SERMON - REV. BRIAN MOODIE
What is the real meaning of Fire and Brimstone?
Looking back over my life, I have come to realise that much of my early life had been lived with an underlying fear of hell. It seems strange to hear myself even say this, because I did not grow up in a conservative evangelical church where sermons of fire and brimstone were preached. Quite the contrary, I grew up in a church and under a minister who consistently preached of the wide embracing love of God. One of his most memorable statements I heard as a teenager was the following:
“There is nothing you can do that will make God love you any more than God loves you right now. And there is also nothing that you can do that will make God love you any less than God loves you right now!”
And if you hear me quoting time and again from Matthew 5 about God’s love that shines on good and bad alike, then it is almost certain that you are hearing the preaching of the Rev. Ray Light echoing down the years through my own preaching today.
And yet despite this, there was still a deep fear of hell and separation from God, the source of love.
This underlying fear of hell perhaps became most pronounced in my life when at the age of around 21 in the late 90s I slipped into quite a deep depression. I was becoming aware of the injustices of Apartheid South Africa, and that I had grown up in a life of relative privilege and that in effect my privileged existence as a young white South African had largely been built on the foundations of systemic injustice and oppression. Not only that, but I had also recently read a book on ecology that highlighted the looming environmental crisis and which highlighted how our modern industrialised life-style was destroying the planet and God’s beautiful creation.
In short, what I had come to realise at the age of 21 was that sin is not just personal. There is a societal, communal and structural dimension to sin. And here it was that I began to discover that separating myself from sin was not as easy as I thought. There were ongoing sins of injustice that I was a part of that I had little to no control over and yet which I continued to benefit from.
And so it was that I found myself in a spiritual crisis that led me to fall into quite a deep and lasting depression and existential crisis. And it was perhaps only looking back on that experience a decade or so later that I realised that underlying that existential crisis, and underlying that depression was a fear of hell the fear of eternal alienation and rejection by God.
About 10 years ago, I read a book by a psychiatrist who was working with a young Christian woman who was dealing with debilitating mental health issues. Her life had become a living hell of anguish and anxiety. And at the core of the problem he discovered was a deep fear of hell and rejection by God that had made her inner world a living hell of anguish.
I have began to see that this fear of hell and fear of being rejected by God is perhaps far more wide-spread, that there are many others who live half unconscionably with this fear.
This week I saw on the internet a psychological study that suggests that a belief in hell as a super-natural place of eternal punishment, or alienation from God, does have the benefit of creating lower national crime rates, but it also comes with a dark shadow. Studies also suggest that a fear of hell is consistently associated with lower happiness, lower life satisfaction, lower self-esteem, lower psychological coping and lower health resilience.
And all of this brings us to the lake of Fire and Brimstone or the lake of burning sulphur in Revelation 20. More than any other passage in the Bible, Revelation 20 has fed the popular imagination with the image and the deep fear of being hurled into a burning in hell for all eternity.
Today I would like to invite all of us to hopefully see this passage in a whole new light, because I believe that when you look more closely at the symbolism and imagery of this passage, you will see some very interesting things:
The first interesting thing we see is the description of burning sulphur. In older translations like the King James and the Geneva Bible it was translated a brimstone. Brimstone is and old English short-hand for burning stone, and it referred to burning sulphur. What is interesting about burning sulphur is that in ancient times burning sulphur was believed to be able to ward of disease and contagion. And so sulphur would have been used for purifying purposes to purify something.
It raises the question, is the lake of burning sulphur, not a place or a symbol of eternal punishment at all, but rather a place or a symbol of purification?
Secondly, the Greek word theion that is translated as brimstone or burning sulphur is a fascinating one. Theion is closely related to the Greek for theios meaning divinity. And the Greek word theios in turn comes from the root word Theos meaning God. If one were to look at the more literal meaning of the word theion, it is a noun that would more literally mean ‘the substance or the stuff of God’.
The burning lake of fire is made up of God-stuff. And so when we read that the Devil and the beast and all those whose names are not written into the Book of Life are thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, it could also be interpreted to mean symbolically, that they are thrown into the fire of God’s substance or the fire of God’s essence. And what is the essence of God? According to John’s epistle, God’s essence is ultimately love (1 John 4:4).
Is it possible that the lake of burning sulphur at the end of Revelation is not the fire of eternal punishment, but rather the purifying fire of God’s love? And the purpose of that purifying fire of God’s love is not to torture those who are thrown into it, but rather to burn away all that is not love within us.
Near the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus is described with two words: grace and truth. It is a reminder that there is no grace or love without truth also. To be thrown into the fire of God’s purifying love is also an encounter with the searing truth of our sin, selfishness and darkness.
One of the most painful things many of us experience in this life, apart from the pain of grief, is the pain of truth, seeing ourselves as we really are. It is one of the most painful things to stand up and be honest and to apologise when we know we have done something wrong. We like to project the best version of ourselves to the world, and try to hide the darker parts even from ourselves.
Last week Wendy and I watched the last two episodes of the BBC drama series called "Time", set in a prison in the north of England. Apart from the difficulties of prison life, what the TV series reveals is that perhaps the most painful and difficult thing that many prisoners experience is the pain of owning up to and admitting the truth of what they have done. For one of the prisoners in the series, it is so painful that he slides into the downward spiral of drug abuse to cover up the searing pain of the truth.
Is it possible that part of the searing pain of being thrown into the fire of God’s love is that it will ultimately require us to see the truth about ourselves and what we have done, because you cannot be purified and cleansed of those things that you cannot admit. Even the Greek word which is sometimes translated as torture and sometimes as torment in verse 10 comes from the root word to examine.
Being thrown into the fire of the substance of God’s love can be a painful experience, not because it is meant to torture and punish us, but because of how painful it is to see, acknowledge and admit our sin, in order that it might finally be burned away forever and ever.
Thirdly, isn’t is fascinating that death and hades are also thrown into the fire of burning brimstone.
For the apostle Paul, death was regarded as the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor 15:26). But for the Apostle Paul, death was more than a physical process; it is also a spiritual condition which included everything that separates us from union with God. “This is the second death” of Revelation 20:14. It is the death of death itself and thus the death of all that separates us from God. It is the promise of the new heaven and the new earth of Rev 21 - “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. And death will be no more.”
But along with death, hades is also thrown into the fire. Hades in ancient cosmology was the place of the dead but it was also a word used by Jews to refer to hell. What we see in Revelation is the “Death of death and hell’s destruction” as we sing in the popular hymn. It suggests that God’s intention is that no-one should be trapped in places of spiritual death and hell for eternity. All forms of death and hell are to be destroyed in the fire of God’s love. In the end, even the hell of our own guilt and shame and our own struggle to forgive ourselves will be burned away until only God’s tender love and mercy will remain.
And now I would like to end with what for me is perhaps the most important part of the book of Revelation, and the most profound end to the whole Bible:
It is often missed, a throw away verse tucked away at the end of the book of Revelation is a message of God’s ability to heal, transform and save even the most wicked and rebellious.
In Revelation 21:24, all the wicked kings of the earth, who made pacts with the Beast and waged war against Christ and the armies of heaven are welcomed and included into the New Jerusalem of God’s love. Far from being banished to a place of eternal punishment as we might have expected, the very kings of the earth who made pacts with the beast, and waged war against Christ, now, having been purified and cleansed in the fiery lake of God’s love, are also welcomed and included into the City of God.
And, if there is a place for the wicked kings of the earth in the New Jerusalem, there is surely also a place for you and for me.
I would like to end with a quote from Steven Gray also known as Adyashanti
“The perspective of love doesn’t leave anybody out. Love even loves those who don’t love. The only chance that those who don’t love have to change, is to come into contact with that love.”