Not the Jesus I know: thoughts upon having the Hell scared out of me

“Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”

The young man took my hand in a gesture of friendship as we stood next to one another in the middle school auditorium. All around us, other pairs of strangers asked one another the same question.

We had just finished watching a performance of “Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames,” a travelling evangelical road show that has been touring the world for over thirty years. The play consists of a series of vignettes acted out by local volunteers. In each scene, an individual achieves or fails to achieve salvation before dying abruptly, by violence, accident, or overdose. Those who succeed ascend to a glittery silver-lame heaven, where they are greeted by Jesus. Those who fail get dragged off into the flames of hell by Satan, who in this production bears a striking resemblance to Darth Maul.

The entire production is designed to scare the hell out of you, literally.

In this particular performance, the saved include an American soldier, a battered spouse, a bullied teen, a church-going family, and a pair of construction workers. The damned include a drug abuser, a murderer, a porn fan, and a working mom too busy to attend church.  Are skipping church and murder really comparable in the eyes of God?  Maybe; for as the playwright frequently reminds us, it is not on the basis of our good or bad behavior that we are judged, but solely on whether we have accepted Jesus as our personal savior.

Hence the question.

The young man asked with such evident kindness that I smiled and replied, “Yes.” He smiled back, but I felt a twinge of pain at my well-mannered dishonesty. I had told the truth, but not the whole truth. A more honest answer would have gone something like this: “Yes, I know Jesus. But if you are asking about the figure I saw depicted here tonight: No, I do not know him. This is not the Jesus I know.”

Before I proceed, I would like to make clear that my comments here are in no way meant to be critical of my many neighbors who appeared on stage last night. I could tell that they were earnest in their desire to serve, and to save. There was both faith and talent on stage; and I appreciated the joyful exuberance of the play’s Jesus, as he sprinted on stage, newly liberated from the tomb. My issue is not with the actor’s interpretation of Jesus, but with the playwright’s interpretation of Jesus.

First of all, the Jesus of Heaven’s Gates is oddly passive; after that initial joyful sprint, he is pretty much confined to heaven, aka backstage. He appears at the top of the stairway to paradise, to embrace those prudent souls who are saved; but he is notably absent when the damned are dragged off screaming into hell. At these moments, it is the devil alone who commands center stage, as projected flames flicker on a large screen.

I find myself fighting the urge to shout at the stage: WHERE IS JESUS? I am left wondering: is he deliberately absent, or just powerless before the devil? He is always in the wings, never a witness to the torture. The stage directions preserve plausible deniability, and we are never permitted to question him directly.

Indeed, the Jesus of this play has apparently been silenced by death; he is given no dialogue. If he were allowed to speak, what might he say about these terrifying scenes? I found myself imagining the play’s Jesus suddenly shouting out, interrupting the script with his own words from the gospels: Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord’ will enter heaven, but everyone who does the will of God…Whatever you do for the least of God’s children, you do for me… Those who seek to save their own life will lose it… Do not be afraid! Instead, a silent Jesus appears only briefly before being whisked backstage again behind the silver lame curtains – like a hostage trotted in front of the cameras but not allowed to speak for himself for fear that he would denounce his captors’ beliefs.

The ultimate power in Heaven’s Gates is neither Jesus nor Satan but rather the “book of life,” a magical tome in which the names of the saved are inscribed, at the exact minute when they first pledge themselves to Jesus. The playwright evidently gets this idea from the visions of John of Patmos in the book of Revelation, because as far as we know, Jesus himself never spoke of such a book. Yet in the play, the book looms large, overshadowing the testimony of the four gospels or the letters of the apostles – including the letters of John, who wrote that whoever lives in love lives in God, and the letters of Paul, who wrote that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Not even a silver lame curtain.

In the world of Heaven’s Gate, prudence is the primary Christian virtue. The most important thing is to get in the book in a timely manner, so as to avoid personal catastrophe in the event of unforeseen demise. Faith is sold as a form of personal hell insurance, and the only unforgivable sin is to be caught unprepared.

But surely it is not prudence, but love, that is the key to eternal life? Extravagant, unconditional love, love for enemies as well as friends, love for sinners as well as saints, love for neighbor as well as self, love for strangers as well as siblings? Fearless, imprudent love?

In one of the play’s more harrowing scenes, a young woman dies of an accidental drug overdose. When she appears at the gates of heaven, she is denied entrance. Remembering her late father’s faith, she cries out in terror for him to help her – Dad, I’m scared! Dad, help me! – but her father never appears. He is apparently too busy enjoying heaven, to be concerned about his daughter’s fate.

As I watched the scene, one phrase repeated itself in my head: how much more. It is a phrase that Jesus used more than once, to describe the love of God. As in: if you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good things to those who ask?

And so as I watched the actors, I found myself thinking, if we, who are merely human, love our children — even when they make mistakes, even when they rebel against us, even when they fall into addiction  — how much more must God love them? If a parent’s love for their child can continue, even after the child’s death, how much more must God continue to love them? If the resurrection means anything, it means that death is no obstacle to God’s love.

So, yes, I know Jesus. He’s the one who loved us all the way to hell and back again.

Photo: Petr Kratochvil

Eppur si Muove (or, the Gospel According to Galileo)

“Who will roll away the stone for us?” (Mark 16:1-8)

They were the witnesses, these women who came to the tomb on Easter morning. When the other disciples turned and fled, these were the ones who remained to the very end, to bear witness to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. How long would it be before those images stopped crowding out all the others? How long would it be, until they could think of Jesus and remember him in life, instead of in death?

Only a few days have passed.  These women are still in those first numb, surreal days of grief, when the heart struggles to absorb what the eyes have seen.  And so, as people do at such times, they take comfort in the rituals of mourning.  It makes them feel less alone. It gives them something to do. And so early on Sunday morning, they go together to the tomb. They are going to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. They know that, after this, there will be nothing more they can do for him; but this morning, they are going to care for him, one last time.

But there is an obstacle to overcome. Who will roll away the stone for us? they ask. Who will clear away the barrier that seals Jesus in, and keeps us out? For it is very large.

As large as barrier between the dead and the living.

But they come to the tomb and find, to their surprise, that the task has already been accomplished.  Someone, or something, has already rolled away the stone. A mysterious stranger at the tomb tells them Jesus has gone on ahead of them, to Galilee. Not only has the stone rolled away; Jesus himself is on the move.

So, who did roll away the stone? How did it move? We don’t know. We never see it happen, have you noticed that?  It’s not a part of Mark’s gospel – or Matthew’s or John’s. All we know, is that the rock is there on Friday, and gone on Sunday, but no one sees it move. Luke speaks of an earthquake, and of angels, but no one else seems to remember that, so it seems likely that Luke is just guessing.

We just assume that it happened. But no one else was at the tomb when it happened.

Did it suddenly burst open, raising up dust and startling the birds? Or did it move so slowly and imperceptibly, that no one passing by noticed its motion? We don’t know. Did Jesus himself rise, and put his shoulder to the rock? Or was it moved by the hands of angels? Did those angels look just like us?

All we know is we arrive there on Easter morning, and the stone is already gone.  While we are still sleeping, still grieving, still despairing, God is already changing the landscape.

The gospel of Mark ends abruptly at this point. The other gospels tell how Mary saw Jesus in the garden, how Peter ran to the tomb, how Jesus appeared to the other apostles. But Mark tells us just this: that the women ran away and told no one, for they were afraid.

What were they afraid of? These were not easily frightened women. These were the ones who stayed the course, even when the men in Jesus’ company fled.  These were the ones who had faced the cross, and marked the tomb, and returned to honor the body of a man that the Roman authorities viewed as a dangerous subversive. They were not a timid crew. So what were they afraid of?

Were they afraid that no one would believe their witness? After all, they were women. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time a woman’s witness was discredited.

Or maybe they were afraid to believe it themselves. They had witnessed the shattering of their hopes, when the stone sealed the tomb. Maybe it was too much for them to absorb the shattering of their despair, when the stone rolled away.

And there, after all, something reassuring about immobility. The stones in our path are reliable landmarks. They tell us where we are. They define where we can go. They divide what’s on this side, from what’s on that side; what’s possible, from what’s not.  When the very stones start rolling away, when the earth itself begins to move, well, anything is possible. All hell can break loose. Literally, in this case.

Sixteen centuries after that first Easter, Galileo Galilei was condemned by the Church for daring to suggest that the earth moved around the sun, rather than the other way around. He was forced to recant on his knees, but there is a legend that as he rose to his feet afterward he whispered, “eppur si muove” – “nevertheless, it moves!”

Whether we know it or not, it moves. Whether we like it or not, it moves. The very thing that we thought was immobile, impassible, impervious to change — it moves.

It moves, and all those beliefs we thought were set in stone, move with it. All of our assumptions, about life and death, about victory and defeat, about power and weakness – they all begin to crumble.

After all, those who condemned and executed Jesus were confident in their belief that God was on their side of that stone. And those who mourned him believed that he was on the far side of the stone, and lost to them forever. Neither group considered that the stone itself might move.

Neither group suspected that God’s version of the story might end, not in death for some and life for others, not in triumph for some and defeat for others, but in reconciliation. The reunion of the condemning and the condemned.

I think many of us — maybe most of us, lately — live in a pre-resurrection world, a world of impenetrable barriers and insurmountable obstacles. We have all seen enough crucifixion lately to believe in Good Friday, and we know just how large the stones are that separate us from one another.

And so we find ourselves living in that time in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, when the world seems permanently divided — between the winners and the losers, between the privileged and the poor, between the insider and the outcast. When find ourselves on the sunny side of the stone, it is still tempting to believe that God is on our side. And when we find ourselves in buried in darkness, we wonder if God has abandoned us forever.

But it was on that long bleak Saturday, on that day between Good Friday and Easter, that the rock began to move, and the world began to turn. And so it is today. Whether we know it or not – whether we believe it or not – even in the darkness, Love can still find the leverage to roll that stone away.

Just how that will happen, we may not be able to see right now. Perhaps God will send angels. Perhaps those angels, will look just like us.

But know this: that even now, God is at work to change the landscape.

Eppur si muove.



Easter Sunday Sermon by Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts.

(photo: Wikimedia. One of the sliding rocks of Racetrack Playa. Read more about this wicked cool phenomenon here.)

The Stones Cry Out

I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out. (Luke 18:28-48)

This is the day that will seal his fate.

He does not enter the city quietly. He does not try to blend in with the crowds. Instead, he makes an entrance, much as a military general might enter in triumph, riding upon a his steed, surrounded by loyal soldiers, greeted by a cheering crowd.

But his ride is no war horse, and his disciples are no army. Their only power, is the power of their testimony. Luke tells us that as Jesus came into the city from the Mount of Olives, “the whole multitude of his disciples began to praise God with a loud voice, rejoicing for all the deeds of power they had seen.”

That loud voice is their only weapon. But it is threatening enough, to the powers that be.

Those words — blessed is the King who comes in the name of God – are enough to convict Jesus and his disciples as enemies of the state. No wonder the Pharisees in the crowd urge Jesus to silence his disciples. After all, they know how the Romans deal with public dissent. They have seen the crosses before.

And so the Pharisees say, Teacher, order your disciples to stop! But Jesus replies:

Were they to be silenced, the stones would cry out.


I used to imagine that this as a something miraculous and joyful – maybe loud, rocky clapping, or a ringing of bells – the sound of creation itself bearing witness to the presence of God.

I used to imagine it that way, but now, I’m not so sure.

Luke doesn’t say, the stones will shout for joy – although some Bibles translate it that way. Luke says, the stones will cry out. It’s the same Greek verb that Luke uses for the blind man, who cries out to Jesus for healing. It’s the same verb Luke uses for the possessed man, who cries out to Jesus for deliverance. They cry out, save us.

Which, by the way, is the meaning of the word Hosanna.

Jesus speaks of the stones again, in his very next words. Jerusalem, he says, if only you knew the things that make for peace.  But the days will come upon you, when your enemies will surround you, and crush you, and there will not be one stone left upon another.

Is it then, I wonder, that the stones will cry out?


Palm Sunday is one of those holy days that move around from year to year. Like Passover, and Ramadan, and Easter, it falls on different calendar dates in different years.

In the year 2011, Palm Sunday fell on April 17th.  It was on that date, in the year 2011, that a group of peaceful protestors gathered outside their mosque in the city of Homs, in western Syria. They were calling for an end to nearly five decades of martial law. They carried no weapons, except their voices. But their voices were threatening enough, to the powers that be. They were met with a rain of bullets that killed twenty five people.

The next day, more protestors filled the streets. One of them told a news reporter: ‘I am forty-five years old, and this is the first time in my life that I have broken the barrier of my silence.’  

For weeks, the protests continued — but so did the gunfire, until eventually the protesters took arms themselves, and the government responded by laying siege to the city, and bombarding it with artillery.

On Palm Sunday, in the year 2011, Homs was a city of 1.4 million people. Today there are less than half that many living there. Drone footage over the city shows block after block after block of walls ripped off, roofs collapsed, rubble littering the streets. In the oldest part of the city, there’s barely a single intact building. There are just stones.

But the stones still cry out. More forcefully and more eloquently than any words, the stones bear witness to the injustice done there.

The people who took to the streets of Homs on that Palm Sunday took the same leap of faith that Jesus and his disciples took on the very first Palm Sunday, nearly 2000 years ago. Speaking truth to power is never without risk.  The cross, the tear gas, the fire hoses, the bullets, the bombs — the tools of empire may change, but the rationale is the same. Then as now, the oppressor offers a choice: silence, or violence.

But then as now, the words of Christ ring true: Your violence cannot hide the truth, for God is our witness. Silence these voices, and the very stones will cry out.


Today it is Palm Sunday, when Jesus and his disciples take to the streets, shouting Hosanna. By the end of this week the disciples will have been driven into hiding, and Jesus himself will be dead and buried, beneath the rock. Yet even then, the stone will have its say.

But that is a story for next Sunday.

Today it is Palm Sunday, when the streets ring with the voices of those who will be silent no longer.  And we cry out with them, for this is our work this day: to find our voice, to speak our truth, to risk the cross for freedom’s sake. To take the step that may seal our fate.

Let us bravely cry Hosanna today, so that in the fullness of time, we may shout Alleluia when the stones at last roll away.



Sermon by Liza B. Knapp at First Church of Deerfield, MA, on April 9, 2017

Photo: Destruction in Homs (20120, photo by Bo Yaser. Published on Wikimedia Commons.