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Unquenchable Fire (Lk. 3:7-18)

by James F. Kay

James F. Kay teaches homiletics and liturgies at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is coeditor (with Jane Dempsey Douglass) of Women, Gender, and Christian Community (Westminster John Knox). This article appeared in the Christian Century, Dec. 3 1997, p. 1121, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

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 the 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 topics 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 sometimes 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. And for those who planned and manned gas chambers in Auschwitz, genocide in Rwanda and "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia, why not hell? If God is just, where else could God put them? Perhaps tyrants and evildoers ought to go to bed every night thinking that there might just be a hell.

But what the New Testament proclaims as a reality is not hell. It proclaims that our real life is in Jesus Christ so that what became of him will become of us: "For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ." It proclaims that "God so loved the world" and that the Lord is "not wishing that any should perish." God’s will for us does not include hell, and nowhere does the gospel proclaim, "The kingdom of hell is at hand."

Nevertheless, the coming of one whom John calls "more powerful than I" calls into judgment every future that is projected apart from the will and way of Jesus Christ. This wanting and seeking of our kingdom come, our thousand-year Reich, our future, not God’s -- this destiny we make for ourselves is hell. That’s why hell means going it alone, apart from God, all the way to the bitter end.

Why do we who stand before the dawning of the kingdom turn away from it even as it comes to us? Why do we refuse our freedom and turn it into our condemnation? Is it because we do not know what we are doing? Or because we know and do it anyway? Is it because we are too anxious and insecure to live openly and generously? Or because we are the victimizing victims of the powers and forces of this age?

We can speculate about these possibilities, but the church is commissioned not to proclaim the advent of hell to all who are on their mad way there, but rather the advent of Jesus Christ. He has come, as John promised. Alone and abandoned he descended into the depths of hell. Thus, there is absolutely no possibility for us that is beyond the reach of God’s inexhaustible grace.

As we solemnly recall the possibility of saying no to God-with-us and the possibility of hell, let us remember the promise of the gospel: One more powerful than John is coming. He will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with a fire that will burn all that we can ever plan or project for ourselves alone. The one who was judged will be the judge: he holds in his hand the keys of Hades and the destiny of all.

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