Did Gandhi Go to Hell? - Covenant Presbyterian Church

E. Liu
“Did Gandhi Go to Hell?”
“Did Gandhi go to hell?” That is the question we are taking up today in the sermon
series, “Questions of Faith.” Did Gandhi go to hell? Looking deeper into this question, you
will see that there are actually multiple questions and also assumptions that are resting
within it. Simply asking the question presumes a number of things: for one, that there is a
hell and two, that there is something distinctive about being Christian that gets you into
heaven. It also raises a number of questions: Are heaven and hell actual places or are they
metaphorical? If they are real, who goes to each of these places and why? Do you have to be
a Christian to enter heaven? If you are not a Christian, does that mean you will spend an
eternity in hell? What exactly happens to us after we die and does the way we live now
impact the outcome of that? I am sure you can think of many other questions too. Let me
say at the outset that I will not be able to respond to all these questions in one sermon! At
Pres House we like to say that we are a place “where the conversation continues.” After I
share my thoughts this morning, I hope that you will continue the conversation with others
beyond today.
So first, what about hell? Is there really such a place? I am going to take a guess and
say that most people do not believe that miles beneath us in the bowels of the earth, there
is a devil with a pitch fork waiting to greet unfortunate souls. Many popular images of hell
stem primarily from poets like Dante and other medieval artists who were inspired by his
vivid writings. Most cultural traditions have a term they use to describe the afterlife,
whether it be Hades or Sheol, and it took in the good and bad alike. Hell, however, grew out
of a sense that there needed to be a place that punished the wicked, a little something extra
for those who died before those who were angry with them could do it themselves. This is
not unique to the Christian faith (many other religions have something similar), in fact I
would say it reflects a human desire to enact human justice. Throughout time, people have
wanted things to be fair, and having a destination for those they considered evil was a way
to assuage their longing. To even better feed their desire for revenge, hell was made eternal
with no hope for escape. This understanding of hell serves mostly to nurse those who are
bitter. And for the most part, this version of hell has been rejected.
But before you think I am going to throw out the idea of hell completely, let me say
that I think hell is a very important concept for us as Christians to hold onto. Looking at the
scriptures, the Greek word that is translated hell, Gehenna, occurs about a dozen times in
the New Testament and is mostly used by Jesus. And Gehenna was a real place—it was a
ravine south of Jerusalem and it was where trash from the city was sent and bodies of
criminals were thrown and burned in fires. Also, in the Old Testament, Gehenna is referred
to as the Valley of Hinnom and it is thought that people would burn their children as a
sacrifice to the gods there. So yes, Gehenna, hell, was a real place that conjured up vivid
images and smells when Jesus spoke of it—it was the garbage dump, the place where things
had been discarded and also a place where evil occurred. Life was not valued there, and it
reeked of death—it was a powerful reference that the listeners of Jesus would have
understood on a visceral level. Gehenna, hell, was a wasteland of decay and brokenness.
When Jesus came to earth, there was no need to invent a burning hot image of hell
because hell already existed. In fact, it has continued to exist all the way to today. Picture a
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place where people are starving and wasting away; where men, women, and children are
forced into human ovens to be exterminated; where hands and feet are wantonly lopped off
by cruel guards; where live bodies are thrown by the thousands into pits to be buried. This
is not a description of a place far beneath the earth’s crust, this is the Holocaust, a perfect
picture of hell here on earth. And of course there are still many places where people wake
up daily and are not sure they will make it home alive—whether in Syria, El Salvador, or
the South Side of Chicago. Living under this kind of terror and violence, that is hell.
Perhaps that seems extreme, especially for most of us here who have had the good
fortune of not living in a war zone. But I can think of lots of other times I have witnessed
hell, perhaps you can too. Like the time a college friend came to me distraught because she
had gone to a party and woken up the next day with no recollection of what had happened,
the only clue being that she was in a strange man’s room and her body felt all wrong. A
roofie, she suspected, and likely being sexually assaulted. That is hell. Or the time I was a
chaplain and came into a hospital room after a man had died, finding his wife traumatized
because she had witnessed her husband terrified in his last moments, struggling to breathe
and fighting for his life as doctors and nurses frantically ran around him as he passed into
death. That is hell. Or the time that I sat with a person whose depression was so crippling,
all he could think about was suicide as each day was too painful to endure. That is hell.
For those who want to get rid of hell, I think that would be short-sighted; because
our world really is full of sin, brokenness, and misery. If you do not think hell exists, I
suggest sitting with parents who have just lost their young child; or talking to a person who
is trapped by addiction; or spending time with a person who has been abused. When we
choose not to abide by God’s commands to love and do justice, when we sin and hurt
others, there are consequences. We need to be able to name the very real ways our lives
and world fall short of what God intends, and hell does the job quite well. We need to hang
onto hell, because that is an important part of the salvation story that Jesus brings to us.
Which brings me to a second related question. Even if we do not think there is an
existential hell after death, perhaps the hell we affirm is one which separates us from God
after death for eternity. While we may have abandoned the idea of a red, hot lair, we still
hold onto the promise of life in heaven after death. And hell is not being in heaven with
God. The question that follows then, is who gets to go to heaven? There are a variety of
ways that Christians have tried to answer this question. Some say that you need to accept
Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, to ask him into your heart; or that you need to be
baptized; or that you need to repent of your sin and confess that Jesus has died on the cross
for you; or that you need to be born again; or that you need to be a part of the right faith
community. In response to these assertions, others have brought up some other good
questions. What happens to the infant who dies before he can say the sinner’s prayer? At
what age do we become responsible for our eternal fate—thirteen? What if a teenager in
the throes of rebellion says he hates God, and then the next day is tragically killed in a car
accident? What about someone who commits suicide? What if you were born a Buddhist or
a Muslim or have no faith at all? What about those who have committed atrocious acts
against humanity like Hitler? What happens to all those people, are they forever banned
from heaven?
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Many of these questions point to a deeper one: if God is all loving, why would God
eternally keep people away from heaven? Or put another way, are we powerful enough to
lock ourselves out of heaven by the things we say or the choices we make, so much so that
God is unable to reach us? Let’s take a look at today’s scripture passage for a response to
those questions.
In this story, there are two people who reject God (who is symbolized by the father)
and they each experience their own self-created hell because of it. First, the prodigal son,
who basically wishes his father dead by asking for his inheritance and then goes off to live a
selfish life of indulgence, debauchery, and sin. He ends up totally broke, starving so badly
he craves the slop of pigs, and a complete failure. When he finally comes to his senses, he
realizes that there is a way out of this hell and so he returns to his father. Though this son
would have settled for some kind of purgatory, a punishment he knew he had earned for
his behavior, the father astonishes him by throwing an extravagant party to welcome him
home—an unmistakable sign of the love that has always been there and always will be
there, no matter how far gone the son may have seemed. This is generally the familiar part
of the story for most people.
But there is a second son in this story who is often overlooked. The elder son who
never left home cannot believe what has happened when he returns from a day of honest
work. I think many of us can identify with this son’s reaction when he finds that a party is
in full swing in honor of his wayward brother. Here is a person who has followed the rules,
done what is right, and what is happening is terribly unfair. He says as much to his father:
“Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never
disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I
might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has
devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” You can just
taste the venom spitting from his mouth, so bitter is he that he can barely address his
Have you ever been this angry, mad as hell, so to speak? Have you ever been so full
of resentment and bile that you feel like the whole world is against you? That you cannot
see any light and even the love and grace around you feels like a stinging slap instead of
hope? If you have, you know that it is hell. As the music floats out from the party and the
aromas of the decadent food swirl around him, the elder son cannot enjoy any of it; all he
can do is rage in his self-imposed hell. And yet, the father responds to his son, whom he
loves just as much as he loves his younger son, “You are always with me, and all that is
mine is yours.” Do you hear that? His Father’s love for him has always been there, always
will be there, and everything that is his he willingly gives to his son. Yes, he can choose to
reject his Father’s love and grace, and he can continue to sulk outside the party as long as
he wants—but regardless, his rejection cannot negate or change his Father’s posture
towards him. His Father will always be there, ready to embrace him, no matter how long it
takes for the elder son to accept it.
Both of the sons in this parable reject their Father, and though we know that the
younger son eventually comes around, we do not know how the story ends for the elder
one. It is a mystery, and for whatever reason, Jesus did not see the need to fill in an ending. I
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think that is an appropriate stance for us to take as well in regards to the fate of everyone
else in the world; it is not for us to know. I have my hunches though, because this parable is
not really about the younger or older son and what they do or do not do; it is about who
God is and what we can expect of God. Whether someone identifies as Christian or not,
God’s love and grace is much more powerful and abundant than anything we can envision. I
imagine that we have no idea the lengths God will go, to draw people into God’s glory—we
will probably be shocked like the elder son was when he found a party being thrown
instead of punishment metered out. I absolutely believe that Christ’s plan for salvation
includes every single one of God’s children.
For those who claim that we must say the right incantation of words, undergo the
correct rituals, or who set up any kind of litmus test for people to secure a place in heaven,
this parable serves as an important counter-narrative. To insist that we have so much
power that we can permanently remove ourselves from God’s love and grace is to reduce
God to a puppet; that sentiment reveals our human limits, not God’s. One of the things we
confess is that God is sovereign, that God’s power is complete. We are not so powerful that
we can override whom God can reach and whom God can love, nor can we put any time
limit on it, especially an eternity. And what a relief that is! It means that no one can close
the doors on God’s grace in such a way that God cannot unlock the bolt. Our God is much
bigger than all our human schemes and speculations, and more important, God’s love goes
way beyond our creative attempts to constrain it. As the apostle Paul so eloquently states in
his letter to the Roman church, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor
angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor
depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Trying to figure out if Gandhi or anyone else went to hell is what pastor, author, and
theologian Brian McLaren calls “a grand adventure in missing the point.” Here is how I
would answer the question instead: It is Jesus who goes to hell. That is why you see him in
scene after scene in the gospels with the wretched, the poor, the sick, the demon-possessed,
the outcasts, the sinners and finally being tortured, crucified, and killed. Jesus goes into the
depths of hell to rescue us and he continues to walk with us when we are in hell reminding
us that his love can never be overcome, that his grace will finally in the end redeem and
free us all. That is the gospel story, and it is good news indeed.
I want to close by showing you a video that I think gives us a better way to think
about hell and how Jesus goes about the whole thing. It is the story of one community’s
Gehenna, their garbage dump, their hell, and what I would say the Spirit is stirring up in the
act of redemption. Let’s take a look:
Trailer for Landfill Harmonic: https://vimeo.com/152325321
“We shouldn’t throw away people either.” We do not have to worry that the hell
we see in our own lives and in the world will never end, God’s grace will redeem it all. We
do not have to agonize over a friend or neighbor who has come from a different faith
tradition than us, God is bigger than all the religions out there. We do not have to despair if
a loved one does not say the right words or is not in a “right place” before they die, God’s
love goes beyond death. We do not have to worry about Gandhi, God has got him covered,
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and perhaps more importantly and challengingly, God even has those we want to discard
like Hitler, covered. Nothing, nothing at all, can separate us or anyone else from the love of
Christ. This is the scandalous gospel story, the good news that saves us all—Jesus does not
throw anyone away, ever! Thanks be to God. Amen.