Have you ever been to hell? This is the question explored in the recent release of author Dan Brown's work of fiction, "Inferno." Although the flames in this book are hotter than ever, the church is called to offer the world a "cup of cold water" -- to douse the flames of hell with the waters of eternity.
William Booth discovered hell one night when he couldn't sleep. He tossed and turned, and then he decided to get up and go for a walk. He journeyed into a part of London he had never walked through -- the poor section. He spent the rest of the night seeing sights and smelling odors he had never before experienced. When he arrived home in the early hours of the morning, his wife Katherine was almost frantic. "Where in the world have you been?" she cried out. He replied, "Katherine, I've been to hell. I've been to hell." He then told her what he'd seen, and together they founded the Salvation Army.
Have you been to hell? "Been to hell and back..." is an old expression. There are many types of hell -- a social hell, an economic hell, a demographic hell.
You say: You've never been to hell?
I say: Then why not?
Why haven't you been to hell? We aren't called to live in hell. We are called to live in heaven. But as Dante found out, you can't get to heaven without going through hell first.
The world is on fire very hot in this new work of fiction -- a world torn by hatred and strife, a world unredeemed, a world that is God's worst nightmare, a world to which God can no longer speak these words: "And God saw that it was good."
When Jesus wanted to ask his disciples "Who do people say that I am?" and "Who do you say that I am?" he took them to a place called Caesarea Phillippi, the capital city for Herod Philip and Gaulinitis. Caesarea Phillippi was famous in Jesus' day for a couple of things. First, it was celebrated for its natural beauty -- the Jordan River begins here. Second, here was built the sanctuary to the god Pan, the god of nature. Third, a cave known as the Cave of Pan, or the Gates of Hades, was here. Here is what Josephus says about the Cave of Pan:
Hard by the foundations of Jordan ... there is a top of a mountain that is raised to an immense height, and at its side, beneath, or at its bottom, a dark cave opens within which is a horrible precipice that descends abruptly to a vast depth; it contains a mighty quantity of water, which is immovable; and when anybody lets down anything to measure the depth of the earth beneath the water, no length of cord is sufficient to reach it. (As quoted by Charles R. Page II and Carl A. Volz, "The Land and the Book: An Introduction to the World of the Bible" [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993], 108.)
Archaeologist and dean of the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies, Charles R. Page II, reveals that this cave was known colloquially as the entrance to the underworld or the "gates of Hades" (Charles R. Page II, Jesus and the Land [Nashville: Abingdon, 1995], 103-104).
In other words, Jesus took his disciples to the "gates of hell" to ask them if they really understood who he was. He had his disciples stand in front of the gates to the underworld, in the midst of the pagan headquarters for the worship of Pan, to found his church (this is the first time the word ekklesia is used in the gospels) and to give them the keys to the kingdom.
One of the greatest athletes of the 19th century, cricketer C. T. Studd, decided to give up his athletic career and his inherited fortune to spend his life on the mission field. To his friends and his family, who could not understand why he gave up "the world" for a life on the mission fields of India, China and Africa, he wrote this little piece of doggerel:
Some wish to live within the sound
of church or chapel bell;
I want to run a Rescue Shop
Within a yard of hell.
-- Norman P. Grubb, C.T. Studd: Cricketer & Pioneer (London: Religious Tract Society, 1937), 166.
If you live as a Christian, you will suffer. When you live with integrity, know this: You will suffer. When you live for honesty, know this: You will suffer. When you live for justice, know this: You will suffer.
Jesus takes us like he finds us. Jesus does not leave us like he finds us, however. Jesus finds us "hell-raisers." He turns us into "hell-busters," people who will not let the world get away with abuse and denial of respect to all peoples.
Are you ready to go hell-busting for God? How do you know when you are in fact hell-busting for God?
Hell-busters exude the Spirit. They give off a Christ-like spirit. When you're in their presence, you can almost smell holiness. But the holiest of holy smoke has a tinge of the burnt smell with it. It's a smoky holy smoke, not a sickly-sweet holy smoke. It's a smell that tells you it's been slightly singed near the fires of burning flesh and souls on fire.
So the question is raised in looking at Dan Brown's new work of fiction: What pain pierces your life right now because you bear the name "Christian," because you dare to be a hell-buster? Are you willing to travel to the depths of the earth and bust hell wide open doused with the growing flames of hatred, strife and oppression with the living transformative waters of grace? That is the question that cannot be answered by this new work of fiction but was answered and solved on the cross of Christ, which gives us the victory to endure hardships and live as a Christian.
Follow Reverend William E. Flippin, Jr. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pastorbilljr