Gospel Reading: Matthew 18:21-35
C.S. Lewis said that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside. Now, if you get that mental picture of the gates of Hell being locked from the inside, it’s very interesting in a couple ways. First of all, it suggests that Hell actually exists. Hell actually exists. There actually is a state that a human being created in the image of God can go into after this life, in which for all eternity, without rest, without reprieve, there is eternal torment and damnation. Hell actually exists. But if the gates of Hell are locked from the inside as Lewis suggested, that also suggests that the inhabitants of Hell are there by their own consent . . . that it is not the angry and wrathful and vengeful Father, getting them back and giving them what they deserve. That is not what Hell is about. No, Hell is a place of self-exile — a place of self-exile.
Now, on the far ends of the spectrum, we have the Universalists on the one hand, and we have Calvinists on the other, and their near twin-brothers, the Arminians, on this side.
Now, on the Universalist side, they would say, “Everybody goes to Heaven, without exception. No matter how good you are, no matter how bad you are, whether you trust in Christ, whether you reject Christ, whether you are a part of this church or that church or any church, it doesn’t matter. Everybody’s going to Heaven.” Why? “Because God loves you, God loves everybody, God wants everybody to go to Heaven.”
And so on this side of the spectrum they succeed in protecting the truth about the character of God. But they fail to protect us from carelessness. Because if Hell is a possibility, if Hell truly does exist, we need that warning. We need to know because, if you believe that everybody without exception is going to Heaven, why would you be vigilant? Why would you watch out for your soul? Why would you care? “If you want to be good, be good; that’s fine. But if you reject Christ, if you murder, if you rape, if you hurt people, if you cheat people, aww . . . God loves you anyway. He’s going to take you to Heaven.” So the Univeralists succeed in protecting the character of God. But they fail in protecting us against a careless spirit.
Now on the far other end of the spectrum we have the Calvinists, the predestinarians, the ones that believe that, before all time, in eternity past, God the Father decided, “Okay, here are the people that I want to go to Heaven, and – oh boy! Here are the people that I want to burn forever! I want to show the glory of My mercy on the people who will be in Heaven forever. But I really want to create these [other] people for the express purpose of sending them to Hell so that I can pour My wrath and My justice out on them, and show everybody how awesome I am, and how powerful I am!”
On this side, they acknowledge that Hell does exist. So they do protect us from carelessness. But they fail to protect us from slandering the character of God.
Now the Arminians: They think [that] they’re on the other end of the spectrum, but they’re not. They’re actually the twin brothers to the Calvinists. They cannot bring themselves (and for good reason) to believe that, in God’s heart of hearts, He wants anybody to perish, that he wants anybody to suffer, that He wants to condemn any of His creation to eternal destruction, and damnation, and torture. So they think they get God off the hook by saying, “Well, in His heart of hearts God doesn’t want them to God to Hell. But there is this aspect of God called His justice that kind of forces His hand in the matter. He can’t help it. He has to be just to be good, and since these people of their own free will reject Christ — God wants to take them to Heaven anyway, but His justice just forces His hand so that He has to torment them for all eternity and give them what they deserve.”
So, is it that much better to have an aspect of God carry out justice and wrath for all eternity, versus God in His heart of hearts wanting to do that? You can argue this, you can argue that. I tend to think it’s a little better, because at least they’re trying to protect God’s character. But is not His justice part of His character? Is not that aspect of Him part of who He is?
Yet if God is the one locking the doors to Hell, then we have to wonder, “What about those passages in Scripture that tell us that God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked?” Now think about it. What judge does not take pleasure, to some extent, in bringing the gavel down and locking up the rapist and locking up the murderer, getting that person out of there so that the other people can be protected and not exposed to that kind of wickedness?
The way we conceive of justice, at least in our Western society, we generally do take pleasure in the sentencing of a criminal. And yet Scripture says that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. So if it were His justice, if this was divine retributive justice, if this was divine wrath carried out upon someone who deserves it, and that’s what this was about, that’s what Hell was about, then how could God not take some pleasure in that? And yet Scripture says that He takes no pleasure in it.
If we were to believe that [God took pleasure in it], what are we supposed to do with John 3:16? “For God so loved” — the elect? — no, “God so loved the world“. God so loved — the Greek word is cosmos (κόσμος) — not just every man, woman, and child, but every rock, and tree, and planet. According to Romans chapter 8, He didn’t just come to save human beings; He came to save all of creation. And all of creation groans, just waiting for the revelation of the sons of God, when we are brought back in our resurrected bodies and we shine with the divine light. God so loved the cosmos that He gave His only begotten son. Well, guess what? Every man, woman, and child is part of the cosmos. He loves every man, woman, and child. He loves every corner of His creation that He has made.
So what are we to do with this warning, with what I believe is one of the scariest parts of the Bible? In the Gospel of Matthew, today we read that Jesus said that if you do not forgive, you will not be forgiven. And not only did He say it here, but He also put it in the Lord’s prayer, which all Orthodox Christians pray on a daily basis:
Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Now, isn’t that interesting that the Lord’s prayer does not simply say, “Father, please forgive us our trespasses“? See, that’s what we want to pray. “No matter how I mess up, no matter who I hold a grudge against, please forgive me anyway.” But Jesus did not tell us to pray that. He told us to pray, “Father, please forgive me, as I have forgiven others“ — which C.S. Lewis points out, for some of us, — and this is a scary thing — for some of us, we are praying for God to not forgive us.
Think about it. If you have not forgiven your mother, your father, your spouse, your child, your neighbor — if you have not forgiven from the heart, and then you pray the Lord’s prayer, and you pray for God to forgive you as you have forgiven others, what have you just prayed?
If you’re holding unforgiveness in your heart, then you’re praying, “God, forgive me as I have forgiven others. I haven’t forgiven others. Therefore, I pray, don’t forgive me!” That’s a dangerous prayer to pray. Don’t ever pray the Lord’s prayer while you’re holding a grudge in your heart against your spouse or your parent or any human being on this planet. And yet Jesus wants us to pray that prayer daily. “Give us this day our daily bread.” That means you should never let a single day go by when you have not forgiven everybody that you know. Every Sunday should be Forgiveness Sunday. Every day should be Forgiveness Sunday, because if you hold a grudge in your heart, if you hold unforgiveness in your heart, and you pray for God to forgive you in the same way you have forgiven others, you have just prayed for non-forgiveness.
Now, so far this passage would make any Calvinist happy, [nor any] Arminian. It would make the Universalist very uncomfortable. So how do we square this with the teaching of the Orthodox Church, which C.S. Lewis happened to agree with, that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside, not the outside?
Well, as I said, we can see the passage of Scripture in Ezekiel where it says that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. We can look at John 3:16 where we see that God loves the entire Cosmos, every corner of His creation, including every man, woman, and child.
We can also look at a specific parable that Christ taught in the 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. In Luke chapter 15, Jesus tells the famous story of the Prodigal Son. And we all know this story. This guy is a rebel. He hates his father. He is so disrespectful that he says, “I want my inheritance now!” Which, if you think about it, is the same as saying, “I wish you were dead. I want you to die so I can get my inheritance. Just give me my stuff now. I want to get out of here. I don’t want to be in a relationship with you.” And he goes off into rebellion, and he lives it up in drunkenness, and with unclean women, and he defiles himself. Finally he spends the entire inheritance in waste, and riot, and wantonness. And those people that he thought were his friends, have nothing to do with him, and they cast him off, and he ends up working in the pigpen. And he’s so hungry, he’s so starving, he’s so filthy, he’s so miserable that he dreams about just being able to eat the pods the pigs eat, because the pigs are eating better than he is.
And then finally he comes to his senses. He finally comes to his senses. He wakes up, he casts his eyes to Heaven, and he realizes, “Even the lowest slave in my father’s house is treated better than this! I will return to my father. I will go back home. I’ll beg him just to let me be his slave.”
You know the rest of the story. He doesn’t even get the first words out of his mouth. The father sees him from afar off. The father doesn’t say, “Well, ok, what are you going to do to pay off your debt here? Uh, who am I going to have to give retributive justice to, to get them back for what you did? There’s got to be a substitute.” No, no, no, no, no! The father runs! He sees his dirty, filthy, wayward son coming home, and the father runs as hard as he can. And you know the English translation says he fell on his neck, he just, he grabbed him, he hugged him, he’s kissing him. “My son’s home! My son is home!” That’s what the Father does with every one of us. There’s not a hint there of retributive justice, not a hint of wrath, [not a hint of] “I’m going to get you back.”
And then what happens? You see, the interesting part of this story, for today’s lesson, is not the Prodigal Son, but it’s his older brother. He [the younger son] comes back home, the father has the fatted calf killed in this picture of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, this picture of this feast. And He is celebrating at this feast, and his son has come home and has been forgiven, is celebrating at this feast. But where’s the older brother? The older brother is not celebrating! In this picture of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, the older brother is nowhere to be found. But why was he not found? When he failed to forgive his brother, when he rejected reconciliation with his brother, did the father say, “Well, you older son, you get out of here. I don’t want to have anything to do with you. I condemn you.“?
No! No, no. It says there in Luke 15 that the father talks to the older son and pleads with him. The father wants him in there too! He wants them all in the feast. But the older son, on his own will, refuses to go in. The older son says, “That younger brother of mine; I . . .” — he doesn’t even call him his brother; he says, “That son of yours . . .” — “That son of yours has wasted your money and has gone out with whores . . .” And he just described his [brother’s] past life in the worst way he possibly could, just to show how filthy it was, and how much disgust he had for his brother. The father was rejoicing that his son had come home, and that the relationship had been restored.
The older brother hated his brother, more than he loved his father. He locked himself out of the wedding feast, because he would rather be in an emotional Hell, than forgive. He would rather be estranged from his father and estranged from the feast, that to reconcile with his brother. And so it will be, I believe, on the Last Day. It will not be the Father saying, “Ha, ha, ha! I’m going to get you back! I’m going to torture you for all eternity to get you back in vengeance for the bad things that you did.” No. He’s going to be welcoming people into His kingdom. And there are going to be some people who even on that day, demand the right to hold a grudge, demand that they not be forced to reconcile with “that person, that spouse of mine, that parent of mine, that neighbor of mine . . .” And they will love their grudge more than they will love God.
Now where’s the father going to be? He’s not going to stay out of the feast. He’s not going to stay away from his younger son who has just come home. The father goes back in the house. The father rejoices with his son The son rejoices with his father. And now the older brother, by choosing to stay away from his younger brother and not forgive, automatically has cut himself off from the father. By failing to forgive, he is failing to be in that restorative relationship that results from forgiveness. It’s self-exile. The gates of Hell are locked from the inside.
And so we think, to begin with, that there’s these two opposite ends of the spectrum: the Universalists on the one end, and the Calvinists on the other. But when we look at it closer we find that actually even they are on the same side. Because, what is similar about them?
The Calvinist says, “God’s Sovereignty is so big and so powerful that human freedom, the freedom of the human person, is nothing. God wants this group of people to go to Hell, so they’re going to Hell, and there’s nothing they can do about it.”
But aren’t the Universalists doing exactly the same thing? They’re saying, “The Sovereignty of God is so big that human freedom, the freedom of the human person, means nothing. I want you to go to Heaven, and so you’re going to Heaven. No matter what you want to do, you can’t do anything about it.”
Now, isn’t it interesting that historically, that those people who were Puritans in the 16th and 17th century, by the modern day became Universalists in the northeastern part of the United States? Isn’t that interesting that the Calvinist Puritans became the Unitarian Universalists? How did that happen? It’s because they’re both on the same side. They both believe that the Sovereignty of God trumps everything, and that there is no true freedom for the human person.
And so, in contradistinction to the Universalists, who retain God’s character but put us in a state of carelessness, and deny the freedom of man, and in contradistinction to the Calvinists, who preserve the reality of Hell, and the truth that it exists — but then they slander the character of God, and they also denigrate the freedom of the human person —
We have Orthodoxy, which says, “You can do what you want. God is giving you true freedom. If you want to follow Christ and go to Heaven, none of your sins will be held against you. None. But if you want to refuse to forgive your brother, if you want to be estranged from those whom Christ has redeemed, God is not going to force you either. If you choose to stay outside the wedding banquet, and go into self-exile, then you will spend eternity in the Hell that you yourself have selected. And the door will be locked with the key which you yourself still hold onto.”
And I halfway think that, for all eternity, there’s going to be such suffering and torment that there’s going be this point where you want to, — ::sigh:: — “I was wr…“, “I was wr…” — But you just can’t quite bring yourself to say it: “I was wrong. I forgive. I reconcile. I’m not going to hold that against you.”
You see, the Hell that we will live in forever, if we reject Christ, if we refuse the forgiveness that He offers, the Hell that we will live in forever will be the Hell that is self-imposed by our failure to forgive. Because for all eternity, once you reach that point, you’re going to want to nurse that grudge, your’re going to want to hold that resentment. You’ll say that you just deserve to hold onto it. And since you never let go of that, you’re never going to let go of the suffering, you’re going to never let go of the torment, and you’re never going to walk in the door and rejoice that your brother, that your sister, has come home, and has been forgiven.
So what does it mean when He says if you do not forgive, you will not be forgiven? Let’s come back to the Lord’s prayer. Once again I’ll quote C.S. Lewis, one of the most Orthodox Protestants I’ve ever heard of. He said that for your entire life, God urges you and asks you to say, “Thy will be done.” Well, what is His will? His will is reconciliation: reconciliation between Him and you, reconciliation between you and your spouse, reconciliation between you and your child, reconciliation between you and every person that you ever come in contact with, regardless of what they’ve done to you. That’s His will. But if we go our entire life and we just consistently refuse to say, “Thy will be done“, Lewis said the point comes that God respects our freedom and says [to us], “Ok, thy will be done.” And that is going to determine how we spend eternity.
Do we forgive? Do we reconcile? Do we tell God, “Thy willl be done“? or do we hold onto our resentments, our grudges, to bad feelings that we have towards those that we believe have wronged us? Do we refuse to let that go? And then at the end of our life does God finally look at our hardened heart, and does He tell us, “thy will be done“?
Lord God, please give us a heart of forgiveness. Please give us a heart of peace. Please give us a heart of reconciliation in Your Son, Jesus Christ. Yes, other people have wronged us, and we should acknowledge that. It will not do just to say, “Ah, it’s no big deal.” No, it is a big deal. People have wronged us. But immediately after acknowledging that people have wronged us, please help us, Lord, to let it go, to release any anger that we might believe we have a right to have about that, to nurse no resentments, to nurse no grudges, to be at peace with everyone who has done us kindly, and to be at peace with everyone who has done us wrongly so when we pray, “Forgive us, as we have forgiven”, we truly are praying to be forgiven.
Let us take this as a warning that Hell does exist. Let us exercise vigilance over our souls. But please help us to remember Your character, Lord, [that] You take pleasure in the death of no one, that you seek the destruction of no one, that You yourself have no desire to send any person to condemnation.
Lord God, we pray that You would heal our hearts, heal our relationships, heal our minds, heal our bodies, heal our souls, and help us truly to live at peace with you, and with one another.
We pray these things in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This sermon was preached on Sunday morning, November 4, 2012, at Christ the King Orthodox Church, in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.
Formatted and edited by Maria Powell of Dormition Text Services. Dormition Text Services offers full service secretarial support, including publishing services, to Orthodox clergy and parish communities.