The Varieties of Hell and Christ’s Well-Planned Jail Break — 5 November 2023, The Feast of All Saints

Pastor Adrianne Meier
5 November 2023, All Saints’ Sunday
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana

The Varieties of Hell and Christ’s Well-Planned Jail Break

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Matthew 27:50-56
Then Jesus cried again [from the cross] with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 

Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

When I was about ten or eleven, we spent about eighteen months in the funeral home— my grandfather and eight of his closest friends all died within just a few months of each other. In my mind, other funerals get set in those months, because the funeral home was run by family friends, so when we were there, we made a day of it. There was nowhere else to go. I remember its elegant bathrooms, and the lounge—where we kids were encouraged to play well-used board games, and, generally, stay out from underfoot. This was, I think, when I learned about the importance of showing up to funerals, of being present to one another’s grief. I learned that it is the grieving who are often the ones who are able to help the most, often because they say the least. This was when I learned what a platitude was—the “he’s in a better place,” and “heaven needed an angel,” and “at least he’s at peace now.” The things we offer because they seem comforting or they helped us, once, for a grief that wasn’t so close, so fresh. It is also when I learned that these things we say in an attempt to comfort have a shadow side: even though my beloved is at peace, grief can feel like its own hell. But, if Christ can descend to hell, and, from there, resurrect God’s beloved, then there is no hell from which God will not save us.

Today we read that, as Jesus breathes his last, the earth morns, the Temple curtain tears, and, oddly, tombs are opened. Even as grief strikes those closest to Jesus— the ones who stick around— women, mostly, who have been ministering to Jesus and caring for Jesus for a while now, since he started, in Galilee— even as grief slams into them like a tidal wave, all thee signs are meant to show that Christ is already and immediately victorious over death. This is such a significant point for Matthew, it seems that, in his time, theologians were wondering,well, what happens on that Sabbath day between Jesus’ death and resurrection? What does God do on a day off? And the answer is that Jesus descends to hell and breaks them out. 

For Hebrews and for early Christians, Sheol or Hades or Inferno is just the place where the dead—good and bad—go. And Jesus goes there, because he died. And Jesus goes there because he is victorious over death. Today, hell means more than just death. Hell means, sometimes, eternal punishment. Hell always means separation from God. Hell is, as the poet Jill Alexander Essbaum defines it, “the inescapable presence of God / endured in the permanent absence of him.” If this is true, at its essence, then Hell isn’t a single place. There are a whole variety of hells. Essbaum writes, for example:

…a hell for omissive sins. 
All what you meant to do though couldn’t. 
How you intended to love, but didn’t. 

A hell for revenge songs and ridicule. 
A hell where despair is winnowed by fire. 
A hell that burns away desire. 

Sure, there are some that would not want me to move away from the idea of Hell as eternal punishment deserved by the immoral and the evil. But I find such a definition entirely too convenient—I can just damn to hell anyone I don’t like, anyone I don’t agree with, anyone who doesn’t take my side, anyone who doesn’t work as hard as I do,anyone who doesn’t look or think like me. Which is, of course, exactly what we human beings do to each other, it is just that death rarely has anything to do with it. Hell is what we do to one another, to the earth. Hell is our brokenness as it spills over into the lives of our neighbors, leaving pain and sorrow in its wake. Hell is deforestation and islands of plastic. Hell is war, genocide. Hell is hatred. Hell is unmitigated poverty in the richest country on earth. Hell is where Jesus goes.

The truth is we spend entirely too much time condemning people to a far-off Hell, and too little time discovering the hells of our own making, the hells which trap our neighbor. We’re so busy separating the sheep and the goats,as if that is even our job to begin with, that we miss Christ in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, or the imprisoned. We miss our call to be a part of our neighbor’s and our neighborhood’s and creations’eternal salvation, a salvation that could begin today, were we to die to self and rise to new life in Christ. We’re so busy exposing everyone else in the error, we miss the invitation to the feast.

The poet Maren Tirabassi gives such expressive language to this moment: pointing out what was happening on that long-ago Saturday between Jesus’s death and resurrection— what the healed were doing, the doors that were open to prodigal children, “a tribune resigns his commission.” She writes,

and Jesus is preaching to the dead, 
and telling them to be ready 
for his well-planned prison break, 
even the guy with bigger barns, 
the woman whose oil burned out 
at the gate of joy, 
and he just catches Judas' eye. 
It's never a detour 
when Jesus goes to hell, 
and, if Easter is really every Sunday, 
Saturdays always find Jesus
visiting you, me and those dear to us
who are lost in hell,
and, if we can't find our keys,
gives us a lift.

Beloved in Christ, whether you are worried about the damning fires of hell, or the hell of your own grief, or the hell of substance abuse, or the hell we are wrecking upon creation, or some other hell, know that there is no where—no where—Christ will not go to transform death into life— yours, mine, our beloveds’, and all of creation. Amen.