DOES HELL EXIST?
Last week I was reflecting on our “modern” understanding of purgatory. Interestingly, some people read it and gave me their feedback. Someone disagreed, another person thanked me for clarifying our belief in existence of such a place, still another one was surprised at talking about it because she thought the II Vatican Council dismissed the idea of purgatory. I see this as a perfect opportunity for all of us to look once again at our faith and at what we believe and start talking about it among ourselves while having a relaxed gathering with family members or friends. In all our discussions let us not forget the magisterium of the Catholic Church that has the authority to give authentic interpretations of the Word of God. That’s an important factor to keep in mind when it comes to the exchanging of personal views.
This is the last Sunday in our liturgical calendar when we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King. The first and second reading continue using the apocalyptic language and speak of Christ’s kingship that is not from this world. But instead of talking about God’s kingdom today, I thought it would be good at the end of this liturgical calendar year to reflect on the Doctrine of the Church about Hell.
Interestingly, immediately a saying from my country of origin pops up in my head. It says: “Rejoice you soul, for there is no hell”. Oh, really? I consider myself an observer of our age and time, but I also know who I am and what I believe in. Since I grew up in the Catholic Faith Tradition, I subscribe to what the Catholic Church teaches about hell. CCC says in 1033: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’”.
I observe in our society the desire to disbelieve in hell’s existence. Besides, it is such a “touchy” subject that there are so few people in the Church standing up for it because nobody wants to be known as hell’s defender. I certainly don’t have a desire to become one! Yet, this is what our Catholic Church teaches us! And in case someone asks us if there is hell, our answer as people of Christian faith should be YES. According to Pope John Paul II, “Hell is not a punishment imposed externally by God, but the condition resulting from attitudes and activities people adopt in their life”; hell is more than a physical place and is better understood as the state of those who freely and definitely separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy”.
What an interesting description of an understanding of hell coming from a man who spent all his life pondering on the mysteries of his – and ours at the same time – faith. If we look at the two saints quoted most often in the Catechism: St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, they expressed no doubt about the existence of hell. If we look at all our authorities – ancient, medieval, and modern – Scripture, tradition and magisterium, they all agree on hell’s existence. Of course, there is a postmodern attempt to change that belief by making hell as hard to enter as heaven once was. And the best way to answer all those who negate its existence is to tell them to take that up with Jesus, since he told us 80% of what we know about hell. Taken together, they describe a state that is permanent and painful. And it’s not as if Christ’s statements are vague or ambiguous.
As an example, let’s take one that is very chilling: “Woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mt 26:24; Mk 14:21). What Jesus said about Judas would be unthinkable for one person to say about another. “Better not to have been born”? That is a very serious statement and there is no way to make sense of that if Judas got to enjoy the beatific vision.
An American poet from the XIX century by the name of Emily Dickinson dealt with themes of death and immortality in her poems. She also mentioned about hell saying that the parting is all we need to know about it. She defined hell as a permanent parting from God. It’s the permanent choice for something other than God. That should be, for a Christian, the worst thing imaginable!
Scott Hahn, one of the most widely influential Catholic laymen of our times says that hell is the proof of our freedom to choose. It’s the guarantor of our freedom, because love cannot be compelled or coerced. God wants our love, but He will not force us to love him. According to him, it’s fearfully possible to refuse God’s love. And this is what people really do as they take their stand and plant their flag celebrating that kind of rebellion. Someone jokingly said that the national anthem of hell is “I Did It My Way” (we love that song, don’t we?).
So, what is hell? With all the limitations of the terms in our language we can say that hell is “a train that jumped the tracks to exercise its freedom. It’s a fish that jumped the bowl to be free of the water”.
In the traditional Act of Contrition, we say that we are sorry because we “dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell”. This statement is the beginning of conversion. We don’t want to be like the damned, who – according to Jesus – just wail and gnash their teeth. They don’t repent. They recognize their failure, but they are still too proud to do anything about it.
And CCC in 1037 says quite clearly: “God predestines no one to go to hell’, for this, a willful turning away from God (mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want ‘any to perish, but all to come to repentance’.”
Yes, despite the existence of hell, we do believe in the immensity and power of divine love!
Let’s choose God then, always and everywhere.