This is the sermon I preached today at Holy Trinity Roehampton, an Anglican church in an ecumenical relationship with minstead Gardens Methodist Church. It was the last Sunday in Advent, usually called the feast Christ the King, when the Christian church usually reflects on the ‘last things’ – heaven, hell and the last judgement. The set text was Matthew 25:31-46.
“Abandon hope all you who enter here.” I hope that this was not your immediate reaction when you learned that I was preaching here today! Those well-known words actually come from one of the most detailed descriptions of heaven and hell in Christian literature: Dante’s Divine Comedy. This very long, narrative poem was written in the 14th Century by the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, and describes his imaginary journey through the three realms of the dead: hell (over whose gates my opening quote was carved), purgatory and heaven. When I finally read the work earlier this year during a holiday in Italy, I, like most other commentators, found the first part of the journey, the Inferno, the most interesting. Perhaps that reflects the fact that we take much greater interest in the lives of the wicked than we do in those of the saints!
As I read, I was struck by how influential this work, and the art and literature it helped to spawn, has been in shaping the common view of the heaven, hell and the last judgement. The so-called ‘last things’ that we are thinking about today on this the feast of Christ the King. Perhaps most notably, the concept of ‘circles of hell’, where sinners are divided up according to the wickedness of their deeds, with the lustful receiving the mildest punishment and the lowest circle being reserved for traitors and the treacherous. (Over the years, many others have suggested that there are other, special circles of hell reserved for everyone from US presidents to Methodist ministers who preach too long!) Within these circles, we meet many famous and infamous names, and a large number of Dante’s contemporaries from the world of Italian politics: popes, princes, priests, and others. What may appeal to us about this rather gruesome picture is that each is receiving their ‘just desserts’; they are being repaid in fullest measure for the evil they have done. Hypocrites are forced to wear lead cloaks; the proud must walk around bent double, literally kissing the dust; flatterers are to be found up to their necks in an eternal pool of what, in present company, may only be called sewage.
This is all very satisfying to those who have been wronged, no doubt, and it unquestionably makes for a wonderful narrative. It was also clearly influenced by, and in turn influenced, the huge amounts of art and literature about the end times that has been produced by Christians over the last two millennia. 500 years ago, for example, as you left nearly every church in this country, you would have been confronted by an enormous ‘doom painting’ on the western wall: a giant depiction of the last judgement, with the world being divided into the saved and the damned, with appropriate illustrations. Just the sort of image with which you wanted to go home!
Like so much of what we think we know about the Last Judgement and the end times, though, it has very little basis in what Jesus actually said. Our reading today from Matthew’s gospel – chilling though it undoubtedly is – does not speak about demons with pointy forks, pools of sewage or even circles of hell. That has come from our vivid human imaginations, and in some cases the desire to control and manipulate people. Instead, therefore, of fruitlessly speculating about the “furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell” (H. Richard Niebuhr), I would suggest that we concentrate our thoughts on two key points today.
First, we must acknowledge that, as Christians, we believe in judgement. As we state in our creed, we believe that Jesus,
ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
If we are honest, it is probably part of the creed that we either think little of or ignore completely. Such feelings are entirely understandable. The concept of Christ as a stern and inflexible judge presiding over the division of families and loved ones into two opposing camps for all eternity seems to have little to do with the Jesus who played with little children and washed the feet of his disciples. Yet if we ignore it then we run the risk of simply editing our Bibles and our tradition to suit our own wishes. As the theologian Richard Niebuhr observed, we create an alternative gospel:
A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.
The Bible is clear: there will be a final judgement. We will be called to account for how we have led our lives. For the evil we have done and the good we have not done.
But we must be clear. This is divine justice we are speaking about, not human justice. This is not the verdict of one man, like Dante in his Inferno, deciding what is a fit punishment for all those who have wronged him. This is not the findings of a jury swayed and tricked by clever lawyers, as in the infamous trial of O J Simpson. This is not even trial by the media, where newspaper hacks and Twitter trolls determine an individual’s fate in a few lines of text. This is the judgement of God.
Such things are beyond all human comprehension. Yet, like the Kingdom of Heaven of which Matthew writes elsewhere, we may occasionally catch of glimpse of what we are talking about today here on earth, and I believe we saw such an instance this week. On Wednesday, Ratko Mladic, the man who commanded the Bosnian Serb army during the war in Yugoslavia and became known as the ‘butcher of Bosnia’ was finally given a life sentence by an international court. That sentence was the culmination of nearly 20 years of hard work to bring the man responsible for the horrific massacre at Srebrenica to justice. The court had sat for four years, had heard testimony from nearly 600 people and had examined millions of pages of evidence. And all this after an international manhunt that lasted over a decade to find him. Finally, though, justice has been done.
Too many evil people have escaped such justice in their lives and too many of their victims never lived to see the sentences carried out. But in this case, I believe we catch the tiniest glimpse of what we are talking about in the last judgement. A justice that knows no limits of time or geography. A justice that examines every fragment of evidence with minute care. A justice where the voices of the most marginalised in our world – the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the prisoner; voices so often ignored by the great and the good – are given centre stage. It is a justice that cannot be swayed or bribed; a justice that truly knows all and sees all; a justice free of all impartiality and bias.
This is hard for us to comprehend and perhaps even harder to accept. Yet we need to hold the truth that there will be a final judgement in tension with another truth – my second and final point. That is the truth of the identity of our judge.
Although the language in Matthew’s gospel is a little enigmatic – “the Son of Man” (Matt. 25:31) – it is all too apparent that it is Jesus who will be our ultimate judge. As the World Council of Churches stated in a document about the end times: “We do not know what is coming, but we know who is coming”. In that, the medieval doom paintings and suchlike were correct. Christ will ultimately return as king of all the nations, to judge the living and the dead. But when he comes, it will be the same Jesus Christ we encounter in our gospels. It will be the same Jesus who wept over the death of his friend Lazarus; it will be the same Jesus who walked with his friends on the road to Emmaus; it will be the same Jesus who forgave the thief his sins on the cross. The same Jesus who cured the lame, laughed with his friends, sat at supper with saint and sinner alike. It is the Christ of infinite mercy, grace and love who will be our judge. And that gives me the confidence to hope and trust in that judgement.
People often ask me the most difficult questions about this subject: “What about heaven and hell?”; ‘What about my friends and family who don’t go to church?”; “What about Buddhists, or Muslims, or Hindus?”. Or the one I genuinely hear most often: “Will my dog go to heaven?” In all these cases, I respond with all honesty, “God knows.”. And God does know.
The God who lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ will take care of all these matters. We are not called to dwell upon them endlessly, or even to write a lengthy narrative poem about them in Italian. We are called to be the best people we can be, here and now. We are called to try our hardest to be a good neighbour. We are called to do our best to follow the example of Jesus in all that we say and do, and share the good news of his life, death and resurrection with all who will listen. And the rest we can leave to Jesus, knowing that he has all these things – and many more – in his hands. Let us live and die, therefore, as people who know that there will be judgement one day. But that that judgement will be carried out by the most merciful, most understanding and most loving of judges. A judge who loved the defendant in the dock so much, that he gave up his innocence, his freedom and even his life for the sake of each one of us. And on that truth, our hope – our eternal hope – may rest secure. Amen.