he idea of eternal punishment or “hell” is a difficult concept for modern progressive Christians. Because we understand that God is love itself, we cannot imagine that God would ever condemn any human being, no matter what they did during their lifetimes, to eternal pain and suffering. I think this evolution in our thinking is mostly a good thing, for far too frequently in the history of Christianity, the concept of “hell” has been used by the powerful to control the less powerful. Too often the concept has been used to declare some to be on the inside and others to be outside. Too often Christians have spoken as though they could know the mind of God and could declare judgment on others. Think of the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, or today the persecution and condemnation of LBGTQ+ people or people who are not Christian.
I am very happy that many Christians are letting go of this way of viewing hell. I think though that hell does still exist. I just think it is different than we think it is. I believe hell is separation from God. This separation can exist here on earth and in the life to come. And God does not create the separation, we do. God is always present with us with arms outstretched waiting for us to enter into the Divine Love. We, however, are not always ready to enter into that love. We often hold ourselves at arm’s length or more from God. We often live in ways that will not let God’s love to enter our hearts and our lives. We often put ourselves into hell.
And why do we do this? Fear pure and simple. We are afraid that we aren’t enough. We are afraid that we are responsible for everything in our lives. We are afraid that God will treat us the way we treat ourselves and other people. We are afraid. And in our fear we do things that will bring us the very things we are afraid of—not being loved, failing, not having enough. We are afraid of failure so we don’t try. We are afraid of not being loved so we don’t love. We are afraid of not having enough of the things we need so we don’t pool our resources with others, so that we will all have enough of what we need. We are afraid God won’t love us, so we pretend God is not there. We create our own reality, we create our own hell.
C.S. Lewis wrote a very wonderful little novella about this very phenomenon. It has influenced my own thinking and spirituality greatly. The book is called The Great Divorce. In this book the narrator is taken to the afterlife that he might understand it better and return to this world and share what he has learned.
He arrives in the next life and finds himself in a very drab and depressing gray world. No one is being burned alive or tortured, but no one seems very happy. He discovers a bus stop, and feels compelled to board the bus. Some people standing at the bus stop board with him, but others decide not to get on. The bus takes off into the air and lands in a beautiful valley. In this valley those on the bus appear to be ghosts. As these ghosts exit the bus, they find it painful to walk on the grass or touch anything in the valley. It is as though the things in this valley are more real than they are.
Several very large and vibrant people approach them. They discover that these vibrant people were once just like them. They were changed because they chose God’s love. They were changed because they overcame their fears and let go of whatever it was that was keeping them separate from the love of God. For one woman it was a fear that her son would leave her. In order to enter into the love of God she had to let go of her son. For another it was his own self-hatred. In order to enter into the love of God he had to let go of his self-hate. For another it was his belief that he was a self-made man whose success was all his own. The most surprising aspect of this story is that most of the “ghosts” were not able to let go of their fears in order to enter into God’s love. They had lived in such a fearful way for so long that they were no longer able to choose God’s love, even though God had never left them and was not keeping them from entering into the joy of God. They remained in hell through their own choice. Their fear of God’s love was all consuming.
For me this is the primary message of our passage from Matthew for this morning. We get a little confused because of the word “talent.” In English this means skills or natural gifts that an individual possesses. But the Greek word was simply a form of measurement. There is nothing about the original word that was connected to skills or abilities. A talent was a great amount of something, usually silver. So, the master in this passage has given his servants something of great value. And two of the servants respond with vigor and energy and as a result what they have becomes even more. But one of the servants is afraid. He sees his master as an angry, unjust and cruel master. We aren’t told this was really true, we just know that this is how the servant sees him. And in his fear his actions are small and petty, and he ends up with exactly what he began with. His is a safe action, but it is also small and limiting. He creates his own small and self-limiting world.
God has given us something of great value too, Jesus. In Jesus, God has shown us the divine dream for the world. God has shown us that God’s dream for us is abundant love. Love that overflows. Love that knows no boundaries. Love that turns the ideas and systems of our world upside down. Love that knows no fear. Love that knows no end. Love, that when we take the risk to embrace it, simply creates more love.
I can remember a time when this lesson became very clear to me. I was taking a parenting class at my children’s school based on the theory of positive parenting. All of us in the class were and are loving and caring parents. We all were there because we love our children, and we want the best for them. And in many ways, we were all afraid. We were afraid that our children wouldn’t grow up to be ethical, moral, productive, and happy human beings. We all felt a great responsibility to help our children become these things. We all wanted our children to avoid our own mistakes and failures. And we all wanted a happy family life in the present. And in our fears we all were doing things that actually didn’t help our children or our families.
During one of the classes, we were talking about what to do when a child misbehaves or has a tantrum or meltdown. We all gave examples from our own lives with our children. It was clear that we all had been taught somewhere along the line the adage “don’t reward bad behavior.” We told story after story of walking away from our misbehaving children, lecturing them, taking things away from them, yelling at them, ignoring them, putting them in time out and so on and so forth. The teacher asked us if any of our strategies had worked. We all said “no,” or “sometimes in the short term, but not in the long term.”
She asked us what we thought would happen if we got closer to our children and talked less. She wondered what would happen if we focused less on consequences and more on understanding. We worried that we would be encouraging bad behavior. We feared that we would be missing an important opportunity to teach our children a lesson. We were afraid of spoiling our children. Our teacher wondered if it is our job to teach our children lessons. She wondered if it was perhaps instead our job to support our children as they learned their own lessons. She wondered if the primary way we could do that was through empathy and understanding—through love.
This shouldn’t be a radical concept, but it is. Our job is to love and be loved. Pure and simple. Our job is to let go of the things that get between us and God’s love. God does not want us stuck in hell, here on earth or in heaven. If you find yourself struggling to love and be loved, maybe you could ask yourself, “how is that working for me?” “Am I happy?” “Do I feel like I’m living in heaven or in hell?” “When I leave this earth at the end of my life, will I have left more love behind me, or will the amount of love on this earth be unchanged or less than when I began to live and move and have my being?”
I think we are given the chance every single day of our lives to practice love. We are given the chance to take God’s dream for all of us and to grow and spread it. And as we do this in small and little ways, it will become easier and easier, and we will be prepared when we are faced with big and great things. We will catch glimpses of the kingdom of God right here and right now, and we will be prepared to be embraced by God in the life to come. Amen.