Sunday, September 23, 2012

Can People Actually Go To Hell? "Hellz Yeah"

Sorry, but once the title was in my head I couldn't take a pass.  

During my first year in college, I volunteered to help with youth ministry to teens at the local parish.  I remember one of our first meetings when we just fielded any questions on the teens minds.  One of them was of course whether or not we still believed in hell.  One of the adults and the priest working with us jumped in with the statement, "The Church teaches that because people have free will, they have the ability to choose to live apart from God; and to do so eternally is the suffering we call Hell.  But the Church has never made a statement that it knew someone has 'gone to' Hell.  It is possible that all people make an act of repentance at that millisecond before death and are reconciled with God.  Hell could be empty."  I had not heard that theory of Hell potentially being empty; but I have in the years since, and more frequently as the years pass.

It could just be me, but doesn't it seem like most people no longer consider Hell a real possibility?  I notice, for instance, how when someone dies, we seem to immediately blurt out how the deceased "is in a better place," meaning heaven.  We seem to leap over the fact that our earthly lives will be judged and that God is going to ratify the decisions we have made to live in union with Him or apart from Him.

I certainly hope that all of the deceased reach heaven, but the words of Jesus and millennia of Christian "feeling" force me to hold my tongue.  (My "default position" is purgatory.)  When I receive news of someone's death I pray, "Lord, please cleanse them of all sin and take them to Yourself in heaven." If the person was publicly living at odds with Jesus' teaching in some way, I don't despair for his or her salvation but instead pray, "Lord, You are the Master of Time.  I pray now that in those seconds before death, your child was given the grace to reconcile with You.  Please take him/her to Yourself in Heaven."

Let me be clear:  I am not condemning anyone, but our Faith recognizes that there are actions, objectively speaking, that are so serious that if we knowingly engage in them, constitute a rejection of God and force His Life from our souls.  Jews and Christians have always called these actions sins - mortal, or deadly sins.  Listen to St. Paul in the New Testament, "do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived : Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor.6:9-10).  Can ignorance of the seriousness of these sins or addiction mitigate the damage to souls?  Yes, but what human being has the power to "read" another's soul and knows that to be the case?  All we are told definitively is that these actions are deadly.  We always have reason to hope for another's salvation, and should never give into despair; but it is equally wrong to presume upon another's salvation - as well as our own!  Hell - the agonizing, eternal separation of a disembodied soul from God - is a real and ever-present possibility for all of us.  It is a consequence of free will.

When we are unaware of harmful outcomes, we are less guarded in our actions, like the child who runs its hand over every surface in the kitchen - hot stove included.  Or perhaps we are aware that bad things sometimes happen to people who do "such and such," but I won't be one of them - like the man who does tricks on his motorcycle as he rides down the highway.  (Yes, we actually had a group of riders gather to do that in St. Louis two weekends back.  And there was an accident - huh, who could have foreseen that?)  Good parents educate their children about the dangers of hot surfaces, and good friends tell you that motorcycle stunts on a highway constitute an insufferably stupid risk.  A good God and loving human beings speak up about what actions lead to an eternity of misery.

Saying that we "believe" in Jesus, intellectually accept that He was God come in the flesh, is not the same as living in union with Him.  "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that - and shudder ... Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, 'You have faith; I have deeds.' Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do" (James 2:19, 17-18).  Jesus told a parable about the make-up of His Church and judgment:  
The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son ... [The king] said to his servants, "The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come.  So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find." So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, "How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?" The man was speechless.
Then the king told the attendants, "Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." For many are invited, but few are chosen."  (Mt.22:2,8-14)
The Book of Revelation also speaks of this wedding feast, telling us that Christ's people are dressed in "fine linen, bright and clean," representing "the righteous acts of the saints" (Rev.19:8). You can ask any husband and wife and they will tell you that authentic union is more than speaking the words, "I love you;"it is lived out in their flesh and bone, day after day.  Consider this episode from the gospels:
Someone asked Jesus, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ (Lk.13:23-25)
Similar words were recorded in Matthew, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Mt.7:13-14).

In the past century the existence of Hell and of it being a possible end for us was reconfirmed in the private revelations at Fatima.  (The Church has approved the apparitions at Fatima, meaning that there is nothing in them contrary to the Faith received from Christ and the Apostles.)  Visionary Lucia Santos reported:
[The Blessed Mother] opened Her hands once more, as she had done the two previous months. The rays appeared to penetrate the earth, and we saw, as it were, a vast sea of fire. Plunged in this fire, we saw the demons and the souls. The latter were like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, having human forms. They were floating about in that conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames which issued from within themselves ...  We then looked up at Our Lady, who said to us so kindly and so sadly, “You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart.”
We are to love God with the heart of Mary, a heart that treasures Jesus above all, saying and living, "Be it done unto me according to thy word."

So, is there a Hell?  Yes.  Are there human beings experiencing it right now?  It is true that the Church has not made a definitive, dogmatic statement identifying any individual as suffering Hell; but the collected weight of Scripture, Tradition, and the sense of the faithful throughout time is "yes," there are souls experiencing that pain - and that if we die separated from God by unrepentant sin, that pain will be ours.  In 1988, Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote the book Dare We Hope "That All Men May Be Saved"? He answered in the affirmative, that we may dare to hope.  It is amazing how quickly we seem to have moved from daring to hope to the downright conviction that all are.

Let me end with a sobering thought from C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce“There are only two kinds of people in the end: 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. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell."

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