Photo by paul morris
If Jesus speaks of a kingdom of heaven, is there a kingdom of hell?
After telling a story about how the kingdom of heaven is like a farmer scattering seed, Jesus follows up with another agricultural parable: again, a farmer sows. But this time an enemy comes in the middle of the night and plants weeds alongside the wheat. When the farmer’s servants ask if he wants them to pull the weeds up, he says to wait until the harvest so as to avoid uprooting the wheat as well. Then the wheat will be gathered and the weeds burned.
Again, the disciples ask what this means and again, Jesus obliges. Distinctions are drawn between the wheat and weeds as “children of the kingdom” and “children of the evil one”. And the harvest is akin to “the end of the age”, when “all causes of sin and all evildoers” will be collected out of the kingdom of heaven and thrown into a fiery furnace.
This sounds like what we tend to think of as hell. When you do a Google image search for hell, the overwhelming visual is fire (and someone who clearly hates Elmo). But when Jesus talks more specifically about hell, fire isn’t always as dominant a metaphor.
The New Testament word that is typically translated as “hell” in post-King James bibles is gehenna. This word comes from Hebrew, and represents an actual place: the Valley of the Son of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. Because of horrific things like child sacrifice that took place there, a curse is essentially placed on it by the prophet Jeremiah (you can read an uplifting description of it in Jeremiah 19).
Some believe Gehenna became a place people dumped their trash in Jesus’ day. If this is true, though fire would have been involved as trash was burned, the underlying metaphor we have for hell is garbage. I’m probably too old to say this effectively, but in this sense hell is literally hot garbage.
And I think garbage is the better metaphor for the ways the kingdom of hell can manifest itself in our world today.
Look how Jesus uses gehenna in opposition to the kingdom of heaven:
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell (gehenna) as yourselves.” – Matthew 23:13-15 (NRSV)
Here, and from the beginning of the gospels, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven as not just something that happens later but also a present reality. If that’s the case, so too might the kingdom of hell be. In the parable weeds and wheat grow together until “the end of the age”. But the preceding parable speaks of a God who is sowing everywhere, even in the weeds. If our job truly is to help make the ground a little more fertile, it means believing there is always an opportunity for new growth, always a chance for redemption, resurrection, and transformation.
Consider the nature of garbage.
Garbage is, by definition, worthless. That’s why you’re throwing it out.
In this sense, garbage isn’t what you can recycle (which the EPA estimates is 75% of our trash). It’s not our mess, the things in our homes and lives that may be all out of sorts but are in fact quite valuable. It isn’t what you donate to Goodwill or sell on eBay, where one’s “trash” might indeed be another’s treasure. Garbage is what you throw away because it is of no value not just to you, but to generally everyone.
As such, garbage is obvious. When my wife and I order pizza, we don’t argue over whether we should throw away the box.
And it is in this way that the kingdom of hell, like a weed, can manifest itself in our lives.
The metaphor calls us to examine our own garbage. Not just what fills up our trash cans but what fills up our lives. What percentage of what’s there is just of no value? What is the styrofoam of your life?
Where the consequences of this kingdom break loose in our community, we will find hell to be quite the present reality as well. Our church feeds upwards of 200 kids every week during the school year, because we believe children going hungry on the weekends is garbage. Churches and communities will find the best, most-pressing work in the places where the most number of people believe something is obviously garbage.
Garbage smells. And sooner than later that stench will infect the rest of your good-smelling life. How did your dorm room smell? I’d wager not as bad to you as it did to your mom when she came to visit. We can get overly familiar with the smell of our own garbage, so much so it sometimes takes someone we love walking into it and going, “No.”
As such, garbage has to go. You can’t just bag it and leave it in the corner. You have to get it out of there. It cannot stay where you live.
In this there’s a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven: do you know what happens to your trash once it gets picked up from the curb? Me neither! (I’m sure there’s important work to be done in landfills, etc.) I don’t think to myself, “You know, what happened to that leftover Chinese we threw out? Is it okay? Should we go check on it?” Garbage has to go, and we do not mourn its absence.
Abundant grace sows much the same way. God isn’t in the business of keeping our trash stashed in the corner to bring back out later when we’ve messed up again. Forgiveness has a big truck.
Weeds and wheat grow together until the end of the age. You can fancy yourself wheat and be thankful, try to bunch together so as to avoid as many weeds as possible, and only look forward to the harvest. But to do so is antithetical to the present kingdom of heaven, where God is sowing even in the weeds. And while weeds and trash may be worthless, people – created-in-the-image-of-God-people – never are.
I believe in the kingdom of heaven, and I believe in the kingdom of hell. I believe God, like a farmer, is always at work, always sowing. And I believe garbage stinks, and it’s got to go.
Wherever and whatever garbage we might find in our own lives, thanks be to God that grace abounds and seeds still fall in the overgrown places of our hearts. May those seeds bear fruit that in its very nature reproduces those seeds, so that wherever we find hell at work in our community, we might be about the business of resurrection.