David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.
Pastor, Silverside Church
Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation
©Copyright July 2006, Silverside Church
Sermon Series Summer 2006
God on Broadway:
Thoughts About God from the Musical Stage
July 30, 2006 Sermon #12
“Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?”
(final sermon in series)
I was driving out across Highway 41 this week and happened to see a message on a church’s sign board that has really stuck with me–like indigestion. It read–and I know you’ll want to make note of this to share with your internet friends across the world: “Exposure to the Son [S-O-N, not S-U-N] may prevent burning.” On yet another Sunday with the new air conditioner less than full installed, I have appropriately decided to preach oh hell. I have heard that the Board of Finance, before asking for additional contributions to cover the serious costs of replacing our 30-something year-old air conditioner, wants you to feel first-hand what an un-air-conditioned sanctuary feels like during one of the hottest times of the year here.
Seriously, though, folks, hell is a sobering subject, and I want to let you know right up front that I don’t believe in hell as a place of eternal damnation, torment, and punishment for enemies of the same God who loved the world and humanity enough to bring it/us into being. The only hell there is, is the one we keep creating or recreating on this earth, in this realm. The concept of a loving God who either “wills” or tolerates a burning, eternal hell is completely incongruous and intolerable. Furthermore, the Bible–the Judeo-Christian scriptures–do not teach the doctrine of hell as it has been well-developed and utilized by various preachers and religious institutions as a tool of threat, fear, and manipulation.
The Broadway musical, “Big River,” opens with the song, “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?”, in which Huckleberry Finn is given the two options in his life–heaven or hell–by practically everyone he knows. In a moment, you’ll hear this song sung. When you do, I want you to listen for the alternatives and antidotes presented to Huck in this song by the late Roger Miller based, of course, on the writings of Mark Twain. (Readers of this sermon manuscript will find the lyrics to this song at the end of the manuscript.)
This isn’t the only place hell comes up in the funny–yet very moving–production. Some of you may have seen the amazing production of this musical at the Dupont a couple of years ago; it was produced and performed by the American Deaf Theatre using a combination of deaf and hearing/speaking actors. In any case, as you may know from your reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is caught between lots of rocks and hard places. The most painful of these for him is how to manage his friendship with a slave named Jim. What is the ethical thing for him, Huck, to do? Ensure that Jim, as a piece of property, stays with his “rightful owner” OR help Jim, as a human being, escape to full freedom. Having been brought up to believe in the preservation of slavery, the notion of freed slaves is rather novel to Huck, but at one very agonizing moment, painfully torn between those two worlds but deciding to help Jim find freedom, Huck screams out, “Alright, I’ll just go to hell!” We have to understand, as is so often the case, people are taught by their religious leaders and mentors that a societal norm is God’s will and that to go against that principle in any way is to slap God in the face, to reject God–as it were.
You would shudder, perhaps, to go back and read copies of some of the sermons preached in pulpits of practically all denominations in the southern United States that “use” Scripture to defend slavery. The various implications of rejecting slavery wound back to the notion that to oppose slavery was to oppose God. One wonders if slavery in the south could have lasted as long as it did apart from the complicity of effective pro-slavery Protestant and Catholic preachers.
In any case, that is exactly what Huck has confronted. He chooses Jim. He chooses freedom for a fellow human being. He rejects the institution of slavery, and in so doing–because he doesn’t know any better–he believes he has rejected the God who so ordered the world. Brave young man he was, that Huck! He chose humanity over hell.
When Mark Twain was writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he gave a potential publisher an insight into this very episode. Wrote Twain: “In this crucial moral emergency...a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into conflict, and conscience suffers defeat.” So, does hell, by the way.
More and more preachers and scholars, of even a more traditional or conservative persuasion, are reading the scriptures as we have them and admitting–reluctantly or in celebration–that there is no such thing as hell as currently popularly presented in either Hebrew or Christian scriptures. One rather traditional scholar called the Christian doctrine of hell a myth that originated not in the Bible but rather in the traditions developing some three hundred years after Jesus’ execution. Indeed, the English word, “hell,” was chosen by the King James translation committee to translate several biblical words including “sheol” and “hades.” Instead of letting each word have its own intended meaning, this catch-all word was chosen for convenience. We can honestly say that the word, “hell” doesn’t appear in any of the original Hebrew or Greek manuscripts that became a part of Judeo-Christian scripture.
We learned at one of our mid-week gatherings a few months ago about the Reverend Carlton Pearson, the African American Oral-Roberts-protégé, who for years had preached the doctrine of a literal hell in keeping with the general theological outlook of his denomination, the Church of God in Christ–the largest, predominantly Black pentecostal religious group in the world. He was pastoring a 5000 member church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was holding annual conferences to which 20,000-plus participants routinely came. He was making serious money himself and leading a congregation that took in about a million dollars every four months. (You may want to get him here for the weeks I’m away to help raise the money to pay for the air conditioner and the roof!)
Everything seemed to be going just the way any literalistic, Bible-belt preacher would have wanted them to do when, in 1999, he had a talk with himself and had to be honest about the fact that he no longer honestly believed in a hell. He changed his message. He lost most of his congregation. He lost his church building. He lost his income. He lost his prestige. But he could no longer preach what he disbelieved.
If you had the benefit of a religious upbringing minus threats of hell, lucky you! We don’t want our adult members and friends confronted with that kind of nonsense around here; and we especially don’t want the children who grow up in this church ever even to entertain the notion that God would punish them in the present–much less in eternal, burning fire.
I grew up on hell. Hell was one of the most popular topics for sermons by some of the pastors at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads. We had Sunday morning and Sunday evening preaching services every week, year ‘round, and if we didn’t visit hell in morning worship, we surely visited in that night; sometimes, we’d get to think about hell on Sunday morning AND Sunday evening.
I shudder to remember and confess to you that I have actually preached hell-based sermons. I was always nice about it, of course; after all, I’m a Southern gentleman. I never got angry when I reminded people who didn’t get “saved” that they would have to spend eternity in hell. I remained very calm when I told them that their eternal destinies ultimately could take them in only one of two ways–heavenward or hellward.
I have heard, in recent years, that Jonathan Edwards, when he delivered his Infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” did so not in the style of today’s loud and angry fundamentalist preacher, but rather in a calm, matter-of-fact voice. Edwards preached his unforgettable sermon 265 Julys ago in Enfield, Connecticut. He wasn’t even forty at the time he preached his most famous sermon.
There is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment. Men’s hands cannot be strong when God rises up. The strongest have no power to resist him, nor can any deliver out of his hands. -- He is not only able to cast wicked men into hell, but he can most easily do it. Sometimes an earthly prince meets with a great deal of difficulty to subdue a rebel, who has found means to fortify himself, and has made himself strong by the numbers of his followers. But it is not so with God. There is no fortress that is any defense from the power of God. Though hand join in hand, and vast multitudes of God’s enemies combine and associate themselves, they are easily broken in pieces. They are as great heaps of light chaff before the whirlwind; or large quantities of dry stubble before devouring flames. We find it easy to tread on and crush a worm that we see crawling on the earth; so it is easy for us to cut or singe a slender thread that any thing hangs by: thus easy is it for God, when he pleases, to cast his enemies down to hell. What are we, that we should think to stand before him, at whose rebuke the earth trembles, and before whom the rocks are thrown down? They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God’s using his power at any moment to destroy them. Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins.
In any case, I can’t tell you how badly I’d like to be able to take back all my sermonic hell-talk; I can’t imagine whom all I hurt with my horrid theology from that time in my thought-development. But I preached what I’d heard, what I’d been taught; and I didn’t do my own study and reflection. I only read commentators with whom I agreed. Of course, we always find it easier to understand the Bible if we decide what it says before we read it and let it say what it really says–which, at best, will still be prescientific and tied to ancient cultural perspectives about which we know very little yet today. Even so, if a doctrine of hell isn’t even there to misinterpret to begin with, so much the better!
We can all understand the convenience of hell in the hands of manipulative preachers and popes who need to have people acting in certain ways, in ways THEY want their hearers to act, in order to preserve order and the institution. Either do what I tell you to do in just the way I tell you to do it, OR you’ll go to hell.
I find the idea of hell as a threatening means to force people to accept the God as one person or group defines God reprehensible. It is the epitome of speaking for God or, actually, of putting words into God’s mouth. One human being, regardless of power and position and insight, absolutely cannot know what the relationship of any human being is to God. That having been said, we also go so far as to say that a person who either never understands what God’s love is about or who knows about God and rejects God anyway still will NOT go to hell. For one thing, again, there is no hell; for another thing, if there were a hell a loving God wouldn’t send anyone there OR allow for the possibility that some stubborn types might choose to go there just for the hell of it, so to speak.
The words of our second hymn today have stirred me since I first heard them several years ago. The original words come from seventeenth century Spain; they were translated into English in the mid-nineteenth century, and they are profoundly inspiring for someone who believes there is a reason to embrace God’s love other than a fear of hell if she or he doesn’t so embrace:
My God, I love thee,
Not because I hope for heaven thereby,Nor yet for fear that loving notI might forever die...
Then why, most loving Jesus Christ,Should I not love thee well,Not for the sake of winning heaven,Nor any fear of hell;Not with the hope of gaining aught,Nor seeking a reward;But as thyself hast loved me,O ever loving Lord!E’en so I love thee, and will love,And in thy praise will sing,Solely because thou art my GodAnd my eternal King.
Our reflective reading for today came from the First Gospel (not in terms of chronology but rather literary order), Matthew’s Gospel, and it offered us words attributed to Jesus by the writer or writers of this literary masterpiece. You heard it read from a literal translation of Matthew, but this is how it reads in the most reliable modern translation of the New Testament, the New Revised Standard Version:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? (Matt 23:27-33 NRSV).
Dang! Jesus is mad at the Pharisees; I suspect they were his “fellow Pharisees,” as I believe that was his own political party. In any case, Jesus did NOT raise the possibility of their being sentenced to hell. We know that for certain because he doesn’t use the word for “hell” here. In fact, there was no word for hell. What he does use is a reference to the big city garbage dump, gehenna; and that is exactly how the literal version leaves it.
So, what’s gehenna? “Gehenna” is based on a Hebrew word–and is actually used in the Hebrew scripture passed down to us–meaning “valley of Hinnom.” This valley evidently bordered ancient Jerusalem and had become the city dump–except worse. In addition to trash thrown there to burn up, the bodies of children sacrificially offered to gods such as Molech were taken there for mass, ongoing cremation. The bodies of criminals executed by the government–which, in Jesus’ day of course, meant Rome–were also taken there to burn. In all likelihood, the bodies of the two men crucified on either side of Jesus were taken from their crosses out to the Valley of Hinnom for disposal. If you recall the Jewish cleanliness laws, the constant tossing of dead bodies there made the very space intolerable to “law-abiding” Jews.
This whole pericope (passage, segment) attributed to Jesus by Matthew is about a rather immediate spiritual death and condemnation–not about some kind of “eternal” anguish in a fire that never goes out. Notice the repeated references to tombs, graves, and death in the space of just a few verses.
There are only a couple of places where such a horrid, godless concept could have come from. One would be the book of symbols at the end of the present New Testament, the book of Revelation. In the twentieth chapter of this brilliantly conceived and written piece of apocalyptic literature where everything is a symbol, as you’ve heard me say on other occasions. There is mention of the major forces/sources of evil being cast into a lake of fire that always burns and that will, thus, cause them unquenchable anguish day and night.
Then, there is a reference in the Gospels that, at first blush, MAY SEEM to have Jesus pointing to an eternal fire. In Mark chapter 9, we find these words on Mark’s Jesus’ lips:
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to [ge-henna NOT hell], to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into [ge-henna NOT hell]. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into [ge-henna NOT hell], where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched (Mark 9:42-48 NRSV).
Jesus has in mind in this Markan passage exactly what he had mind in the Matthew passage, which is our reflective reading for today. The unquenchable fire is the fire in the city dump, in the Valley of Hinnom. Indeed, the fire never went out there; there were always more garbage and more bodies to burn.
Jesus isn’t threatening the Pharisees and other listeners with an eternal, agonizing, fiery punishment to begin when they leave this earth. The kind of death and punishment to which he refers are very much present-tense spiritual deaths; their souls are being destroyed as they live out a “religion of appearances.” People who separate themselves from God, regardless of how pious they may look on the outside, are in agony, and that kind of agony won’t go away.
So, any hell there is, is now. Any hell there is, is human-made; and on occasion–certainly not always, self-made. Hell is the torture of a soul, the torment of a self.
Huck Finn didn’t have to wait until his earthly life ended to experience hell. He was already in hell–trying to propagate the institution of humanity-as-soulless-property. His willingness to go to a literal hell in his afterlife as the price for freeing one human being was actually his resurrection; not his condemnation.
You know what hell really is, and it has nothing to do with the next realm of living, which is for all who choose it, all who want to enjoy God’s loving embrace beyond this material world. Hell is:
- war–waging it and waiting for its weapons to maim you or your loved ones, or to take your earthly lives;
- suffering an illness not popular enough to “warrant” governmentally-endorsed treatment options...and making the corporate decision not to try to find cures for such disorders;
- being a helpless child enduring physical and/or emotional abuse with no means of escape...and abusing such children–that, too, is hell;
- being a part of a hell-oriented religious movement, fearing constantly that you might displease an angry and vindictive God, even by accident, and land yourself in a literal, eternal, burning hell...and being the proclaimer of a such a hell.
All of these are hell; they destroy souls in the here and now. The only hell there is, is the one we create or recreate for ourselves and/or others. We can do something about such hells.
Looka here, Huck, do you wanna go to heaven?Do you wanna go to heaven?Well I'll tell you right nowYou better learn to read and you better learn your writin’Or you'll never get to heaven cause you won't know how.
You may think that the whole thing is sillyBut it ain't silly really, and I'll tell you right nowIf you don't learn to read then you can’t read your BibleAnd you’ll never get to heaven cause you won't know how
Looka here, Huck, now you better think it over.Do ya wanna be a loafer like your pappy is now?You better learn to read and you better know your writin’Or you’ll never get to heaven cause you won't know how.
Hey, hey do ya wanna go to heaven?Do ya wanna go to heaven?If you don't go to hell.
Looka here, Huck, do you wanna go to heaven?Do you wanna go to heaven?Well I’ll tell you right nowYou better learn to read and you better learn your writin’Or you’ll never get to heaven cause you won't know how.
You may think that the whole thing is silly,But it isn't silly really, and I'll tell you right nowIf you don’t learn to read then you can’t read your Bible;You'll never get to heaven cause you won't know how.
Looka here, Huck, now you better think it overDo ya wanna be a loafer like your pappy is now?You better learn to read, and you better learn your writin’Or you’ll never get to heaven cause you won't know how.
Hey, hey ain’t the situation concernin’ education aggravatin’ and how?Do you wanna go to heaven?Well you better get your lessons or you won't know how!
Looka here, Huck, do you wanna be a fellerLike a feller really ought to beI'll tell you right now,You better learn to read, and you better learn your writin’Or you'll never get to heaven cause you won't know how
(these lyrics from the musical, “Big River”).