Today we finish November, the month in which the Church annually reflects on the last things of death, judgment, Heaven and hell. Last week I mentioned that this meditation is happening less frequently today because, even though death remains a certainty, many have begun to believe that Heaven is just as certain for almost everyone who dies. Judgment and hell are irrelevant, they think, because how could Jesus — Who desires all to be saved and died on the cross to make salvation possible — ever flunk someone on the final exam of life?
Theoretically, of course, we can fathom that Judas, Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, serial killers, and all the people who don’t like us might end up in hell, if there is a hell; but we can’t envisage ourselves, any of those we care about, or a sizable chunk of ordinary people ever ending up in Gehenna.
How could a God Who is full of compassion, slow to anger, and rich in kindness ever set up an eternal, infernal dungeon in which He mercilessly punishes people for disobedience? How could God Who is love ever establish an everlasting Abu Ghraib for anyone, not to mention His beloved children?
And if it’s the case that only those with post-doctoral degrees in Satanic wickedness are candidates for the eternal hall of shame, then, at a practical level, we can all just calm down, because very little now matters to our or others’ eternal destiny. It doesn’t matter if we spread the faith, because everyone gets to Heaven whether or not they know Jesus Christ. The Sacraments don’t matter. The Word of God doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if we pray or play, if we keep or break promises, if we steal or sacrifice, if we come to Mass or sleep in, if we’re faithful to our spouse or cheat, if we provide for or neglect our family, if we forgive or settle scores, if we love or abuse the poor, or if we welcome or abort the littlest of Jesus’ brethren. None of this matters — or at least none of it matters much. Since almost everyone in the class is going to make the eternal honor roll no matter what they do, while we may still admire those who study hard, the really wise ones are those who eat, drink and be merry and still get their easy A.
But this way of believing and behaving is not Christian. Contrary to the idea that the final judgment is a cake walk and that everyone is with Led Zeppelin on the “Stairway to Heaven,” Jesus, as we saw last week, taught that “many” are on the wide, easy road leading to destruction and relatively “few” are entering through the narrow door leading to life (Mt 7:13-14). Jesus came from Heaven to show us the way to Heaven and indicated quite emphatically that not all roads lead there. To get to Heaven, we need to follow Him. If we tragically refuse to follow Him on that path, that choice has consequences.
Just as much as Jesus discoursed on the beauty of Heaven, he spoke about the reality of hell. He compared hell to a blazing furnace, an unquenchable fire, a worm that doesn’t die. We can make choices, He said, that cause us to lose body and soul in hell, that exclude us from the banquet of the Kingdom, that lead God to say to us, “I never knew you.”
Those who end up in this state, Jesus said, may be shocked because they had dined with Him, heard His sermons, even worked miracles in His name, but they had never really developed an intimate communion of life with Him. Those to whom Jesus will say, “Depart from Me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” will be startled to recognize that every time they neglected to nourish, dress, welcome and care for others — every time they failed to love their neighbor — they were failing to love Jesus Himself in disguise. And those choices matter.
In talking about hell, Jesus was not an ancient Stephen King entertaining the multitudes with fictional horror stories. He was communicating that hell is a real possibility of human freedom. Hell is not part of the Gospel Jesus proclaimed — hell is not “Good News” — but it is a reality for those who freely decide not to believe and live the Gospel.
But the question remains: How is hell consistent with Divine love? If God calls us to forgive 70 times seven times, doesn’t hell mean that there’s a limit to His mercy?
Hell was not part of God’s original plans, for everything He created was good. He formed us in His image and likeness in order to share His life and love, but He took a tremendous risk in creating us free: He made it possible for us to misuse our freedom against Him, others, and ourselves. Sin, suffering, death and hell are all the creation not of God but of those who refuse Him, the consequences of a disordered self-love so strong that it excludes the love of God.
Jesus said that He had come into the world not to condemn the world but to save it, but He added, “The one who rejects Me and does not receive My word has a judge, and on the last day the Word that I have spoken will serve as judge” (Jn 12:47). Those who reject Jesus’ words of eternal life, who prefer to walk in the darkness instead of the light, become their own judges by the way they respond to the truth God has revealed. “There are only two kinds of people in the end,” C.S. Lewis once famously wrote. “Those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell choose it.”
Hell exists not despite God’s love but precisely because of it, in order to honor the desires of those who don’t want to live in loving communion with Him and others. It is the state, as the “Catechism” calls it, of “definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” It is the tragic possibility of human freedom for those who, in voluntarily choosing sin, separate themselves from God and others.
When we ponder all God has done to make salvation possible, including Jesus’ brutal crucifixion to pay the full price for our sins, our response should not be to take Heaven for granted, but to say, with emotion, “So much mercy, so much love, and still some people choose against God!”
Jesus on the cross paid the price not so that we could sin as much as we want and presumptuously still think we’ll get to Heaven, but so that we, moved by the horror of sin and by the immensity of His love, might choose to live in His light, lovingly unite our whole lives with Him, follow Him home to Heaven, and help others to join us on the narrow path to His eternal right side.
It’s the choice between life and death, light and darkness, Heaven and hell. Jesus did everything necessary to enable us to choose well. But we have to choose Him lovingly in return, in each moral decision.
Father Landry is Pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River.