Why Damnation Is Eternal and Other Teachings on Hell

This is the thirteenth and final installment in a series on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.

The teachings of the Lord on Hell are difficult, especially in today’s climate. The most difficult questions that arise relate to its eternal nature and how to square its existence with a God who is loving and rich in mercy. As a closing reflection on Hell and on the Four Last Things, let us ponder a series of questions.

1. Does God love the souls in Hell? Yes.

How could they continue to exist if He did not love them, sustain them, and continue to provide for them? God loves because He is love. Although we may fail to be able to experience or accept His love, God loves every being He has made, human or angelic.

The souls in Hell may have refused to empty their arms to receive His embrace, but God has not withdrawn His love for them. He permits those who have rejected Him to live apart from him. God honors their freedom to say no, even respecting it when it becomes permanent, as it has for fallen angels and the souls in Hell.

God is not tormenting the damned. The fire and other miseries are largely expressions of the sad condition of those who have rejected the one thing for which they were made: to be caught up into the love and perfection of God and the joy of all the saints.

2. Is there any good at all in Hell? Yes. Are all the damned punished equally? No.

While Heaven is perfection and pure goodness, Hell is not pure evil. The reason for this is that evil is the privation or absence of something good that should be there. If goodness were completely absent, there would be nothing there. Therefore, there must be some goodness in Hell or there would be nothing at all. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches,

It is impossible for evil to be pure and without the admixture of good …. [So]those who will be thrust into hell will not be free from all good … those who are in hell can receive the reward of their goods, in so far as their past goods avail for the mitigation of their punishment (Summa Theologica, Supplement 69.7, reply ad 9).

This can assist us in understanding that God’s punishments are just and that the damned are neither devoid of all good nor lacking in any experience of good. Even though a soul does not wish to dwell in God’s Kingdom (evidenced by rejection of God or the values of His Kingdom), the nature of suffering in Hell is commensurate with the sin(s) that caused exclusion from Heaven.

This would seem to be true even of demons. In the Rite of Exorcism, the exorcist warns the possessing demons, “The longer you delay your departure, the worse your punishment shall be.” This suggest levels of punishment in Hell based on the degree of unrepented wickedness.

In his Inferno, Dante described levels within Hell and wrote that not all the damned experience identical sufferings. Thus, an unrepentant adulterer might not experience the same suffering in kind or degree as would a genocidal, atheistic head of state responsible for the death of millions. Both have rejected key values of the Kingdom: one rejected chastity, the other rejected the worship due to God and the sacredness of human life. The magnitude of those sins is very different and so would be the consequences.

Heaven is a place of absolute perfection, a work accomplished by God for those who say yes. Hell, though a place of great evil, is not one of absolute evil. It cannot be, because God continues to sustain human and angelic beings in existence there and existence itself is good. God also judges them according to their deeds (Rom 2:6). Their good deeds may ameliorate their sufferings. This, too, is good and allows for good in varying degrees there. Hell is not in any way pleasant, but it is not equally bad for all. Thus God’s justice, which is good, reaches even Hell.

3. Do the souls in Hell repent of what they have done? No, not directly.

After death, repentance in the formal sense is not possible. However, St. Thomas makes an important distinction. He says,

A person may repent of sin in two ways: in one way directly, in another way indirectly. He repents of a sin directly who hates sin as such: and he repents indirectly who hates it on account of something connected with it, for instance punishment or something of that kind. Accordingly, the wicked will not repent of their sins directly, because consent in the malice of sin will remain in them; but they will repent indirectly, inasmuch as they will suffer from the punishment inflicted on them for sin (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 2).

This explains the “wailing and grinding of teeth” in so far as it points to the lament of the damned. They do not lament their choice to sin without repenting, but for the consequences. In the Parable of Lazarus, the rich man in Hell laments his suffering but expresses no regret over the way he treated the beggar Lazarus. Indeed, he still sees Lazarus as a kind of errand-boy, who should fetch him water and warn his brothers. In a certain sense the rich man cannot repent; his character is now quickened and his choices forever fixed.

4. Is eternal punishment just? Yes.

Many who might otherwise accept God’s punishment of sinners are still dismayed that Hell is eternal. Why should one be punished eternally for sins committed over a brief time span, perhaps in just a moment? The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.

This logic presumes that the eternal nature of Hell is intrinsic to the punishment, but it is not. Rather, Hell is eternal because repentance is no longer available after death. Our decision for or against God and the values of His Kingdom values becomes forever fixed. Because at this point the will is fixed and obstinate, the repentance that unlocks mercy will never be forthcoming.

St. Thomas teaches,

[A]s Damascene says (De Fide Orth. ii) “death is to men what their fall was to the angels.” Now after their fall the angels could not be restored [Cf. I:64:2]. Therefore, neither can man after death: and thus the punishment of the damned will have no end. … [So] just as the demons are obstinate in wickedness and therefore have to be punished for ever, so too are the souls of men who die without charity, since “death is to men what their fall was to the angels,” as Damascene says (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 99, art 3).

5. Do the souls in Hell hate God? No, not directly.

St. Thomas teaches,

The appetite is moved by good or evil apprehended. Now God is apprehended in two ways, namely in Himself, as by the blessed, who see Him in His essence; and in His effects, as by us and by the damned. Since, then, He is goodness by His essence, He cannot in Himself be displeasing to any will; wherefore whoever sees Him in His essence cannot hate Him.

On the other hand, some of His effects are displeasing to the will in so far as they are opposed to any one: and accordingly a person may hate God not in Himself, but by reason of His effects. Therefore, the damned, perceiving God in His punishment, which is the effect of His justice, hate Him, even as they hate the punishment inflicted on them (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 5).

6. Do the souls in hell wish they were dead? No.

It is impossible to detest what is fundamentally good, and to exist is fundamentally good. Those who say that they “wish they were dead” do not really wish nonexistence upon themselves. Rather, they wish an end to their suffering. So it is with the souls in Hell. St. Thomas teaches,

Not to be may be considered in two ways. First, in itself, and thus it can nowise be desirable, since it has no aspect of good, but is pure privation of good. Secondly, it may be considered as a relief from a painful life or from some unhappiness: and thus “not to be” takes on the aspect of good, since “to lack an evil is a kind of good” as the Philosopher says (Ethic. v, 1). In this way it is better for the damned not to be than to be unhappy. Hence it is said (Matthew 26:24): “It were better for him, if that man had not been born,” and (Jeremiah 20:14): “Cursed be the day wherein I was born,” where a gloss of Jerome observes: “It is better not to be than to be evilly.” In this sense the damned can prefer “not to be” according to their deliberate reason (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 3).

7. Do the souls in Hell see the blessed in Heaven?

Some biblical texts say that the damned see the saints in glory. For example, the rich man in the parable can see Lazarus in the Bosom of Abraham (Lk 16:3). Further, Jesus says, There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves are thrown out (Lk 13:28). However, St Thomas makes a distinction:

The damned, before the judgment day, will see the blessed in glory, in such a way as to know, not what that glory is like, but only that they are in a state of glory that surpasses all thought. This will trouble them, both because they will, through envy, grieve for their happiness, and because they have forfeited that glory. Hence it is written (Wisdom 5:2) concerning the wicked: “Seeing it” they “shall be troubled with terrible fear.”

After the judgment day, however, they will be altogether deprived of seeing the blessed: nor will this lessen their punishment, but will increase it; because they will bear in remembrance the glory of the blessed which they saw at or before the judgment: and this will torment them. Moreover, they will be tormented by finding themselves deemed unworthy even to see the glory which the saints merit to have (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 9).

St Thomas does not cite a Scripture for this conclusion. However, certain texts about the Last Judgment emphasize a kind of definitive separation. For example, in Matthew 25 we read this: All the nations will be gathered before [the Son of Man], and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. … Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Mat 25:32, 46).

Clearly, Hell is a tragic and eternal separation from God. Repentance, which unlocks mercy, is available to us; but after death, like clay pottery placed in the kiln, our decision is forever fixed.

Choose the Lord today! Judgment day looms. Now is the time to admit our sins humbly and to seek the Lord’s mercy. There is simply nothing more foolish than defiance and an obstinate refusal to repent. At some point, our hardened hearts will reach a state in which there is no turning back. To die in such a condition is to close the door of our heart on God forever.

Somebody’s knocking at your door.
Oh sinner, why don’t you answer?
Somebody’s knocking at your door!

Images of Hell

This is the twelfth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Hell, Fra Angelico, Museo di San Marco, Florence

Part of what makes Jesus’ teaching on Hell difficult is the severe imagery He uses. In pointing to Hell, he seems to point to its deepest pits. He warns of eternal fire, undying worms, and wailing and grinding of teeth. Rather than lingering on philosophical descriptions or on the more subtle aspects of suffering, Jesus goes to the deepest aspects of the sufferings of Hell.

The undying fire in Hell is not a mere physical one; it is a fire of rage and disgust that consumes as it causes pain. In contrast, the refining fire of God’s love purifies. The souls of the dammed in Hell are seething inside and enduring the heat of the indignation of others.

The worms, real and allegorical, gnaw at and devour what little energy the rage has not already burned away. Unjust anger is ultimately exhausting; it saps life the way worms do. Their gnawing brings weariness and weakness, lethargy and listlessness. Depression is anger turned inward. Indeed, when Dante gets to the pit of Hell he sees Satan, strangely bored and up to his waist in ice! In fact, Satan is so bored that he barely notices the presence of Dante and Virgil. Satan’s anger saps him the way intestinal worms do in the physical body. His wrath consumes what little remains of his energy. For now, he rages, for he knows his time is short. Soon enough he will collapse, dissipated and consumed, a sad and pathetic creature: How you have fallen O Lucifer, O Daystar … Cast down to Sheol, into the pit! (Isaiah 14:12, 15)

As for the wailing and grinding of teeth, this double image makes it clear that it has nothing to do with sorrowful repentance. The wailing is linked to anger, expressed in the grinding of teeth. This is an angry sorrow at having been conquered, having been bested, having lost. The defiant refusal to repent from serious sins and the anger at “being told what to do” are the source of this anger. No, the sorrow is not a contrition leading to repentance, but a kind of anger that grinds away in the gnashing of teeth.

The Lord certainly gives powerful images! But we do well to understand the subtleties of Hell as well. Perhaps being in Hell is to be missing the one thing necessary. Perhaps it is like owning a mansion without a key to get in, or having a fortune in a bank account without the PIN to access it. It would be better not to have them at all than to have them but lack the one thing necessary to access them! Along these lines Archbishop Sheen told the following “joke” about Hell:

There is not a golfer in America who has not heard the story, which is theologically sound, about the golfer who went to Hell and asked to play golf. The Devil showed him a 36-hole course with a beautiful clubhouse, long fairways, perfectly placed hazards, rolling hills, and velvety greens. Next, the Devil gave him a set of clubs so well balanced that the golfer felt he had been swinging them all his life. Out to the first tee they stepped, ready for a game. The golfer said, “What a course! Give me the ball.” The Devil answered: “Sorry, we have no golf balls in Hell. That’s the hell of it!” (Three to Get Married, Kindle Edition, Loc. 851-57)

This is a subtle but piercing description of Hell. Perhaps Hell has its “goods” but there is no way to enjoy them! Many are surprised to think that there could be anything “good” in Hell at all. But, since evil is the privation of the good, if demons, the damned, and Hell itself had nothing good, they would not exist at all! There is no such thing as pure evil, for it would be pure nothing. So, there are good things in Hell, but the key to enjoying them is missing. God, of course, is the key to unlocking every other good. Having rejected the vision of God for their life, the damned lack the “one thing necessary” to unlock every other blessing. The frustration of this is but a more intense version of what many now experience as they try to satisfy their infinite longing with finite things. It doesn’t work. We have a God-size hole in our heart and only God can fill it. Until we learn this lesson and set our sights on Him, we will be frustrated and unfulfilled. If we die refusing to learn this lesson, refuse to admit our need for Him and what He is offering, we are doomed to the eternal frustration of lacking the one blessing necessary to unlock every other blessing.

Another description of Hell comes from St. Paul of the Cross. Imprisoned for his faith, he wrote the following passage, in which he presents an image of how the very denizens of Hell become one another’s chief source of suffering. It is the antithesis of the Communion of the Saints, a kind of “chaos of the condemned.”

The prison here is a true image of everlasting hell: to cruel tortures of every kind—shackles, iron chains, manacles—are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief … How am I to bear with the spectacle, as each day I see … their retinue blaspheming your holy name, O Lord, who are enthroned above the Cherubim and Seraphim? Behold, the pagans have trodden your cross underfoot! Where is your glory? As I see all this, I would, in the ardent love I have for you, prefer to be torn limb from limb and to die as a witness to your love (From a letter of St. Paul Le-Bao-Tinh sent to students of the Seminary of Ke-Vinh in 1843 [Paris Foreign Mission Society, Paris, 1925], pp. 80-83).

In the above passage, Hell is described as a place of violence, hatred, vengeance, and calumny. People in Hell experience a kind of death by a thousand cuts. It is not hard to imagine such terrible things because to some degree they are the daily fare of this world, but in Hell they triumph and will never end. From Hell there is no hope of escape through the emergency exits of forgiveness, mutual mercy, reconciliation, or growth in virtue. That day is gone, replaced only by selfishness, greed, hate, revenge, envy, wrath, and bitterness. It is the bad fruit of every sinful tendency amplified by the free and unfettered manipulation of demons. The inmates run the asylum, and to the cruelest and crudest go the spoils. It is a pretty awful picture to be sure.

The grim descriptions of Jesus remain dogma; our own descriptions are a bit more speculative. Do your best to stay out of Hell! Whatever brief promises of pleasure Satan and sin might give you now, the visions of Hell are awful indeed.

Only grace and mercy can rescue us from the lies of Satan and sin. Run to Jesus, repenting of your sins. Ask for the grace to recognize the awful reality of Hell, with its sledgehammer force and its somber subtleties. Ask for the grace to see through the lies to the lasting truth of the glory of Heaven. Choose Heaven by choosing God and rejecting selfish and defiant attitudes.

Hell Has to Be

This is the eleventh in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Today we come to the final of the Four Last Things: Hell. I have written extensively on this topic over the years, largely in response to the widespread dismissal of the revealed doctrine of Hell. In contradiction to Scripture, many presume that Hell is an unlikely destination for most. Never mind that Jesus taught just the opposite (e.g., Matt 7:13-14). In my own small way, I have tried to keep people more rooted in the sobriety of the Gospel than in the wishful thinking of the modern age. No one warned of Hell more than did Jesus. Arguably, 21 of the 38 parables amount to warnings about Hell and the need to be ready for judgment day. (I have written more on that here: Jesus Who Loves You Warned Frequently of Hell.)

In this post, however, I would like to consider why Hell has to be. Frequently, those who doubt Jesus’ biblical teaching ask this: If God is love, then why is there Hell and why is it eternal?

In short, there is Hell because of God’s respect for our freedom. God has made us free and our freedom is absolutely necessary if we are to love. Suppose that a young man wanted a young lady to love him. Suppose again that he found a magic potion with which to lace her drink. After drinking it, Presto, she “loves” him! Is it real love? No it’s the effect of chemicals. Love must be freely given. The yes of love is only meaningful if we are free to say no. God invites us to love him. There must be a Hell because there has to be a real alternative to Heaven. God will not force us to love Him or to come to Heaven with Him.

But wait a minute; doesn’t everyone want to go to Heaven? Yes, but it is often a “heaven” as they define it, not the real Heaven. Many people understand Heaven egocentrically: It’s a place where they will be happy on their own terms, where what pleases them will be available in abundance. The real Heaven is the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. So while everyone wants to go to a “heaven” as they define it, not everyone wants to live in the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. Consider the following examples:

  1. The Kingdom of God is about mercy and forgiveness. Not everyone wants to show mercy or forgive. Some prefer revenge. Others favor severe justice. Some prefer to cling to their anger and nurse resentments or bigotry. Further, not everyone wants to receive mercy and forgiveness. Some cannot possibly fathom why anyone would need to forgive them since they are right! Recall the second son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Instead of entering the feast at the pleading of his father, he refuses to enter because that wretched brother of his is in there. He will not forgive or love his brother as the father does. In so doing, he excludes himself from the feast. Despite his father’s pleading, he will not enter through forgiveness and mercy. The feast is not a feast at all for him. Similarly, Heaven will not be “heaven” for those who refuse the grace to forgive and love their enemies and those who have harmed them.
  2. The Kingdom of God is about chastity. God is very clear with us that His Kingdom values chastity. For the unmarried, this means no genital sexual contact. For the married, this means complete fidelity to each other. Further, things such as pornography, lewd conduct, and immodesty are excluded from the Kingdom. Many people today do not prefer chastity. They would rather be unchaste and immodest. Many celebrate fornication and homosexual acts as a kind of liberation from “repressive” norms. Many people like to consume pornography and do not want to limit their sexual conduct. It is one thing to fail in some of these matters through weakness, but it is quite another to insist that there is nothing wrong with such behavior.
  3. The Kingdom of God is about Liturgy. All of the descriptions of Heaven emphasize liturgy. There are hymns being sung. There is the praise of God. There is standing, sitting, and prostrating at certain times. There are candles, incense, and long robes. There is a scroll or book that is opened, read, and appreciated. There is the Lamb on a throne-like altar. It’s all very much like the Mass—but many are not interested in things like the They stay away because the say it’s “boring.” Perhaps they don’t like the hymns and all the praise. Perhaps the scroll (the Lectionary) and its contents do not interest them or agree with their moral preferences. Having God at the center rather than themselves is unappealing.

The point is this: If Heaven isn’t just of our own design; if Heaven—the real Kingdom of God—is about these things, then doesn’t it seem clear that there actually are many who don’t want to go to Heaven? You see, everyone wants to go to a “heaven” of their own design, but not everyone wants to live in the real Kingdom of Heaven. God will not force any one to live in Heaven if he doesn’t want to live there. He will not force anyone to love Him or what He loves or whom He loves. We are free to choose His Kingdom or not.

Perhaps a brief story will illustrate my point:

I once knew a woman in one of my parishes who in many ways was very devout. She went to daily Mass and prayed the rosary on most days. There was one thing about her, however, that was very troubling: she couldn’t stand African-Americans.

She would often comment to me, “I can’t stand Black people! They’re moving into this neighborhood and ruining everything! I wish they’d go away.” I remember scolding her a number of times for this sort of talk, but it seemed to have seeming effect.

One day I decided to try to make it more clear: “You know you don’t really want to go to Heaven,” I challenged.

“Of course I do, Father,” she replied. “God and the Blessed Mother are there; I want to go.”

“No, you won’t be happy there,” I responded.

“Why?” she asked, “What are you talking about, Father?”

“Well you see there are Black people in Heaven and you’ve said that you can’t stand to be around them, so I’m afraid you wouldn’t be happy there. God won’t force you to live in Heaven if you won’t be happy there. That’s why I think that you don’t really want to go to Heaven.”

I think she got the message because I noticed that her attitude started to improve.

That’s just it, isn’t it? God will not force us to live in the Kingdom if we really don’t want it or like what that Kingdom is. We can’t just invent our own “heaven.” Heaven is a real place. It has contours and realities of its own that we can’t just brush aside. Either we accept Heaven as it is or we ipso facto choose to live apart from it and God. So, Hell has to be. It is not a pleasant place, but I suppose the saddest thing about the souls in Hell is that they wouldn’t be happy in Heaven anyway. It’s a tragic plight, not to be happy anywhere.

Understand this, too: God has not utterly rejected even the souls in Hell. Somehow, He still provides for their basic needs. They continue to exist and thus God continues to sustain them with whatever is required for that existence. He does not annihilate them or snuff them out.

God respects their wish to live apart from the Kingdom and its values. He loves them but respects their choice.

Why is Hell eternal? Here I think we encounter a mystery about ourselves. God seems to be teaching us that there comes a day when our decisions are fixed forever. In this world we always have the possibility of changing our mind so the idea of a permanent decision seems strange to us. Those of us who are older can testify that as we age we get more and more set in our ways; it’s harder and harder to change. Perhaps this is a little foretaste of a time when our decisions will be forever fixed and we will never change. The Fathers of the Church used an image of pottery to teach on this. Think of wet clay on a potter’s wheel. As long as the clay is moist and still on the wheel it can be shaped and reshaped, but once it is put in the kiln, in the fire, its shape is fixed forever. So it is with us that when we appear before God, who is a Holy Fire, our fundamental shape will be forever fixed, our decisions will be final. This is mysterious to us and we only sense it vaguely, but because Heaven and Hell are eternal, it seems that this forever-fixed state is in our future.

This is the best I can do on a difficult topic: Hell has to be. It’s about God’s respect for us. It’s about our freedom and summons to love. It’s about the real Heaven. It’s about what we really want in the end. We know what God wants: to save us. The real judgment in question is what we want.

What Do We Mean by the Communion of Saints?

This is the tenth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Continuing our series on the Four Last Things, in today’s post we consider an aspect of Heaven called the Communion of Saints. I have discovered that it is frequently misunderstood. Many of you know that I write the weekly “Question and Answer” column for the Our Sunday Visitor newspaper. Every once in a while, someone poses a unique question, one that I had never thought of before. such is the case with the question below. It led me to reflect on the deeper experience of what we call the Communion of Saints in Heaven.

My answers are required to be no more than 600 words, so this response is relatively brief.

(There is an online catalogue of my “Question and Answer” columns available here: Msgr. Pope’s OSV Columns.)

Q: The descriptions in the Bible seem to describe a vast amount of people, and the paintings I have seen from the Renaissance make it look rather crowded and busy. Frankly, I hate big cities and crowds. Are these descriptions accurate or am I missing something? Doris Leben, Wichita, Kansas

A: The danger to avoid when meditating on Heaven is taking earthly realities and merely transferring them to Heaven. Even if there are similarities to things on earth, things in Heaven will be experienced in a perfected way, with unspeakable joy.

The more biblical and theological way to understand the multitudes in Heaven is not as a physical crowding but as a deep communion. In other words, the Communion of Saints is not just a lot of people walking about or standing around talking.

St. Paul teaches, So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members, one of another (Rom 12:5). Although we experience this imperfectly here on earth, we will experience it perfectly in Heaven. As members of one another we will have deep communion; we will know and be known in a deep and rich way. Your memories, gifts, and insights will be mine, and mine will be yours. There will be profound understanding and appreciation, a rich love and a sense of how we all complete one another and really are all one in Christ.

Imagine the glory of billions of new thoughts, stories, and insights that will come from being perfectly members of Christ and of one another. Imagine the peace that will come from finally understanding and being understood. This is deep, satisfying, and wonderful communion—not crowds of strangers.

Therefore, the biblical descriptions of Heaven as multitudes should not be understood as mere numbers, but as the richness and glory of communion. The paintings showing “crowds” should be understood as an allegory of deep communion, of being close in a way we can only imagine.

St. Augustine had in mind the wonderful satisfaction of this deep communion with God and with one another in Christ when he described Heaven as Unus Christus amans seipsum (One Christ loving Himself). This is not some selfish Christ turned in on Himself. This is Christ, the Head, in deep communion with all the members of His Body, and all the members in Christ experiencing deep mystical communion with Him and with one another—together swept up into the life of the Trinity. As St. Paul says, you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor 3:23).

What Is Eternal Life?

This is the ninth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

I often think that we haven’t done a very good job of setting forth the doctrine of eternal life. For most people, the concept seems a rather shallow one: that we will live forever. Frankly, many may not consider it all that appealing if the place where we live forever is Heaven. Too often, Heaven is reduced to merely this: a place where I’ll be happy. I’ll have a mansion, I’ll see my mother again, and I won’t ever have to suffer. The description never gets around to mentioning God. If He is mentioned at all, He’s way down on the list somewhere rather than at the top where He belongs. This is sad, for the heart of Heaven is to be with God!

Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical “Spe Salvi,” pondered the problem of the generally poor understanding of eternal life:

Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living for ever—endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable. … The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown.” Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal,” in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it (Spe Salvi, 10, 12).

My own pondering and experience has led me to conclude that ultimately eternal life is not about the length of life, but its fullness. To enter eternal life means to become fully alive. Here on this earth we are not fully alive. We experience much of death in these lowly bodies of ours. However, most of us do get glimpses of eternal life and can experience some aspects of it. For example, have you ever had a day when you felt you had all the energy in the world? Not only did you feel energetic but your mind was sharp and you were efficient and effective. Everything seemed to click; there was joy and contentment. Days like that and feelings like that don’t last, but they provide a glimpse of what eternal life might be like—except that eternal life will be immeasurably better!

Another experience I have of eternal life is one that I hope you share. At the age of 56, my body is no longer in prime condition. It is aging and death will one day come to it, but my soul is more alive than ever. I am more joyful, serene, confident, prayerful, and content than ever. Many sins that used to plague me are gone or at least greatly diminished. In effect, I am more alive now than I was when I was in my twenties. Just wait until you see me at 75 or 90! As I get older I become more alive. What I am saying is that eternal life doesn’t just begin after we die. It begins now and should grow in us more and more. Its fulfillment will only be in Heaven but I am a witness (and I hope that you are too) that eternal life has already set deep roots in me.

This experience of being fully alive is to be contrasted with one of the descriptions of Hell in the Scriptures which refers to it as the “second death” (e.g., Rev 21:8). This means that the dammed, having died in the corporal sense, now descend to what is not really life. Yes, they have existence and experience, but their lives are dead because they are not living for what God made them for: His very self. Theirs is a “life” of frustration and emptiness because the whole key to happiness is missing. Having rejected God, His Kingdom, and His values, they have nothing left with which to fill the God-sized hole in their hearts. It is a life so far from eternal life that it is barely a life at all; thus Scripture calls it the “second death.”

Again, the main point is that “eternal” in “eternal life” refers not so much to the length of life as to its fullness. To enter eternal life is to become fully alive with God forever; to experience untold joy, serenity, and peace in an eternal embrace with Him forever. Having our communion with God perfected, we will also have our communion with one another perfected. We will be caught up in the great movement of love that is the life of the Trinity. Who really needs a mansion when you can live in the heart of God? That is our true dwelling place that the Father is preparing. It’s not about houses and seats of honor; it’s about a place in the heart of the God who made us and loves us. It is to become fully alive and perfect as the Father is perfect.

Pope Benedict presents this beautiful image of eternal life:

To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John’s Gospel: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22) (Spe Salvi, 12).

In the following video from a few years back, Bishop Robert Barron makes an interesting point, one that I have made in other posts as well: when the Church fails to teach her doctrine well or casts aside her traditions, the world often picks them up but distorts them. In this video, Bishop Barron discusses the current obsession with vampires. He notes that as we have struggled to present well the concept of eternal life, the world has taken up the notion of those “who can never die” in the vampire craze. The fact that they live forever is a horrible curse to them and any biblical notion of eternal life is absent; they are merely the “un-dead.” Yes, when the Church drops the ball, the world picks it up—but flattens and distorts it.

Do You Desire Heaven? Really?

This is the eighth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

After some sobering reflection on death and judgment over the past several days, it’s finally time to talk about Heaven. Now that is a topic everyone wants to hear about! Yet there is a strange disconnect today. As it becomes easier and easier to satisfy our desire for instant gratification, we find it harder and harder to take the time to ponder a future paradise.

Almost no one talks about Heaven today—except perhaps at funerals—and then it is often to inappropriately presume the instant promotion of the deceased through Heaven’s gate.

The way most of our prayers sound today, it seems that we would be content to have God make this world a better place. People will ask God to improve their health and solve their financial problems, but rarely will they express any desire to go to Heaven and be with Him. It is almost as if we were saying to God, “If you’ll make this world a little more comfortable I’ll just stay here forever!”

Many older prayers speak of longing for Heaven. The “Hail, Holy Queen” laments that we live in exile, in a valley of tears, and are poor, banished children of Eve, who long to see the blessed fruit of Mary’s womb, Jesus. Many old hymns refer to being free at last, to flying away to Heaven some bright morning when this life is over, to looking forward to that day. Yes, soon and very soon we are going to see the King! Older churches were designed to remind Catholics of Heaven; their structures were often centered around the vision of Heaven.

Do you long for Heaven or are you just trying to make it through the day? When was the last time you heard a sermon about Heaven? Does the thought of it excite you? It is after all our reward, which eye has not seen and ear has not heard!

A big factor for the lack of longing for Heaven is that our lives are so comfortable these days. It is a kind of comfort that both distracts us from spiritual things and focuses us on worldly things. Our comforts also make the cross seem strange, even immoral. If Heaven is obtained through the cross, many say “It’s too much trouble.” They would rather focus on getting that new channel added to their cable television service or planning a cruise.

Add to this that we live in a world that is utterly upside down, a world in which most are not rich in what matters to God, a world that obsesses over passing and trivial things and pays little mind to eternal and heavenly things. Learning to love Heaven can mean some pretty radical things. It often means being willing to be 180 degrees out of phase with the world’s priorities and preoccupations.

St. Cyprian pondered this problem, which seems to have been evident to some degree in the wealthy city of Carthage:

[Regarding death] we struggle and resist like self-willed slaves and are brought into the Lord’s presence with sorrow and lamentation, not freely consenting to our departure, but constrained by necessity.

Why then do we pray for the kingdom of heaven to come if this earthly bondage pleases us? … If we should rather serve the devil here than reign with Christ?

The world hates Christians, so why give your love to it instead of following Christ, who loves you and has redeemed you? So banish the fear of death and think of the eternal life that follows. That will show people that we really live our faith.

Who of us, if he had long been a sojourner in a foreign land would not desire to return to his native country? Who of us, when he had begun to sail there would not wish for a prosperous wind to carry him to his desired home with speed, that he might sooner embrace his friends and relatives? We must account paradise our country (De Mortalitate, 26).

Heaven is something we must learn to love. In this it is like many of the finer things in life. Its appeal may not be immediately obvious, but having been trained in its ways, we learn to love it very deeply.

If we think that it is only natural to love Heaven, we must become more sober. The fact is, we have obtuse spirits. We live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. We tend to love that which is destructive and harmful, and even knowing that, we are still attracted to it. We tend to esteem that which is foolish and passing, while glamorizing evil. We tend to call “good” or “no big deal” what God calls sinful.

G.K. Chesterton observed,

The point of the story of Satan is not that he revolted against being in hell, but that he revolted against being in heaven. The point about Adam is not that he was discontented with the conditions of this earth, but that he was discontented with the conditions of paradise (New York American, 12-15-1932).

If Satan revolted against Heaven even while still in Heaven, and Adam preferred something to paradise while still in paradise, how much more should we be sober about the fact that it is very easy for us, who have not yet seen paradise or Heaven, to despise or minimize the value of the glory of God’s Kingdom.

Help us, Lord, to desire Heaven, to learn its ways, to learn of you, and to love you above all things.

How to Influence the Way the Lord Will Judge Us

This is the seventh in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Works of Mercy, Pieter Bruegel

In the past several posts, we have been considering the judgment that awaits us. Not only must we be ready in the ways we have described, but should allow our looming judgment to help our attitude today.

Scripture says, Always speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the Law that gives freedom. For judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful (James 2:12-13). Herein lies a way that we can influence the standard by which the Lord will judge us.

The key teaching from the Lord here is this: the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you (Luke 6:38). This statement comes at the end of a long discourse in which the Lord summons us to be generous, forgiving, merciful, patient, and reluctant to condemn others severely.

Consider this a kind of “mathematics” of the Kingdom of God.

In effect, the Lord says, “Do the math. Realize that if you are merciful, you will be judged with mercy, but if you are harsh and critical, you will be judged by a harsh and critical standard. If you refuse to forgive, you will not be forgiven.”

Like it or not, this is the mathematics of the Kingdom of God. It does not mean that we earn salvation, but it does mean that we have a lot of influence over the standard by which we will be judged.

So, if you are going to need mercy and grace on that day (and we all are), it is good to do the math of the Kingdom and store up mercy and grace for that day.

One day, we will all answer to God. That day, as Scripture repeatedly teaches, is a day about which we should be sober. Sadly, there are many who give little thought to this truth and some who outright scoff at it.

Remarkably, we can influence the manner in which God will judge us, the standard he will use. Here we speak of the manner of God’s judgment. That is, whether He will be strict or merciful. We do not refer to the content. It is an obvious and axiomatic truth that God will judge our deeds. Hence, we should avoid wickedness and grave sins, and repent quickly when we commit such sins.

On the one hand, it would seem that we could have no influence at all on the manner in which we will be judged, for it would seem that God is no respecter of persons, and judges with perfect justice.

On the other hand, there are passages in Scripture that do speak of ways that we can influence the standard God will use, the manner of His judgment. Let’s look at four areas in which we can have influence and consider a few biblical passages.

Whether we show mercy to others

Jesus says, Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy (Matthew 5:7). James says something similar and develops it a bit when he says, Always speak and act as those were going to be judged under the law of freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. So mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:12-13). Thus we are taught that by observing mercy and patience in our relations with one another, we will influence the manner in which we are judged.

Sometimes in life, particularly if we are leaders or parents, we will need to punish and/or assign consequences to those who transgress moral laws or legal limits. Passages like these do not mean that we should never accompany correction with punitive measures. Such a way of living would be unwise and could confirm people in bad behavior. Even when punitive measures are needed, though, it makes sense to be lenient when possible and to attempt less measures before firmer ones are employed.

It is also clear from these biblical texts that it is highly foolish to go through life with severity toward others, with a lack of compassion or a harsh and unyielding attitude. We are all going to need a lot of grace and mercy at our judgment. Therefore, how misguided, how foolish it would be for us to be harsh and unmerciful toward others! For indeed, these text tell us that the merciful will be blessed and the unmerciful will be shown no mercy. Can you or I really expect that we will make it on the day of judgment without boatloads of mercy?

Now, therefore, is the time for us to seek to invoke the promise of the Lord: Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

Whether we are strict or lenient with others

In a related text, the Lord Jesus says, The measure that you measure to others, will be measured back to you (Mark 4:24). If we hope for and need a merciful judgment, if we want a merciful measure or standard to be used, then we must do the same for others. The Lord makes it clear that He will use the measure or standard that we have used for others when He judges us. Have we been strict? If so, then He will be strict with us. Have we been merciful? If so, then He will be merciful to us. Be very careful before demanding that sinners and others who transgress receive the strongest penalties. There may be a time for such penalties, but it is not necessary that the most severe punishments always be used.

In John chapter 8, the Pharisees wanted to exact the most severe penalty (stoning) on a woman caught in adultery. Jesus reasons with them, telling them that before they demand that He “throw the book at her,” they might want to recall that there are a few things about them that are also written in the book. One by one they drift away, seemingly after considering the foolishness of their demands for the most severe penalty. They finally realize that the measure they want to measure out to her will in turn be measured back to them.

Whether we are generous to the poor

Luke relates the following text more specifically to our generosity: Give and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure that you measure to others will be measured back to you (Luke 6:38). This leads us to a second area in which the Scriptures teach us that we can influence the day of our judgment.

After rebuking the Scribes and Pharisees for their severity and extreme legalism, Jesus says to them (who were obsessing about cleaning the outside of the dish), You fools, did not the one who made the outside of the cup make the inside also? But if you give what is inside the cup as alms to the poor, everything will be made clean for you (Luke 11:40-41). In the light of the theology of grace, this is a daring text. It almost implies that we can somehow “purchase” forgiveness. But of course it is the Lord Himself who says it, and He does not say that we can somehow purchase forgiveness. Surely, though, He does teach that generosity to the poor will in fact influence the day of our judgment.

Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus develops the thought, saying, I tell you, use your worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings (Lk 16:9). It is a complicated text, but Jesus seems to be saying that our generosity to the poor will surely gain advantages for us at the day of our judgment. Indeed, blessing the poor gives us powerful intercessors, for the Lord hears the cries of the poor. The picture painted here is of those poor welcoming us into our eternal dwellings.

Scripture elsewhere warns, If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be heard (Proverbs 21:13). Once again, it would seem that we can have some influence over the manner, measure, or standard that will be used by God at our judgment. To the merciful, mercy will be shown. The generous will experience that their cries are heard, for they heard the cries of the poor. The Lord more than implies that those who have been generous to the poor will have powerful advocates praying and interceding for them on the day of judgment. Indeed, a number of the Fathers of the Church remind us that in this life the poor need us, but in the life to come we will need them.

Whether we forgive others

A final area to explore in terms of how we might have influence over the manner of our judgment is in the matter of forgiveness. Just after giving us the Our Father, the Lord Jesus says, For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6:14 – 15).

Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells the terrifying parable of a man who had huge debt that was forgiven him by his master. When the man then refused to forgive his brother a much smaller debt, the master grew angry and threw him into debtors’ prison. Jesus concludes the parable by saying, This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you, unless you forgive your brother from your heart (Matthew 18:35).

So yes, it would seem that we can have some influence over the manner in which God will judge us, the standard He will use. While it is true that God will judge us by our deeds (cf Romans 2:6), the manner in which He judges us, whether with strictness or leniency, does seem to be a matter over which we have influence.

We are all going to need a lot of grace and mercy, for if God judges with strict justice and strict standards, who can stand? We will all have much to answer for. All the more reason for us to follow the teachings of the Lord in His Scripture, so that we can be sure that on the day of our judgment, mercy and the grace of leniency will prevail in abundance. Do we want mercy? Then we must show mercy. Do we want a gentle standard? Then we must measure out gentleness. Do we want forgiveness? Then we must offer forgiveness. Recruit some intercessors for the day of judgment by giving to the poor. They will be the most powerful intercessors for us as we leave this life and go to our judgment.

Indeed, God has shown us how we can store up a treasure of mercy, waiting for us in Heaven at the judgment seat of Christ. There are some good lessons here to heed.

In the next article in this series, we will turn our attention to Heaven, another of the Four Last Things.

Here’s an amusing video illustrating that the measure we measure out to others will be measured back to us:

Preparing for Judgment

This is the sixth in a series on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.

In the past two articles we have recalled the reality of the judgment that is upon us when we die and we have surveyed the parables in which Jesus urgently warns us of it. In this post we consider something of a plan to prepare for judgment.

You are going to die and you don’t get to say when. This should inspire a sober, urgent, and daily preparation for death and judgment. Yet too many people today are not serious about their spiritual walk. They’re running around as if life is just some big game. They’re not thinking about appearing before the judgment seat. They’re not praying. They’re not reading Scripture. They’re not growing in their faith. They’re are not going to Mass on Sundays. Many of them are stubbornly locked in very serious and unrepentant mortal sin. They are not going to be ready. To them, the message must be turn to Jesus. Repent. Give Him your life.

Obviously, the main point is to live a life of faith and, through ongoing conversion, to permit the Lord to do what is necessary to prepare us. The following description of the Christian life appears in Acts 2:42: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Four things follow: that we should pray, be obedient to the Scriptures, faithfully and worthily receive the sacraments, and stay united to the Body of Christ, the Church. To this must be added ongoing repentance and the will to allow the Lord to free us from the grip of sin. Consider the following reflection and four-point plan of preparation:

Rest – Prayer is resting in the Lord. Prayer as rest is a great “power-nap,” so pray every day. Some folks tell me that it’s hard to pray or that they don’t know how to pray. Well, do you know what you’re doing when you say that? You’re already praying! Don’t tell me; tell God. If that’s where you’ve got to begin with your prayer, say to Him: “Lord, I don’t like to pray. I struggle to pray. Prayer is boring.” Tell Him whatever you need to tell Him. Prayer isn’t reading words that somebody else wrote that you don’t mean. Prayer is talking to the Lord and telling Him what’s going on in your life. At its heart, prayer is paying attention to God.

Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer, that calls me from a world of care. And bids me at my Father’s throne, make all my wants and wishes known. In seasons of distress and grief, My soul has often found relief, And oft escaped the tempter’s snare, By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!

Read – Read Scripture and only holy writings – We simply must read Scripture every day and study the teachings of the Church. Our minds will be polluted if we don’t cleanse them every day with God’s Word and the teachings of the Faith. Some people say that it’s hard to understand Scripture, but there are so many aids available: “My Daily Bread,” “The Word Among Us,” “Magnificat,” study bibles. Some folks even get the Word sent to their cell phones each day along with some commentary. Somehow, some way, get with God’s Word every day. We seem to find time for everything else; find some time for God’s Word.

The Word of God helps us to think more as God does, not as the world does. Our priorities improve and we begin to win the fight in the chief battleground: our mind. Sow a thought, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny. It all begins in the mind. As Scripture itself says, we must be transformed by the renewal of our mind (see Romans 12:2). If you’re not winning the battle in your mind, you’re going backward and the abyss is approaching. Study Scripture. Be devoted to learning your faith.

Rehearse – Go to Mass every Sunday. Mass attendance and Church membership are essential for salvation. In the first place, God is worthy of our praise and adoration. To fail in our Sunday obligation displays an egregious lack of gratitude.

We also need to come to God’s house so that we can be instructed and then fed with the Body and the Blood of the Lord. Jesus says, If you do not eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you (Jn 6:53). Some people say, “Oh, I watch the Mass on TV.” You can’t get Holy Communion through the television! People who don’t go to Mass are starving themselves spiritually and will not have strength for the journey.

If you don’t attend in person, you can’t get real fellowship. Fellowship is about more than coffee and doughnuts; it’s about mutual support and accountability; it’s about the love we are commanded to have for one another.

Go to Mass every Sunday. Receive Communion every Sunday, provided that you are in a state of grace.

Some say, “God doesn’t care if I go to Mass or not.” Yes, He does. He put it right in the Ten Commandments: “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath.” We fulfill this each Sunday. When God puts something in the Ten Commandments, He is serious. Don’t mess around with the Ten Commandments. Missing Mass without a serious reason is a mortal sin.

Mass is the dress rehearsal for Heaven; it’s our training ground for what awaits. If you don’t even want to show up for the dress rehearsal, why should God trust you with the real thing? The fact is we are simply not able to endure the real Heaven unless we are well-rehearsed in its truths and purified by the sacraments.

RepentIf you are aware of any serious or unrepented mortal sin in your life, repent now and call on the Lord’s mercy. Go to confession; go frequently. Some folks tell me, “I’m in such a mess that I don’t know how to get out of it.” Go to the Lord and talk to Him about it. Say, “Help me, Lord!” But please, do not go on calling “good” or “no big deal” what God calls sin! The Lord says, No one who calls on me will I ever reject (Jn 6:37).

Upon hearing the call to repent, too many people today say, “I will not be told what to do. I will not be told what is right and wrong.” Be careful! The one thing that God can’t save us from is that kind of pride, because with it we don’t want to be forgiven. And so again I say to all of us: Repent—and be urgent about it.

No one loves you more than does Jesus Christ, and yet no one warned about judgment and Hell more than He did. Many people today are dismissive of judgment and Hell. They say, “Jesus would never do that.” But Jesus told us over and over again that there will be a judgment, and it’s not so much about what He decides but what we decide through the way we live our life. Jesus says this: Here is the judgment in question, that the Light has come into the world, but many prefer the darkness, because their deeds are sinful (Jn 3:18).

So there is a judgment coming. The Lord warns us in parable after parable. I simply ask you to be ready. In a future post we will talk more about Hell and why it exists. For now, though simply listen to what the Lord is saying. He teaches of a day of judgment, of the reality that “many” go to Hell, and of the need to call upon Him before our hearts are forever lost in pride and sin.

Tomorrow we will consider one final thing about judgment: the wonderful thought that we can have an influence on the standard with which the Lord will judge us.