The Catholic Church's beliefs in hell and the devil are our most politically incorrect doctrines. Today especially, few like to hear about hell. Many see the doctrine as a harsh legacy of medieval superstition.
We find hell offensive to our understanding of God's mercy. How can anyone hold that a merciful God would condemn even unrepentant sinners to eternal punishment? Surely anyone who believes in hell must be full of resentment and a desire for revenge. And if God would condemn anyone then he must be a vengeful God.
It is a disservice to even mention hell. You'll provoke feelings of guilt and nightmares, perhaps even personality disorders.
Well, if hell is real -- and Jesus taught its existence repeatedly and the church has remained constantly faithful to that teaching -- then it does people no favor to silence talk about its existence. If people can go to hell then you do them an eternal favor by telling them how to avoid the trip.
However, we know even less about hell than heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says only that it is the "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed" (no. 1033). And while the catechism refers to the punishment of "eternal fire," it avoids any use of the vivid imagery of hell sometimes employed by poets, painters and preachers. It says simply that "The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God" (no. 1035).
But why is God so mean as to separate himself from us? The answer to this calls for a rephrasing of the question. Those condemned to hell have separated themselves from God. God does not condemn them; they have condemned themselves.
In my article on heaven, I spoke of how we build heaven in this life by cooperating with God. The damned, likewise, build their own hell through their refusal to cooperate with God.
Germain Grisez and Russell Shaw link the contemporary refusal to accept the existence of hell with a legalistic approach to morality. People "imagine God saying, 'Here are the rules. Do as I say if you want to stay out of hell.' But God's creation is not legalistic; moral norms are moral truth. . . .
"(God) does not make arbitrary demands and run us through obedience tests. He invites us to take advantage of a wonderful opportunity, available by reason of our being created in his image and being redeemed through Jesus. To take advantage, however, we must freely do our part. And if we freely choose not to do that, not even God can do anything about it" (Fulfillment in Christ, pp. 220-21).
If there is both heaven and free choice, there must also be hell. There is an utmost seriousness to life. We make choices and those choices matter. They either build up God's kingdom or work against it. And in eternity, we will live out what we have made ourselves to be through these choices.
Hell is a real possibility for every person. It is the possibility that each of us have of turning our backs on God and persisting in that rejection until death.
The doctrine of hell, however, does not call us to fear and paralysis. It issues what the catechism says is "an urgent call to conversion" (no. 1036). The doctrine contains a call to each person to ponder the perilous nature of our existence. Jesus advises, "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction" (Matthew 7:13).
Jesus taught his disciples about hell not so that they could speculate about who and how many people are there and what tortures they might be undergoing. He taught this doctrine to wake us from our slumber.
To be sure, fear of hell is a less pure motive for repentance than is love for God. It is what used to be called "imperfect contrition." But a healthy dread of hellfire can start one on the way to a reformed life and the eventual love of God.
This is the sort of conversion one sometimes sees in those who have had a close brush with death. They return with a desire to do something more worthwhile with their lives than attempt to become rich or famous. A brush with death can lead one to a life of self-sacrificing love for others.
God does not want anyone to go to hell. God "is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). He does not condone sin, but he freely forgives it, if we but ask for his forgiveness and resolve to amend our lives.
Indeed God has gone as far as he could possibly go in preventing anyone from entering hell. He sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, who offered himself up for our sake so that we might have all possible means to enter God's kingdom. "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17).
Jesus has opened the gates of heaven. All we need to do is walk through.
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