John the Baptist called his listeners snakes and told them they were going to Hell.
And still he attracted huge crowds.
What an amazing gift he had.
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" (Luke 3:7-10)
It must be an ecclesial form of the Stockholm Syndrome that crowds will flock loyally to prophets of the wrath to come.
One of modern literature’s most vivid examples of this type of preacher is Amos Starkadder, patriarch of a seedy Sussex farm in Stella Gibbons’ book Cold Comfort Farm.
Sigmund Freud was still alive when Gibbons wrote the novel in 1932, but Freudian analysis is not required to know Amos is frustrated and angry to be trapped in a dead-end existence on a depressing piece of sod. He is held captive by his invalid mother who took to her bed decades earlier because “I saw something nasty in the woodshed” and fiercely resists efforts by family members to escape from her presence.
Amos sublimates his anger by serving as pastor of a surprisingly large congregation called the Quivering Brethren. Asked how the congregation got its name, Amos explains the people quiver when they think about where they will spend eternity.
Amos’ sermons are virtually identical each week:
Ye miserable, crawlin' worms. Are ye here again then? Have ye come like Nimshi, son of Rehoboam, secretly out of your doomed houses, to hear what's comin' to ye? Have ye come, old and young, sick and well, matrons and virgins, if there be any virgins amongst you, which is not likely, the world being in the wicked state that it is. Have ye come to hear me tell you of the great, crimson, licking flames of Hell fire? Aye! You've come, dozens of ye. Like rats to the granary, like field mice when it's harvest home. And what good will it do ye? You're all damned! Damned! Do you ever stop to think what that word means? No, you don't. It means endless, horrifying torment! It means your poor, sinful bodies stretched out on red-hot gridirons, in the nethermost, fiery pit of Hell and those demons mocking ye while they waves cooling jellies in front of ye. You know what it's like when you burn your hand, taking a cake out of the oven, or lighting one of them godless cigarettes? And it stings with a fearful pain, aye? And you run to clap a bit of butter on it to take the pain away, aye? Well, I'll tell ye, there'll be no butter in Hell!
Amos’ congregation, which fills the church, quivers but remains seated, submitting passively to the bad news. Later in the book (as in the 1995 film starring Kate Beckinsale and Ian McKellen), Amos does escape the farm and takes his quivering message to the United States, where it continues to attract large crowds. Hell is obviously a popular concept.
Modern theologians debate whether Hell, a place of eternal punishment for bad souls, actually exists. There is an interesting theological twist in HBO’s popular True Blood series that the afterlife offers peace and contentment for all souls, even the most hideous vampires.
But according to pollsters, including Pew and Gallup, most Americans believe in Hell. Gallup notes an interesting political angle in that 83 percent of Republicans say they believe in Hell as opposed to 69 percent of Democrats, but that’s a blog for another day. Clearly most Americans think there is a Hell, and most would like to avoid it.
If you grew up in the evangelical or Pentecostal traditions, you may be familiar with this homiletical approach. I once attended a World Council of Churches conference on Pentecostals and Orthodox in Costa Rica and met a Church of God professor named Tom. Tom dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and looked like Jerry Garcia, but it was clear he was a highly intelligent academician. Even so, his fellow Pentecostals spun tales about Tom’s rebellious youth.
“When Tom was a teenager he’d sit in the back of the church,” said one woman, now a Pentecostal pastor. “When the preacher started talking about Hell, Tom would hide his hands behind the pew and light matches. After church, people would grab the pastor’s hand and say, ‘My goodness, Preacher, your description of Hell was so vivid I thought I could smell the phosphorous!’”
Many traditions, indeed, depict Hell as a lake of fire with no butter to take away the pain. John the Baptist, in his own efforts to attract the attention of quivering brethren, refers to “unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17).
Sometimes Hell’s punishments are assumed to correspond with sins committed during life. The actual punishments would depend on the imagination of the demon in charge, but one can envision slave masters condemned to an eternity of slavery and whipping posts, tabloid editors forced to endure an eternity of pillory and humiliation, the ill-begotten rich damned to shiver forever in squalor and hunger, or proof-texting preachers fated to listen to endless sermons – perhaps their own – devoid of points, poems, and exegesis.
Other traditions depict Hell as cold. Tibetan Buddhists, whom I suspect endure cold weather for longer periods that many of us, believe in a cold Hell. Dante’s Inferno describes the innermost ninth circle of Hell as a frozen lake of blood and guilt. It is in that frigid ring to which persons who never take a moral stand are sent, belying President Kennedy’s assumption that “the hottest places in Hell are for persons who maintain their neutrality.”
Each of us has an image of Hell in our minds, just as we try to imagine what Heaven is like.
These are useful mental exercises because they keep us focused on important things, particularly John’s message of repentance and salvation. No one knows if John had any special insight into what Hell looks like or whether he was depending on a common tradition, but his promise of deliverance comes with a terrifying threat of scalding punishment: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:17)
Luke adds: “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” (Luke 3:18)
If you read that too fast, it sounds like John is demanding a choice between salvation and unquenchable fire.
Put that way, it seems more like extortion than good news.
But the message of John is more like the mission of first responders in any disaster: a rescue operation to deliver us from the fire, and open our hearts and minds to the coming of the Messiah.
As a slight digression, I drove to Poughkeepsie last week listening to a collection of uplifting Christmas carols. The music included carols recorded by dozens of Broadway performers for their 2012 benefit album, Broadway Carols for a Cure (for AIDS), the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and many more.
The music I listened to most attentively – and wistfully – was recorded by beloved artists who are no longer living: Bing Crosby, Nat Cole, Gene Autry, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley. Each of these great talents sang wonderful old chestnuts, and I sang along with them for many miles.
But the wistfulness commenced when I reflected that all these wonderful talents who were such a powerful presence in my youth are now gone. What dynamic lives they led, what vibrancy, what joy they gave to so many listeners (and what fortunes they made selling their albums to us).
Still humming their tunes, I couldn’t help but wonder: what happened to them when they died? Were they simply extinguished? Did their sentience, their personalities, their talents disappear as if they had never been? And what about the rest of us who don’t leave behind electronic recordings of our faces and voices? Do we pass into oblivion as if we had never lived?
I should quickly point out that I was driving to a very happy event, the installation of a good friend as a new pastor of a church in Poughkeepsie. But Christmas is a complicated time of year, and sometimes the joy is mitigated by touches of melancholy.
I snapped out of it fairly quickly, but these pensive moments brought me face to face with my own concept of Hell: not unquenchable fire, not frozen lakes of blood, not eternal pillories. Hell is that moment when all that we love, all that we know, all that we are, disappears. Hell is when our consciousness ceases to be, just as was the case in those years before we are born. Hell is when all that we are in life is erased as if it had never been.
Some people say there is no need to be afraid of non-existence. I disagree. Non-existence is Hell to me. Hell is the end of awareness of those we love, a total separation from the God of love who made us and loves us beyond our ability to comprehend it.
That must be the Hell John is talking about.
But John is not pointing to Hell as a threat.
John is offering us a way out of Hell.
Of course John tells us to be good and to act justly; he tells tax collectors to take no more money than required of them, and he tells soldiers to be just to others and be content with their wages.
But John is also pointing to a way that goes beyond good behavior, where no lists are made of those who are naughty or nice, where the way out of Hell is wide open and available to every person created and loved by God.
That way out is offered by the Messiah whose coming John foretells, and it comes with no conditions, no entrance exams, and no inquisitions. And no quivering.
It is a wide-open door that never closes.
And all that is required of us to escape Hell is to walk through the door.