The look that speaks of hell. A meditation for Good Friday

59And after about an hour had elapsed, somebody else made positive assertions, saying ‘Truly this man was with him as well, and he is definitely a Galilean.’ 60And Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about.’ And at once while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. 61And the Lord turned round and looked straight at Peter. And Peter remembered the words of the Lord when he had said to him, ‘Before a rooster crows, you will deny me three times.’

Luke 22: 59-61 – The Keys of the Kingdom Holy Bible

40Just as, therefore, the tares are pulled up and consumed in fire, so will it be at the completion of this eon. 41The Son of Man will authorise his angels, and they will collect up out of his Kingdom all the stumbling blocks and those committing lawlessness, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 13: 40-42 – The Keys of the Kingdom Holy Bible

Albi Cathedral Doom Painting

I’ve often been asked which is my favourite gospel, and my answer is always Luke. The above quotation is one very good reason – the start of verse 61 appears only in Luke and in my view adds immeasurably to the story. It shows Luke’s deep understanding of humanity and of Christ’s teaching.

None of us enjoys others pointing out when we’ve made a promise and failed to keep it. It’s one of those moments which we’d prefer to forget.

But there’s a twist in this tale that recounts the events of Good Friday. Jesus does not point out Peter’s failure to him. Peter remembers his own failure when the cock crows. What Jesus does is simply to look at Peter at the very moment when Peter realises his own failure. And Luke leaves us to imagine what it must have been like to be Peter, at that precise moment in time…..

The story of St Peter is one that resonates strongly with us, because Peter is ‘Everyman’; he’s full of human weakness, to the point that he becomes almost a buffoon in the gospel stories. Peter is rash; Peter misunderstands; Peter exaggerates; Peter is all too painfully human, and we all relate to him. It’s impossible not to. And because we relate to him, we don’t find it hard to think what it must have been like to be Peter, in that millisecond when Jesus turns around and just looks at him.

Whole books have been written about ‘Hell’. But the concept as we understand it in our world is massively distorted as a result of biblical mistranslations (see Keys of the Kingdom Bible for a detailed explanation.) We have this vision of a fiery furnace where ‘sinners’ go to be tortured for eternity (Medieval so-called ‘Doom paintings’ in churches also distort our views). It’s not biblical.

You may disagree, but my own view is that these pictures crassly disfigure our image of God. How could a God who is love be prepared to act in such a way? Eternal punishment with no way out nor chance of forgiveness? Does this not smack more of us projecting onto God our own human desires for revenge and retribution, than of the act of a loving God?

So, if this does not ring true of God, what are we supposed to think about ‘God’s Judgement’, on this day on which we’re obliged to look up at the cross and consider its significance? If the ‘Doom Painting’ depiction of how sinners will be treated is wrong, then how should we view the Biblical words that are mistranslated as ‘hell’? What do we think Matthew meant by his depiction of weeping and gnashing?

I think Luke’s passage about the Lord turning and looking at Peter, may be presenting us with a clue.

Imagine, (for I think that’s what Luke wishes us to do), what the look of the Lord was like in that instance. If you see a face distorted with anger, then I fear you may be abusing that passage.

What do I see? I firmly believe that all of our sins (large or small; whether of commission or omission) are like wounds in God’s side. When we act selfishly and choose to abandon His values (and let’s not fool ourselves, there’s not one person who hasn’t missed this target by a mile) we cause Him the deepest pain and sadness. So what I see is a face twisted in grief and the deepest most desperate sadness, not anger, revenge or desire for retribution.

And if I’m right, how would Peter feel, when the Lord looked at him like that? I think it would be like having all, every single one of the times that we’d abandoned God’s values, presented back to us, in an instant. When we look up at the cross on Good Friday, it’s worth reflecting on that. For surely we’re responsible for having put Christ there? At least that’s what I believe.

That for me would be ‘hell’. Real, genuine, shrivelling, burning, excruciating, inescapable hell. Weeping and gnashing of teeth is nowhere near strong enough to describe what I would feel like in that moment.

Lord Jesus, as we look at you hanging on the cross this day, we ask you to forgive all the times when we’ve caused you pain beyond our imagining. Amen

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