Monday, February 20, 2023
Fr. Eduardo Barrios, SJ
Ears and hearts feel caressed when the infinite mercy of God is preached. No divine attribute comforts us as much as that of his merciful love.
Yet other attributes of God, such as his justice, his wisdom, and the inscrutability of his designs, must never be forgotten. As the totally Other and as the unfathomable Mystery, he reveals himself to us as incomprehensible. How well he said it through the prophet: "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts" (Is 55,9).
Today, the preaching of hell is rejected. Human logic affirms that God cannot allow a child of his to suffer eternally, from which it follows that all are saved even if they have been the worst criminals of their generation. Therefore, the words of St. Paul would have to be erased from the Scriptures: "Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 6:9-10).
Contributing to the repudiation of hell is the fact that its teaching is wrapped in the apocalyptic literary genre. The Gospels speak of a fiery furnace, weeping, gnashing of teeth, unquenchable fire and other terrifying images that turn hell into a torture chamber. The fundamentalist reading of these texts ignores that the message refers only to the eternal loss of beatifying communion with God.
There are also soberer and essentialist Gospel texts. "Indeed, the time is coming when all the dead in their graves will hear the voice of God's Son, and they will rise again. Those who have done good will rise to experience eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to experience judgment" (Jn 5:28-29).
The influential book "The Imitation of Christ," by Kempis, embraces the literal interpretation of the biblical images of hell, attributing specific corporal punishments for each type of sinner: "There shall the slothful be pricked forward with burning goads, and the gluttons be tormented with intolerable hunger and thirst. There shall the luxurious and the lovers of pleasure be plunged into burning pitch and stinking brimstone, and the envious shall howl like mad dogs for very grief. No sin will there be which shall not be visited with its own proper punishment." (Book I, Ch. 24).
That disturbing vision was echoed in the meditation on hell presented by St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises. This meditation is not suppressed today, but is expounded according to the essential teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. "To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'" (CCC No 1033).
Note that this is a transcendent state and not a place. And the Catechism adds: "The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity... The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs" (CCC No 1035).
A subtle way of denying the existence of hell is to affirm that it is only a possibility, but that in reality no one is condemned. We might reflect on the meaning of the Lord's somber words: "Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough" (Lk 13:24).
The message of condemnation is linked to the message about salvation. If there is no condemnation, then the question remains unanswered, "Why did Jesus come to save us?" If sin is unimportant and if there is no condemnation for the hardened and unrepentant sinner, then the sacrifice of Christ insulted, spat upon, scourged, crowned with thorns and crucified remains either unnecessary or a gross exaggeration.
If there is no grave sin, there is no heroic virtue either. If all are saved regardless of their moral decisions, the saints would be only those who grew up in an environment conducive to good works, while the bad ones would be those who lacked good examples and virtuous teachings. Free will would disappear, and we would all be robotized by environmental conditioning.