing on our face. Hell robs a person of even the opportunity to express the evil within him. His range of action is definitely limited. It is this inner, unchecked burning without the possibility of blazing into act that is pictured in Bible language by eternal hellfire: the lake of fire and brimstone that burns forever, and is never quenched. Likewise, the continual clash of personality on personality, the constant friction of interest against interest, is aptly pictured in the Bible by the "gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness" (Matthew 25:30). The Bible is talking about actual human experiences!

But perhaps the most pitiful of all is the vain effort to escape the consequences of one's own choice. Think of trying to escape from a hated environment, and discovering that it is impossible because your heart is really at home there. You realize you cannot leave it because in your heart of hearts you do not want to!

And because even in hell there is still something within the human being that once made him a man, there come thoughts of what might have been had he been different. There comes the thought of what still might be, if he would but turn himself away from his evilness (an idle thought, because he does not want to). Call it eternal frustration; call it a persistent state of evil; call it anything you want to. But there it is "hell"!

Seeing hell around us, experiencing something of hell within us, seeing something of what hell is like when evil really lets itself go, what are we going to do about it? We all do what is wrong at times; we all sin; we know that we are but poor followers of our Lord Jesus. But what shall our reaction be when we fail our Lord; when we give in to selfishness and indulgence and passion? Are we going to say, "Lord, I am truly sorry and ashamed. I will do better; I don't want that kind of life. I want, and will seek, that life more abundant that you hold out to me and to all people?"

But because this involves our freedom of choice, the thought rushes immediately into our mind, excusing our conduct: "It is perfectly natural." And our proud heart mutters, "Why can't I do what I want?"

It is "perfectly natural," but our Lord has shown us a higher way--a spiritual way of living. You can, of course, do exactly as you want. But do it with your eyes open to the lasting consequences, so that you will have no vain regrets. Make your bargain with life and stick to it! And no matter how much you may rationalize, despite any amount of wishful thinking, know this: you cannot get away from yourself! Remember, too, that you have no one to blame but yourself if you experience what our Lord expressed in these words:

Cast the unprofitable servant into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Prayer

O Lord, who are the way, the truth, and the life, we know that if we do not follow your guidance, our lower, sinful nature will lead us astray. We pray, therefore, that you will teach, enlighten, and lead us, and will be with us continually. We pray that you will turn and lift your face toward us, so that we may live. Amen.

Rev. Richard H. Tafel, Sr.