Magazine article The Christian Century

Unquenchable Fire

Magazine article The Christian Century

Unquenchable Fire

Article excerpt

YOU BROOD of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" Talk about throwing the book at your listeners. Where did this Baptist study preaching anyway? Didn't they teach John the importance of introductions, of "contracting" and "partnering" with his listeners? But he isn't listening to homiletics professors.

"Look around," John says. "Seems we've got some bad trees around here not bearing good fruit. Everyone of 'em is going to be cut down and thrown into tile fire. A winnowing time is coming. The wheat and the chaff will be separated, and the chaff will burn with unquenchable fire."

And yet, Luke says, this is how John "proclaimed the good news to the people." Since when has hell been good news?

From what I can see, people are not banging on the doors of our churches to hear more about hell, and certainly not just before Christmas. Those preoccupied with hell--its geography, supporting cast and the permanent nature of its accommodations--are more likely to find definitive answers from the radio stations of the Bible Belt than from the average pulpit.

If we speak of hell at all this time of year, we are probably alluding to some aspect of the commercialized pressure cooker called "the holiday season." We're not thinking so much of Satan's legions as of the hordes struggling to find an accommodating sales clerk in Bloomingdales or the traffic circling the malls in search of a closer parking spot. God knows it can be hell.

But hell? You know, hell's hell? That's not what comes to mind at Advent. We've come a long way from John the Baptist, and from our medieval forebears too. The four "last things" these Christians pondered as they sang their Dies irae were death, judgment, heaven and yes, hell. These four topic gave medieval preachers a sermon theme for each of the four Sundays in Advent.

Perhaps our medieval ancestors were more honest than we about a basic human impulse that finds joy in final judgments. Christians too some times want to see people getting smoked. We want to watch while the bad guys get it. We want them locked up and the keys thrown away; we want them squirming and cowering before the families of their victims; and we want their flesh frying in the electric chair. "See you in hell," says Clint Eastwood, as he shoots Gene Hackman, the crooked lawman in Unforgiven. Right on, Clint! Hell's what he deserved.

So why wouldn't John's hellfire come as good news to the crowds who had put up with the bad guys for so long--the Romans, the system, the Herods? The fire was being prepared for these bad apples, and that was good news. …

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