THE GATES OF HELL by Shane Claiborne
I figure anytime you are about to talk about hell itÆs good to start with a joke, so here we goà. It was a busy day in heaven as folks waited in line at the pearly gates. Peter stood as gatekeeper checking each newcomerÆs name in the LambÆs 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, ôWe found the problem,ö they said. ôJesus is out back, lifting people up over the gate.ö
I remember as a child hearing all the hellfire and damnation sermons. We had a theater group perform a play called, ôHeavenÆs Gates and HellÆs Flamesö 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 ôleft behindöà the preacher literally scared the ôhellö out of us.
But have you ever noticed that Jesus didnÆt 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 GodÆs 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, imprisonedà 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 ôFatherö Abraham and knew the prophets), and undoubtedly 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 JesusÆ parables, and his name means ôthe one God rescues.ö 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 GodÆs 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 momentà 1.2 billion people that are groaning for a drop of water each day, over 30000 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 ôhellö 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 û domestic violence, addiction, sex trafficking, loneliness.
C.S. Lewis understood hell, not as a place where God locks people out of heaven, but as a dungeon that we lock ourselves into and that we as a Church hold the keys. I think that gives us new insight when we look at the parable of Lazarus or hear the brilliant words with which Jesus reassures Peter: ôThe gates of Hell will not prevail against you.ö As an adolescent, I understood that to mean that the demons and fiery darts of the devil will not hit us. But lately IÆve done a little more thinking and praying, and I have a bit more insight on the idea of ôgates.ö Gates are not offensive weapons. Gates are defensive û walls and fences we build to keep people out. God is not saying the gates of hell will not prevail as they come at us. God is saying that we are in the business of storming the gates of hell, and the gates will not prevail as we crash through them with grace.
People sometimes ask if we are scared of the inner city. I say that I am more scared of the suburbs. Our Jesus warns that we can fear those things which can hurt our bodies or we can fear those things which can destroy our souls, and we should be far more fearful of the latter. Those are the subtle demons of suburbia. As my mother once told me, ôPerhaps there is no more dangerous place for a Christian to be than in safety and comfort, detached from the suffering of others.ö IÆm scared of apathy and complacency, of detaching myself from the suffering. ItÆs hard to see until our 20/20 hindsight hits us û but every time we lock someone out, we lock ourselves further in. Just as we are building walls to keep people out of our comfortable, insulated existence, we are trapping ourselves in a hell of isolation, loneliness and fear. We have ôgated communitiesö where rich folks live. We put up picket fences around our suburban homes. We place barbed wire and razer-wire around our buildings and churches. We put bars on our windows in the ghettos of fear. We build up walls to keep immigrants from entering our country. We guard our borders with those walls – Berlin, Jerusalem, Jericho. And the more walls and gates and fences we have, the closer we are to hell. We, like the rich man, find ourselves locked into our gated homes and far from the tears of Lazarus outside, far from the tears of God.
Let us pray that God would give us the strength to storm the gates of hell, and tear down the walls we have created between those whose suffering would disrupt our comfort. May we become familiar with the suffering of the poor outside our gates, know their names, and taste the salt in their tearsà then when ôthe ones God has rescued,ö the Lazaruses of our world – the baby refugees, the mentally-ill wanderers, and the homeless outcasts – are seated next to God, we can say, ôWeÆre with them.ö Jesus has given them the keys to enter the Kingdomà maybe they will give us a little boost over the gate.
And in the New Jerusalem, the great City of God, “on no day will its gates ever be shut.” The gates of the Kingdom will forever be open. (Revelation 21:25)