The Last Four Things: Hell; Advent IV

Bosch The Seven Deadly Sins and the Last Four Things

For the final Sunday of Advent I’ve asked the Rev. Martin F. Hauser, Pastor of  Grace & St. Paul’s Church to contemplate Hell. There’s something about the way in which a Lutheran approaches topics like Judgement and Hell that preachers of other faiths just don’t do. I think it has to do with the distinction between Law and Gospel; and how a Lutheran understands Law and Gospel in their places.


Bosch HellOr, more accurately, a chronology of my relationship with hell. I remember that in church it was a grown-up Bible word, like “begotten” and “circumcision.” Outside of church it was also a grown-up word – an exclamation which punctuated every assertion. And that’s about that.

But then I discovered art. Did you know that they have big books in the library, books on religion and art, books full of colored pictures of paintings from long ago? I leaned this when I was ten. Turns our there are lots of hells for the torment of different souls. The medieval doctors assure us that Jesus rules the hells, not the devil. Jesus looks down with kindly love upon the tortures of the damned. The naked damned. They had no clothes on. Not very interesting, as they were all gray and skinny. More interesting was Satan, especially on the ceiling of the Baptistry of San Giovanni in Florence. A ceiling that in later years I stared at open-mouthed for some time on many occasions. Satan was devouring three sinners simultaneously.Uncle Frog 1

Uncle Frog 2It was not until I came to New York in 1983 that I learned those three sinners were Judas, Brutus and Cassius. They betrayed their friend. They betrayed their friend. There is nothing worse. In that year mi ritrovai in una selv’ oscura and started the descent into hell with Dante and Virgil after Vespers on Maundy Thursday, I didn’t make it to heaven as fast as they. It took a few months to make my way into the vison of l’amor che mov’ il sol e l’altre stelle.  The next fall, I discovered that an old friend, now professor of Romance languages at New York University, was teaching Dante, so I signed right up. Read the book, friends and neighbors. Get the Dorothy L. Sayers (yes, that’s right – quite a lady)  translation. No edition has better notes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In those days there were no middle schools. We went to Junior High. We had gym class. This was hell. We were all taught a life-long love of fitness by being ordered to get naked, being shouted and whistled at, having hard rubber balls thrown at us, being humiliated if we dropped from exhaustion. I also discovered that the word “hell” is not to be pronounced. Ever. Under uncle frog againany circumstances. If the Latin textbook says that Pluto kidnapped  Proserpina and carried her “ad inferos,” the proper translation is “to you-know-where” or “to the place down there.” And the words were to be pronounced with the hand over the mouth, grimacing as though one had farted. To use the word “hell” in its proper context  was obscene. Who knew? It was becoming pretty clear that Southern Illinois was hell.

Having fled Southern Illinois as fast as Pluto’s chariot could take me, I arrived in civilization. I learned Greek with Mr. Morgan. I went down into Hades with Odysseus and Prof. Zeph Stewart, brother of Justice Potter Stewart. Still later Aeneas and I made our way hand in hand into Avernus under the guidance of Prof. Claussen, him that edited the Oxford text.

Somewhere along the way I began to sink into my own hell. The real one, I suppose. Near as I can tell. God started to intrude into my consciousness, This is not fun. This is not entertaining.

When God becomes really and obviously and inescapably both the dimensionless center and the more-than-infinite circumference of all that is and more, it makes it very hard to value yourself, your character, your accomplishments, your intellect, your goodness, your kindness your generosity – even your life for that matter. You see that God is all, you are nothing. God is more than all. You are less than nothing. Why do you even exist? Maybe, in fact, you should not.  Maybe the thing to do is to put an end to the pain and the terror, the shame and the horror.  It’s an experience aptly described by Tony Hendra of the National Lampoon in his ‘Deteriorata:”

You are a fluke of the universe.
You have no right to be here.
And whether you can hear it or not,
The universe is laughing behind your back.

Only it’s not funny.

uncle frog 4The hand that reached down into hell to pull me up belonged to a dead Nazi and Lutheran theologian named Werner Elert, sometime Rector and Dean of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Erlangen. I read a little pamphlet of his which enunciated the Gospel – the forgiveness, love and healing that God freely, graciously and unconditionally bestows upon all who put their trust in Jesus Christ. Hell spat me out like the fish did Jonah.

A few years later I was working with Fr. Paul Hutchinson of blessed memory at Christ Church in the Near South Side ghetto of St. Louis. I was teaching a class on St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. The president of the Church Council disagreed with St. Paul. She believed that it was just plain wrong to say that Christ has set us free from the Law of God. Sure Jesus died for us and all that but…but…but, we still have to do this that and the other. We still can’t do this that or the other. We still have to live by God’s Law.

Fr. Paul Hutchinson was a real theologian. There are some. Here and there. He was a great exorcist. He prayed. After the Bible Class we were at the tavern as always. I asked Paul why was it, did he reckon, that people thought they could live by God’s Law instead of clinging to the Cross like a drowning man to a raft? He slammed his mug down on the table so hard it like to broke and shouted at the top of his lungs, “Because they’ve never hung over the fires of hell, that’s why!” Yes.

At Easter time we usually put out a picture of Jesus’ descent into hell. He is holding out a hand to all the faithful men and women of the Old Testament. He will take them with him to Paradise.

Fr. Paul Hutchinson used to say that God has forgiven everybody in hell, The reason they are still there is that they don’t believe it. Now I’m old. I will die pretty soon. This is OK.  I love those old medieval paintings of hell. I love the old hymns that threaten  fire and brimstone. It’s just picturesque mythology that describes a part of our experience as God’s people. See, I believe in Jesus’ death for sinners. So wherever or whatever hell may be, it’s not for me. I will live with Christ forever.

Martin asked me to include this hymn with his post and I think it’s quite appropriate not only given the theme and his request, but also that I’ve been putting up music all Advent. The request was for:

Es ist gewißlich an der Zeit

Es ist gewißlich an der Zeit,
Daß Gottes Sohn wird kommen
In seiner großen Herrlichkeit,
Zu richten Bös’ und Frommen.
Dann wird das Lachen werden teu’r,
Wenn alles wird vergehn in Feu’r,
Wie Petrus davon schreibet.

Posaunen wird man hören gehn
An aller Welt ihr Ende,
Darauf bald werden auferstehn
All’ Toten gar behende;
Die aber noch das Leben han,
Die wird der Herr von Stunden an
Verwandeln und verneuen.

Danach wird man ablesen bald
Ein Buch, darin geschrieben,
Wa alle Menschen, jung und alt,
Auf Erden hab’n getrieben,
Da dann gewiß ein jedermann
Wird hören, was er hat getan
In seinem ganzen Leben.

O weh demselben, welcher hat
Des Herren Wort verachtet
Und nur auf Erden früh und spat
Nach großem Gut getrachtet!
Der wird fürwahr ganz kahl bestehn
Und mit dem Satan müßen gehn
Von Christo in die Hölle.

O Jesu, hilf zur selben Zeit
Von wegen deiner Wunden,
Daß ich im Buch der Seligkeit
Werd’ angezeichnet funden!
Daran ich denn auch zweifle nicht,
Denn du hast ja den Feind gericht’t
Und meine Schuld bezahlet.

Derhalben mein Fürsprecher sei,
Wenn du nun wirst erscheinen,
Und lies mich aus dem Buche frei,
Darinnen stehn die Deinen,
Auf daß ich samt den Brüdern mein
Mit dir geh’ in den Himmel ein,
Den du uns hast erworben.

O Jesu Christ, du machst es lang
Mit deinem Jüngsten Tage!
De Menschen wird auf Erden bang
Von wegen vieler Plage.
Komm doch, komm doch, du Richter groß,
Und mach uns in Genaden los
Von allem Übel! Amen.

The Day Is Surely Drawing Near

The day is surely drawing near
When God’s Son, the Anointed,
Shall with great majesty appear
As Judge of all appointed.
All mirth and laughter then shall cease
When flames on flames will still increase,
As Scripture truly teacheth.

A trumpet loud shall then resound
And all the earth be shaken.
Then all who in their graves are found
Shall from their sleep awaken;
But all that live shall in that hour
By the Almighty’s boundless pow’r
Be changed at His commanding.

A book is opened then to all,
A record truly telling
What each hath done, both great and small,
When he on earth was dwelling;
And ev’ry heart be clearly seen,
And all be known as they have been
In tho’ts and words and actions.

Then woe to those who scorned the Lord
And sought but carnal pleasures,
Who here despised His precious Word
And loved their earthly treasures!
With shame and trembling they will stand
And at the Judge’s stern command
To Satan be delivered.

O Jesus, who my debt didst pay
And for my sin wast smitten,
Within the Book of Life, oh, may
My name be also written!
I will not doubt; I trust in Thee,
From Satan Thou hast made me free
And from all condemnation.

Therefore my Intercessor be
And for Thy blood and merit
Declare my name from judgment free
With all who life inherit,
That I may see Thee face to face
With all Thy saints in that blest place
Which Thou for us hast purchased.

O Jesus Christ, do not delay,
But hasten our salvation;
We often tremble on our way
In fear and tribulation.
Then hear us when we cry to Thee;
Come, mighty Judge, and make us free
From every evil! Amen.

And here’s the Great O for the Day:


O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

English:Psalm 42

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

Or, as Sixpence None the Richer puts it:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

O come, O come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel

O come, O come Thou Dayspring bright
Pour on our souls thy healing light
Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom
And pierce the shadows of the tomb
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

O come Desire of Nations bind
In one the hearts of all mankind
Bid every strife and quarrel cease
And fill the world with Heaven’s peace
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee
Shall come to thee
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emanuel shall come to thee, O Israel


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