Whom to Fear

Whom to Fear

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

June 19, 2005

Scripture: Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10: 24-31

“Do not fear those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; rather fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and the body in hell.” –Matthew 10:28

For people like us, this is perhaps the most provocative saying in all the gospels. We attribute the bitter fruits of religious exclusionism that we see all around us these days to exclusive claims like the one we have before us, and so we reject them and it. Jesus is not the only way, truth and life, and not everyone has to believe in him in order to be in a relationship with God.

No doubt that there is a link between exclusionist claims and inter-group hostility, but the link is not simple. It is not the case that exclusionist claims automatically entail inter-group hostility. If that were so there would be nothing to call tolerance, since tolerance is the acceptance of claims that cannot be mediated or reduced one to the other, or to some one claim larger than each. To tolerate is to let competing claims lie beside each other unresolved and un-reconciled, to let them be for the time being in the hope that one day all will become clear. This is tolerance – the acceptance of human limitations and the inevitable ignorance they entail. Tolerance is emphatically not to say that all claims are equally valid in terms of some ultimate insight of reason, that all faiths are equally true. Not at all! Apart from the fact that such statements are logically incoherent – there cannot be more than one truth – simple practice holds that tolerance is precisely as I have defined it, namely, not reducing the truth claims of different systems in any way, but leaving them side by side unresolved, until the ability to resolve them, which we do not now have, comes on the scene.In these clear and unmistakable words Jesus warns us that the devil is able to destroy us body and soul in hell. Most of us do not take these words seriously any longer, if ever we did, and so I am sure you expect me now to tell you that Jesus was mistaken on this point, or that Jesus never spoke these words and that they were put into his mouth by vindictive, unloving Christians. I might or might not try to get us off this terrifying hook, later but not now. Now I want us to dangle for a while on the hook of uncertainty and feel the horror of hell. The message for today is, “…fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and the body in hell.”

To help me dramatize the import of these words I read again the sermon Jonathan Edwards preached at Enfield in Western Connecticut on July 8th, 1741. At that time the 38 year old John Wesley was in the thick of the Methodist revival in England and one of his young protégés the 24 year old George Whitfield had already preached in the Connecticut River Valley as a dynamic player in what was there called the “ Great Awakening.” The “Awakening” began slowly in 1731 among the youth of Northampton, Mass., in Jonathan Edwards’ parish there and really “took off” during a preaching tour there by Wesley’s young disciple Whitfield in 1740. The young Edwards, the same age as Wesley entitled the sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of and Angry God,” and took as his text Deuteronomy 32:35, “…their foot shall slide in due time…”

It had an electrifying effect. Crowds of people pressed urgently for deliverance from hell. Here is a description of such behavior taken from Wesley’s identical experience with his hearers (simply because I have this source at hand). Preaching at a place called Everton in 1769, Wesley heard the following description from one of his hearers, “ (a well dressed man opposite me) … fell backward to the wall, then forward on his knees, wringing his hands and roaring like a bull. His face at first turned quite red, then almost black. He rose and ran against the wall, till Mr. Keeling and another held him. He screamed out, “Oh what shall I do? What shall I do? Oh for one drop of the blood of Christ!”

Reading this last week I thought how lacking in motivation we are these days to seek the saving help of Christ. Our problems are boredom or loneliness, a troubled mind, a parched soul, not terror at the prospect of an imminent plunge in eternal torment. We are metaphysically complacent, persuaded there is no hell and that God’s unconditional love will receive us in the end despite every carelessness, every evasion of the truth about ourselves and the state of our soul, every shameless act. But I wonder how watertight this complacency is. I think many of us are haunted by an ultimate anxiety, a fear that our lives have not measured up and that there awaits us not gain but bottomless loss.

The premise of Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of and Angry God” is that, as the Deuteronomy quote says, we are every minute walking on the lip of a slippery slope that slides into hell, and that we totter along more or less successfully only because God holds us with His almighty hand. He can withdraw His steadying grip at any time, and so our position is utterly precarious and ominously uncertain, unless we enter the covenant of grace and experience the reconciling power of the blood of Jesus. Listen to this marvelous rhetoric: “So that, thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and god is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger, neither is God in the least bound by any promise to hold them up one moment; the devil is waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up; the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out: and they have no interest in any Mediator, there are no means within reach that can be any security to them. In short, they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of; all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance of an incensed God.”

Well that is a taste of what we dismissively call “fire and brimstone” preaching, from the pen of America’s greatest theological mind, and most powerful rhetorician. When a man of Edwards’ genius holds opinions like this, I pay attention, despite the two and a half centuries of history that separate us. I do not like his idea of God and I do not accept his doctrine of predestination, but there is a truth here that must be acknowledged. I am not persuaded that our current understanding of these vital matters is so vastly advanced since his day that we may dismiss him smugly. So I want to try to take his concerns in this matter seriously while applying them in our different time.

Our time is of course different from Edwards’ but is our human nature? Our culture is different but is our moral responsibility? It was wrong then to lie, steal and send young people disingenuously to their deaths in war. It is still wrong. It was wrong then to oppress, enslave and kill foreigners. It is still wrong. In those days we went to hell if we did such things and left the deeds unrepented and unforgiven. Today we are elected to high office, showered with accolades and cheered as heroes. Or are we? Could it be that the cheering is really just acoustical cover for the jeering of the demons who are licking their chops and firing up their father’s day barbecues in preparation for the arrival of those dignitaries with human lives on the debit side of their moral ledgers?

I confess as I watch in near despair the unfolding of our war in Iraq the doctrine of hell is a great comfort to me, even though I know that I myself am a prime candidate for the eternal flames. The doctrine comforts me because I hold that the world is moral and that the transgressors of the moral law, including me, will be punished. I believe that life is morally serious, that we can lose our souls, and that murderers, liars, in high office or low, will not be exempted from that final judgment. Nobody gets away with anything! We must sooner or later answer to God for what we did in this world and who we became in the course of a lifetime. That is the bedrock of my conception of what it is to be a human being. It might be summed up as ineluctable moral responsibility. If there is no hell then there is no moral sense to life in this world, and if there is no moral sense then there is no sense at all. If we cannot fail at life then there is not point in striving to succeed. If we cannot fail then whatever we do is fine; we can’t lose. I don’t have to point out to you that this attitude is the dark heart of decadence. “You can’t lose” is the word of the swindler and con man, and alas of countless preachers. I think Jesus is warning us to beware of such people and attitudes and to have a healthy fear of the one who can destroy our souls in hell.

I do not have the time to discuss what hell actually is, whether it is a place or a state of being, and so on. It is in any case beyond literal description, so let the metaphor of fire and brimstone suffice. The point is that Jesus teaches us that it is real, and to be feared along with its ruler Satan. All this language is symbolic and to be interpreted, but its import is clear: there is a nemesis, a moral retribution if we flaunt the moral law, or as the present context in the gospel of Matthew determines, betray Jesus when we face persecution for our faith in him.

At this point I invite you to look at the context in which Matthew has placed the saying. It is generally accepted that the sayings of Jesus were often remembered in isolation, and later given a context by the oral tradition and ultimately by the writer of the gospel. Matthew places this warning to fear the devil and hell amidst sayings that warn of persecution to come. The earliest Christians are being persecuted before the courts and committees of the state and Matthew has put together a passage that the victims might read as they go to court each day. If they called Jesus Beelzebub what will they call you? Nothing will remain hidden. The truth will out. Do not fear the tribunals, which can only mar your body, fear rather the destroyer of the soul. God knows us absolutely, down to the individual hairs of our heads, and He who knows every two for a penny sparrow that falls to the ground, watches over us and cares for us. “So fear not! You are of more value than many sparrows (vs.31).” The purpose of this collection of sayings is to encourage us when we face persecution.

We are told to fear and not to fear. Fear the devil and hell, but not the persecutors of this world who can only kill our body but cannot touch our soul. The fear of hell strengthens us to withstand the fearful things of this world. They are nothing compared to the real thing, and in any case God cares for us; we are His little birds and he will not let one of us fall unremarked, unrequited and unredeemed. When we fall it will not be down the slippery slope to the eternal fire, but into God’s hands – as long as we stand firm for the truth and the right. Those who resist and are true to Jesus will fall into the hands of a forgiving God, those who go to the dark side will be in the hands of hell.

Harry Truman said of his nickname, “Give ‘em hell Harry” that he didn’t give them hell he merely told the truth and they thought it was hell. I’m impressed that the saying immediately before ours warns against the futility of lying, because so many tribunals are mostly benches of partisan liars. “And so do not fear them, for there is nothing covered up that will not be uncovered, secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, proclaim in the light, and what you hear in your ear announce from the rooftops (vs.26-27). “ I have done my share of shouting from the rooftops in my time. I shouted about the folly of the Iraq invasion until I left Woodside.

Gradually the covert is becoming overt, and the liars and persecutors are being seen for what they are. I bet that ten years from now, after thousands of billions of treasure and scores of thousands of the dead and the maimed, we shall all clearly see the Iraq war policy like the Vietnam war policy to be a great evil perpetrated by a group of skilful liars who manipulated a nation of willing sheep. I may also turn out be wrong, and of course I am not the one to judge, but in any case, I find it a comfort to know that in the end we shall not get away with our evil, for God also knows every hair on the heads of our victims, and the clear identity of every murderer of every sparrow that falls. We will not get away with anything! The judgment will be perfectly just and then we shall pay the price of our evil. Thank God for the doctrine of hell!