I Chose the Tears

When I was in middle school I was given my first opportunity to preach a real sermon. For the last year or so I had been giving, from time to time, the short devotional reflections for the gathered church at the end of our Wednesday night bible classes. At the start of our Wednesday night gatherings everyone, young and old, would go to their respective bible classes. But before we dismissed for the evening we'd all gather in the auditorium, sing a song or two and then listen to a short devotional thought. These were the mini-sermons I'd been giving.

Those went well enough that I'd finally been given a chance to give a full sermon during our Sunday night worship service. On Sunday evenings the die-hards of the church would return to the building--twenty to thirty of us out of the hundred or so who came to Sunday morning worship--for second worship service. There would be a song service and a sermon and the Lord's Supper for those who weren't able to take communion that morning. The sermon was a regular sermon, 25-30 minutes in length.

When you're in middle school filling 5-10 minutes with cogent biblical reflections is a challenge. Filling 25-30 minutes with cogent biblical reflections is, well, like climbing Mt. Everest.

So in the week or so leading up to the sermon I began to ponder what I might talk about for thirty minutes.

The Sunday before my sermon I happened to grab a tract from the case in the auditorium. Do you know what tracts are? Tracts were huge in my church tradition. Tracts were little polemical pamphlets on aspects of church doctrine. They often had an evangelistic slant, the idea being you could hand a tract to someone you were wanting to evangelize or who had a question about what our church believed about a given subject. To this very day if you go into an old-school Church of Christ you will find tracks displayed in the auditorium. Some dating back to the 1950s. When I see these displays in churches I always take the time to look them over. They bring back a flood of memories.

The tract I picked up on this particular Sunday was entitled "What is Hell like?" It was written by a well-known fire and brimstone preacher in our movement. I've never heard this preacher preach, but in our tradition his sermons about hell and damnation were legendary. From what they tell me, Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" had nothing on this guy.

Anyway, I took the tract "What is Hell like?" home and read it. And it, well, it scared the hell out of me. The tract was basically a list, describing point after point, and each point packed with proof texts, just how hellish hell was going to be. A place of darkness. Pain. Relational separation and loss. And, the kicker at the end, it would be forever. Forever, as in, forever.

By the end of the tract I was shaking. To this point in my life I'd never heard a hellfire and brimstone sermon. So this was my first exposure to the genre, even if it was in written form. Still, it had a huge emotional impact upon me. And to this day I remember my very first thought after finishing the tract:

"People need to know about this. They need to be warned."

My concern wasn't for myself but for everyone else in the world. It seemed, to my young mind, that people were running off a cliff, blissfully unaware. And I felt the overwhelming urge to stand at the edge of the cliff and warn them.

"Stop, go back!" I wanted to scream. "Don't you know how bad hell is going to be?"

This urge to warn others was so strong that I decided on the spot that this would be the subject of my very first sermon.

And so that's what I did. I wasn't very creative in my sermon preparation. I just dutifully copied down the points from the tract along with the Scripture references and wrote "What is Hell like?" at the top of the page. I'd announce the topic of the sermon, read each point along with the illustrative texts, and then conclude with the invitation.

If people needed to be warned, I was going to warn them.

And so it was that I stood before 20-30 members of my church, my beaming parents among them, and declared the subject of my first sermon.

"Tonight," I started, "I want to tell you, to warn you about, what hell is going to be like."

I'm sure it caught some by surprise. Why, after all, tell a group of people who have come to church twice in one day about the terrors of hell? I was clearly preaching to the choir on this one. Still, I felt the urge to warn. And this was my chance. And so I began the sulfurous litany:

"First, hell is going to be a place of darkness. If you have your bibles turn to..."

Bibles came out, pages flipped, and we read about how dark hell was going to be. The list continued. Point for point I went on, like Dante in the Inferno, taking my audience through the terrors of hell.

And then something happened to me.

And this is what was so strange, emotionally speaking, about the whole experience. Like I said, I wasn't worried about myself going to hell. I wasn't in mortal terror. And nor was I angry, a red-faced fire and brimstone preacher yelling at a depraved and wicked humanity. 

I wasn't sacred. I wasn't angry.

I was sad. Very, very sad.

And so halfway through my sermon I started to weep. Hard. I described each terror of hell with tears rolling down my face. I was crying so hard I could hardly speak.

I'm sure the audience and my family thought I had lost my mind. Here for my very first sermon I had inexplicably picked "What is Hell like?" as my subject. And then I began to weep through the sermon, barely able to finish. I'm sure it all was very weird and disconcerting.

No doubt it was one of the stranger sermons ever preached at my church.

But looking back, I see now, more and more clearly, how that sermon and those tears were a pivotal moment in my spiritual development. A watershed. (Sorry for the pun.) Much of who I am today and what believe can be traced back to the tears I shed during that sermon.

And let me be clear again, because tears were involved, this isn't a story about feeling theologically abused. Again, there was no fear or anger. None of this was internalized. Throughout it all I felt loved and cherished by God, my family and my church.

The tears were simply tears of compassion. If this was what hell was like, and if most people were going to hell, then I just felt to sad and sorry for the world. My heart was breaking. And so I wept for the world. They were tears of love.

And that was the turning point.

Somewhere deep within me I knew, a feeling I've never let go of, that there was no way I could reconcile the bullet points of my sermon with my breaking heart. Going forward from that sermon I knew faced a choice. I was at a spiritual crossroad.

On the one hand I could go with this list I was reading, this list of torture and horror and pain, and say "This is what God is like."

Or I could go with my breaking heart, I could choose the tears. "This, this ache of love. This is what God is like."

What is hell like? What is God like? I had a decision to make. And I made it that night.

I could choose the sermon or the tears.

I chose the tears.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

14 thoughts on “I Chose the Tears”

  1. I've been writing about 'olam and aionios for the past couple of weeks, and I'm more convinced than ever that as the church developed, we really got the ideas embedded in scripture very wrong. I think that a conservative reformed style of reading cannot sustain the positions of the conservative reformed tradition. Still, my Catholic side becomes suspicious of these kinds of radical recoveries of lost traditions. How dare I suggest that throughout large swathes of church history, the church has gotten core matters of faith and morals profoundly wrong?

    Your story really moves me, and it also gives me some real hope and an entry-point into that discussion. Because I think that we are probably profoundly wrong about all kinds of things, even though we can become less wrong. But I think that God moves even in our wrongness, often through our reactions against things, often working in surprising and counter-intuitive but real ways. Even in its Medieval formulation, the doctrine of hell should effect mercy, compassion and humility. By burning brighter than our brightest rage, it has the capacity to quench our judgment, burning us out on it. I wonder if you would have developed the level of compassion that you did, if you hadn't encountered and reacted against this doctrine of hell. So then, what is the impact, in history, of the doctrinal error that holds aionios and 'olam to mean endless? Surprisingly, I think the fruit has often been mercy.

  2. I remember the hell tracts as well. I can vividly remember as a youngster wondering whether I would be there, or my friends, neighbors or relatives. It was a traumatic experience, including nightmares, for myself and I'm sure for many others. It pains me greatly to know others, especially children, are taught of hell referencing passages from the bible as it it were a scientific textbook. The misuse of ancient literature by fundamentalists causes so much pain and suffering. This misuse creates the very thing they think they helping people avoid.

  3. I remember the tract, and the preacher well, it was one of his famous sermons. I also remember young men in our part of the country preaching that very sermon word for word as they would travel the "circuit" of country churches. I truly wish I had seen tears from a few of them. Maybe it would not have taken me so long to weep.

  4. I continue to find verses in the biblical text I never knew were there even after 53 years of preaching full-time or part-tine. Recently, I invited a Jehovah's Witness leader to my house to discuss heaven and hell. In the early days of Campbell and Stone, they studied their way out of Calvinism and, for the most part, I believe they got the doctrines right: communion every Sunday, rejection of infant baptism, baptism for the remission of sins, etc. BUT THERE WERE SOME MAJOR DOCTRINAL POINTS THEY DID NOT INVESTIGATE THOROUGHLY. SO THEY ENDED UP JUST ACCEPTING THE CATHOLIC TRADITION (as did most Protestant groups). Included were views about heaven and hell. But the JW's and others did study these points and reached a different conclusion. Anyway, it our discussion he mentioned Jeremiah 7:31. I said, "Whoa, what did you say that verse says?" For the first time I realized that burning people was described by God as "a horrible deed"and something "that never crossed his mind to command such a thing."

  5. Perhaps I should also say the JW leader reminded that the Garden of Eden right here on earth was a place where there was no pain, suffering, or death - pretty much how heaven is described (Rev. 21:4), a reconstructed earth called "a new earth" (Rev. 21:1).
    In the "second death" the incorrigible and wicked with be "cast out" and cease to exist. The Rich Man and Lazarus parable in Luke 16 was framed within an old Egyptian tale (where Hades contained two compartments with the great gulf between), but the point of the story was basically the same as all those parables between Luke 10 and 19, that forgiveness and blessings are extended to everyone, including a poor beggar. Luke 16 was never intended to be a lesson on what happens to us at death.

  6. Dear Richard,

    I think we all owe you so much for this wonderful, heart-breaking testimony.

    As Cindy Skillman (a member of the Evangelical Universalist forum) told me, many well-intentioned Christians are actually trying to save people from the evil god they believe in .

    I view God as the greatest being who can possibly exist. So if I prove to be much more compassionate than the Almighty, this shows me there is a huge problem with my own theology.

    I don't believe, however, that universalism is the only theology which does not turn God into a moral monster.

    From God's ultimate goodness, it naturally follows He will offer everlasting life to everyone sincerely desiring Him.
    But if a wicked individual does not love God but is just longing for pleasure, God is under no obligation to save Him by violating his free will.
    It is my belief that he will cease to exist.

    Given than only evil persons will reject God, such a fate does not do violence to my moral intuitions.

    Lovely greetings in Christ.

  7. Only "evil persons" will reject God? I turn to one of my favorite quotes:

    “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
    - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Gulag Archipelago

  8. Respectfully, I disagree. There are people who perform evil actions out there, but I can't think of a single person who is pure evil. Every good person has a little bit of darkness or sin inside them, and every person who appears to be evil has at least a little bit of goodness and light.

  9. What a moving reflection this is Richard. Thank you so much for offering it. It hit me as an Epiphany gift, a revealing of God's gracious gospel purposes. I've never been part of a tradition that has emphasized the presence and power of hell (at least not in my adult years), but I sense the power and attraction of it all around me. I stand with you, choosing the tears, God-with-us in the shit.

  10. What about people who don't care for the idea of a God who would send anyone to hell, for any reason, but still prefer doing good over mindless pleasure?

    Because we do exist.

  11. Such human beings are clearly noble and great.

    Unfortunately many need some kind of religious or secular threat to foster their good behavior.

    2014/1/8 Disqus

  12. No, such humans are quite ordinary. And not especially rare. If you need the threat of Hell to make you do right in the world, you don't have a moral compass -- you have an overseer standing over you with a whip. If you feel the need to threaten others with Hell, you ARE the overseer with a whip, and you need to figure out why it's so important to you to threaten and control other people before you have cause to regret your choices.

Leave a Reply