When we stumble

Cocytus, by Gustave Doré, 1857

Based on Mark 9:42-48

42 ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
(Mark 9:42-48)(NRSV)

When I was in my early years at primary school, I was always losing my pencil. And always having to borrow someone else’s spare one. It became increasingly embarrassing.

Then one day, when I was about six, it happened again. But this time, I was not in the mood for humiliating myself. And I reasoned that if I could quickly open someone’s drawer and fish out a pencil, chances were that nobody would see me.

So that is exactly what I did. And nobody saw me. But my unfortunate victim soon discovered his pencil had vanished and announced this to the whole class. He was clearly not considered a lost a cause like I was when it came to losing things, so our teacher spent some time going through his desk to try to find it, while I watched from several rows away.

I felt very remorseful, and I believe this was the first time in my life I had known I had done something I knew was wrong. I can remember getting in trouble numerous times when I was younger, but I had never understood what I had supposedly done. But this time I knew. And despite my guilt gnawing away at me, I didn’t say anything, because I knew that I would be in real trouble if I did.

I remembered this incident from about half a century ago while I was reflecting on this morning’s reading from the Gospel According to St Mark, particularly the warnings against temptations. As part of my research, I read a sermon on this text by American Lutheran minister Nadia Boz Weber, who also described an incident of childhood dishonesty. [1]

Nadia had spoken about committing the quintessential childhood crime of shoplifting confectionary, Then, after hearing this morning’s text, she decided she would never steal anything again, in case Jesus demanded she started chopping off her limbs off to prevent further reoffending.

Of course, it was not her hand that made her steal those sweets. Our hands do not have minds of their own. They do what our brains tell them to do.

Unfortunately, this text, along with the “an eye for an eye” texts from of the Older Testament have been taken far too literally. A few years ago I was disturbed to see a photo of a gruesome hand crushing device. It was apparently used by the Church in in the 15th Century to punish those with what were described as “greedy hands”. And I strongly suspect they would have been poor people who stolen bread rather than well-to-do who had ripped off many. Nadia and I were lucky that our childhood purloining had not taken place back then.

So given our hands do not make us steal, our eyes do not make us lust, and our feet do not cause us to kick people, what on earth is Jesus on about?

Quite simply, he is speaking in hyperbole, a rhetorical device to emphasise to the importance of his message.

So what is he specifically warning against when he speaks of stumbling?

The word used in the original Greek text is skandalizō, a derivative of skandalon, which means stumbling block, obstacle, offence, or something that causes one to fall or sin. Skandalon is also where the word ‘scandal’ is derived from.

It would seem there are few things that generate more interest and excitement than a good old fashioned scandal, the more sordid the better. I don’t whether it is because people take perverse pleasure in seeing a prominent figure fall from grace, take comfort in knowing that there are others who behave more badly than them, or simply find the juicy titbits somewhat exhilarating. And it’s probably a combination of all three.

But it would seem that once someone has been at the centre of a scandal, nothing else matters. They could have achieved great things, but all they are remembered for is their stumbling, whether it was through ignorance, through weakness, or through their own deliberate fault.

Remember the core of Jesus’ teachings: love God, and love others. We stumble when we fail to do this. But we can always get back up again. So do not be discouraged.

And when we mess up, while it is not likely to be the subject of a public scandal, it may overshadow whatever good we may have done in our lives, it may cause us to lose focus completely on where we are going, and it may get in the way of us playing our part in building up God’s kingdom.

While Jesus’ reference to self-mutilation can be put down to the use of rhetoric to make a point, his warnings about the consequences of stumbling have been twisted way beyond their original meaning.

You see, in Jesus’ day, there was no concept of hell as we understand it. While the Hebrew scriptures spoke of the dead going to Sheol, a shadowy underworld, the concept of hell was not developed until hundreds of years later. And I would single
it out as one of the worst doctrines ever invented, if not the very worst.

With the sole exception of the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, where he is speaking of the Hades of Greek mythology, presumably for the benefit of the Greeks in the audience, every time Jesus speaks of what is translated as hell in the gospels, he is referring to Gehenna, the Valley of the Son of Hinnon, a place just outside Jerusalem with a very bad reputation. [2]

Gehenna has long been associated with terrible things. Hebrew scriptures name it as being the site of child sacrifices to Molech and places of Baal-worship. Later, it seems to have become a rubbish dump, where both garbage and human bodies were burned. Supposedly, the fires never went out.

Jesus is not speaking of some place of eternal torment. He is warning the people that their bodies would burn in Gehenna.

And that is exactly what would happen when the Romans sacked Jerusalem some 40 years later in the year 70 of the Common Era. The judgment against Israel that Jesus had spoken of many times finally came to fruition. But people hadn’t heeded his warning. And their bodies were burned in Gehenna.

As you have probably worked out by now, I don’t believe in hell. It is unscriptural. It subverts grace, which is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. And it is an affront to my belief in a loving and merciful God.


And while I am well aware that there are scriptural references to things like lakes of fire, a careful reading of these texts will show these places are not the ultimate destinations for non-believers.


So you are probably wondering what happens to people who do not identify as Christians.


I will try to explain.


I believe we are set free by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, and I also believe that this extends to everybody. And there is actually immense scriptural support for the doctrine of universal reconciliation through Jesus the Christ.


The Gospel According to St John proclaims:


‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! [3]


The text says, “the sin of the world”. Not “the sin of some of the world.”


St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians states:


… all will be made alive in Christ. [4]


The text says, “all.” Not “some.”


The First Letter to St Timothy notes:


10For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe. [5]


The text says, “especially”. Not “exclusively”.


And the First Letter of St John tells us:


And Christ himself is the means by which our sins are forgiven, and not only our sins, but also the sins of everyone. [6]


The text says, “the sins of everyone”. Not just “the sins of those who go through some kind of personal religious conversion experience”.


And there are many other examples I could offer.


By now, you may be asking, what’s the point of following Jesus if salvation extends to everybody? And that is a very good question.



My response would be that we should follow Jesus because we want to. Not because we want fire insurance.

God’s kingdom needs our contribution if we are going to help establish God’s reign of justice and peace. Don’t we want to be part of that? Because surely it is better to be willing servants than being motivated by nothing more than the prospect of a get-out-of-hell-free card?


But we should still try to avoid succumbing to whatever might make us stumble along the way. Remember that when we mess up, while it is not likely to be the subject of a public scandal, it may overshadow whatever good we may have done in our lives, it may cause us to lose focus completely on where we are going, and it may get in the way of us playing our part in building up God’s kingdom.




Darryl Ward
26 September 2021


1 https://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2012/10/a-sermon-on-hacking-off-our-own-limbs-for-jesus/ (accessed 25 September 2021)
2 Matthew 5:22. 5:29, 5:30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 23:33; Mark 9:43, 9:45, 9:47; Luke 12:5 (Luke 16:23, the verse referred to where Hades is translated as hell in many translations, retains the word Hades in the NRSV.)
John 1:29b

4 1 Corinthians 15:22b
5 1 Timothy 4:10
6 1 John 2:2 (GNT)

All Bible references are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless stated otherwise.