taking the words of Jesus seriously

A friend of mine, a pastor, recently shared that he’d gotten some complaints from his church.

Apparently, he doesn’t preach about hell enough.

I’ve heard a version of this a time or two, and lately my own preaching complaints have lined up equally from the left and right — so I must be doing something right — or maybe everything wrong.

Anyway, most of the time pastors — like most of us — are overly sensitive egotistical humans who like to have our egos stroked.

So bring on the complaints.

Anyway, I do think there’s something deeper here, this idea that people want to hear about hell. Maybe I even thought it myself a time or two, growing up in a Lutheran congregation where all the talk was about grace and God’s gift — and I wondered, yeah but what about that jerky kid in my fifth grade class who tormented me …

That is, after all, the first response when people wonder about hell. They wonder about Hitler or Mao or Stalin or … well fill in your desired evil villain. Rare is the person who wants hell to exist because they need it for themselves. We need hell as a convenient place to put all the people we hate. As an option for ourselves and our loved ones, well, hell becomes a lot less popular.

Nonetheless, hell is very real in 2018.

Just this week, horrifying images out of Syria: families, children, grandparents, adults — murdered in a chemical gas attack, reportedly from the Syrian government itself against remaining rebel holdouts in Douma.

There were, again, the heart-wrenching images of children gasping for breath, and I cannot look at them anymore — because I have done nothing except go on living my life as they die.

There is on a much smaller scale the individual hell of living in the polarized political world of 2018 America: the hell of deceitful, predatory politicians and pundits and news organizations — the hell of families and friendships divided by ugly politics — the hell of the revelation of racism and sexism and sexual assault and classism and our absolute inability to care, really, about anything except ourselves.

There is the hell of entrenched poverty and the ways middle-class America disdains it, until we fall into it ourselves — and the shame that makes us hate one another when we do.

There is the hell of competitive parenting, of not enough hours in the day, of relentless consumerism and targeted ads that keep us on the treadmill, gasping for air, then buying again to again feed the beast.

There is the hell of everlasting winter — of the obvious impact of climate change in dramatic weather pattern shifts this spring across much of the Eastern United States; and meanwhile the record heat across Asia that forecasts inevitable changes to the life we’ve taken for granted.

There is the hell of taking it all for granted. The hell of taking it all too seriously. The hell of depression, or anxiety, or addiction. The hell of watching a loved one suffer with the former. The hell of realizing you’ve been enabling it.

There is the hell of past mistakes made that cannot be undone. The hell of divorce, the hell of infidelity, the hell of cancer.

We know hell, don’t we? The screaming, the fighting, the abuse. The inertia of needed changes, the hopelessness.

We know hell.

And so when my friend said he’d heard he needs to preach more about hell, I told him that the truth is we all know hell. What we really need is a glimpse of heaven.

This past weekend in Lynchburg, Va., a group of Christians — many of them calling themselves Red Letter Christians, so to focus on the “red letters” of Jesus in the Bible — launched a Red Letter Revival just miles from the campus of Liberty University, home to President Jerry Falwell, Jr., and a hotbed of Evangelical Christian support for President Donald Trump.

The revival was in some places painted as a revolt of progressive Christians and Democratic politics against the conservative Christian heart of the Moral Majority, but I don’t really think it was about that. After all, the Rev. Dr. William Barber called himself a theological conservative, and most of the leaders and organizers of the revival came up in traditional Evangelical Christianity.

What the revival tried to do instead, I think, is offer a positive glimpse of heaven.

One forum, hosted by Jon Huckins and Noel Castellanos, was called “Blessed are the Peacemakers: Following an Others-Oriented, Enemy-Loving God.”

Speaker and organizer Shane Claiborne repeatedly sent letters to Falwell, Jr., requesting a chance to pray together.

Another forum talked about LGBTQ+ Christians and their allies.

The revival ended, appropriately, with an altar call — with a call to commitment to Jesus, to refugees, to the poor, to the oppressed.

Now I’m not saying the Red Letter Revival was heaven. But I lift it up here to share what Red Letter Christians has been for me, a white woman Lutheran Pastor raised smack dab in middle-class Midwestern America: born not to a Pastor or to a prominent family, but to a teacher and a city employee who always did their best to teach me to love Jesus.

What Red Letter Christians has done for me, in the past five years since I’ve become involved in the movement, is give me a glimpse of hope — a glimpse of the heaven-centered work that God calls us to on this sometimes hellish earth. Red Letter Christians has reminded me that the barriers that typically divide us — denominations, genders, wealth, power, color — don’t have to divide us, but we do need to recognize them and work to demolish them. Red Letter Christians has reminded me that despite the bureaucracy of church and the seeming monotony or ignominy of faith and justice work, there are others working, too. And there is a place where we can come together and try to figure out what Jesus meant when he said what he said — and what God meant when he lived, died, and rose again.

So I didn’t go to the revival, but followed the live stream and Twitter commentary. I preached at my new congregation, where I’m blessed to serve as part-time teaching pastor. I spent time with my kiddos, and I alternately obsessed over and ignored the news. I lost the battle with consumerism and screen obsession; I was alternately healthy and unhealthy; loving and angry; happy and sad.

But when I saw the revival — when I saw my friends engaged in this work for justice and for Jesus…When I see so many people doing the small, everyday things that lead to grace: forgiving, loving, even when they might be expected to hate — I think that’s what Jesus called us to do.

Not to scare people about hell. Because we know hell.

But offer, with the Holy Spirit’s help, a small glimpse of heaven.

This article was adapted from Angela’s blog.

About The Author


Angela Denker is a Lutheran pastor and veteran journalist. She's written for many publications, including Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Sojourners. She is the author of "Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump" (Fortress Press).

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