The first reading fromTuesday of the 34th week of the year seems, to modern readers, to be a complex tapestry of visions. I could see a bit of bewilderment on the faces of those listening at the early Mass. Ultimately, though, the message is simple and clear: nations and empires come and go, but the Lord and His Kingdom shall never pass away.
I propose here not an academic treatment of the passage (Daniel 2:31-45) but more a brief admonition. In the reading, Daniel interprets a dream of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in which he saw a fearsome statue composed of four different materials; the statue is ultimately destroyed by a large rock. Daniel interprets the four materials as four kingdoms that rise and fall. The rock is a king (Jesus) with an eternal kingdom that overcomes all. Modern scholars generally interpret the four kingdoms as Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. These kingdoms interacted with and oppressed the Jewish people prior to the coming of Christ:
You, O king, are the king of kings; to you the God of heaven has given dominion and strength, power and glory; men, wild beasts, and birds of the air, wherever they may dwell, he has handed over to you, making you ruler over them all; you are the head of gold.
Another kingdom (of silver) shall take your place, inferior to yours,
then a third kingdom, of bronze, which shall rule over the whole earth.
There shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron; it shall break in pieces and subdue all these others, just as iron breaks in pieces and crushes everything else. The feet and toes you saw, partly of potter’s tile and partly of iron, mean that it shall be a divided kingdom, but yet have some of the hardness of iron.
Indeed, the vision comports well with how history unfolded in that period. The Persians did defeat the Babylonians. Greece, under Alexander the Great, did conquer much of the known world, from Greece to as far east as India—and in just ten years! Then came the Romans, who added the Mediterranean world to their immense empire. Later that empire divided, as Daniel said: the Western Empire in Europe and the Eastern Empire in Constantinople and Byzantium.
Yet, out of this cauldron of war and conquest emerged the true King of Kings. He was born in the small backwater town of Bethlehem. He did not command armies or men with swords and shields; He probably never journeyed more than 100 miles from the place of His birth. After a mere three years of teaching in the rural districts of the oppressed nation of Israel, He was killed by the Romans and His own people. Pilate mockingly announced, “Behold your King!” and then ordered Him crucified.
To our proud world, that is the end of the story, but the Lord conquered pride by His humility and rose from the dead. Daniel prophesied of this King and His Kingdom:
In the lifetime of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed or delivered up to another people; rather, it shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and put an end to them, and it shall stand forever. That is the meaning of the stone you saw hewn from the mountain without a hand being put to it, which broke in pieces the tile, iron, bronze, silver, and gold. The great God has revealed to the king what shall be in the future; this is exactly what you dreamed, and its meaning is sure.
Yes, Christ reigns and rules. He is the Lord of history. We read further of this King and Messiah later in the Book of Daniel:
And I saw One like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into His presence. And He was given dominion, glory, and kingship, that the people of every nation and language should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will never be destroyed (Dan 7:13-14).
This passage from Daniel 7 surrounds the great Pantocrator image of Christ in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (see picture above). When I am processing into the Basilica I am always moved as I ponder the image and the text, for indeed the vision is true. Empires have risen and fallen, nations have come and gone, every sort of foolishness and heresy has had its day; yet here we are, two thousand years later, still preaching the same gospel, given to us by our Head and Founder, Jesus Christ, the eternal King.
Do not be mesmerized by or too fearful of the kings and kingdoms of this world. I have walked in the ruins of many once-great cities and kingdoms. We have here on earth no lasting city, and so we look to that unconquerable, eternal city and Kingdom. Only what you do for Christ will last. He is the Rock. Christ is the King. He is Lord and Savior of the all the nations. He alone is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer. His dominion is everlasting. His Kingdom alone shall never be destroyed.
It is good and necessary to ponder more of the Gospel of yesterday’s Solemnity of Christ the King. It remains a profound teaching that Christ was crucified between two thieves. Why?
St. Thomas Aquinas proposes three answers to the question. Let’s consider them, with particular emphasis on the third.
I. To Identify with Fallen Sinners – St Thomas said, As Christ became accursed of the cross for us, so for our salvation He was crucified as a guilty one among the guilty (Comm. xxxiii in Matth.) (Summa Theologica III, Q 46, Art. 11).
In other words, Jesus bore our guilt and our shame, though He Himself was sinless (see 1 Peter 2:24 and Isaiah 53:4). He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth (Is 53:9). And thus Christ took up and endured the punishments we deserved.
We are all sinners and thieves.How are we thieves? One who takes what belongs to another is a thief, but so also is one a thief who uses what he received from another in a way contrary to his will. In this way we are all thieves, for we have used the things of God in ways contrary to what He wants.
Consider our bodies, which belong to God (see 1 Cor 6:19-20). How often do we use them in ways contrary to what God, the true owner of our bodies, wants? We often use our bodies to sin. We use the gift of speech to speak words of malice and deceit rather than those of truth and encouragement. We allow our eyes to look upon things that violate what God would have us see. We use our ears to listen to gossip, hatred, and impurity. Using our bodies in ways that oppose what the true owner wants is a form of theft.
So we are all thieves. And yet Christ, who never stole and never sinned, is willing to be seen and counted among us! The book of Hebrews says that He is not ashamed to call us brethren. Yes, He is identified with sinners and thieves like us.
II. To Image the Final Separation – Jesus indicates that there is a great separation between those on his right (the sheep) and those on his left (the goats) on the Day of Judgment (see Matt 25:41ff). St. Thomas said,
… [A]s Pope Leo observes (Serm. iv de Passione): “Two thieves were crucified, one on His right hand and one on His left, to set forth by the very appearance of the gibbet that separation of all men which shall be made in His hour of judgment.” And Augustine on John 7:36: “The very cross, if thou mark it well, was a judgment-seat: for the judge being set in the midst, the one who believed was delivered, the other who mocked Him was condemned. Already He has signified what He shall do to the quick and the dead; some He will set on His right, others on His left hand.” … because of the cleavage between believers and unbelievers, the multitude is divided into right and left, those on the right being saved by the justification of faith (Summa Theologica III, Q 46, Art. 11).
Thus this moment indicates or pictures the final judgment, when Christ, seated on His throne as Judge of the World and Lord of all, will have some to His right and others to His left. Some will be the sheep and others the goats; some will be the wise virgins and others the foolish ones. Those on His right will hear, Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (Matt 25:34). Those on his left will hear, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41).
III. To Insist on Freeing Suffering – Christ insisted that true disciples would be distinguished by their willingness to carry the cross. Though God originally offered paradise, Adam and Eve’s (our) rejection of it and insistence upon living in Paradise Lost, means that the Lord must insist upon the cross (suffering) as the only remedy for our salvation. St. Thomas wrote,
Bede says on Mark 15:27: “The thieves crucified with our Lord denote those who, believing in and confessing Christ, either endure the conflict of martyrdom or keep the institutes of stricter observance. But those who do [this] for the sake of everlasting glory are denoted by the faith of the thief on the right; while others who do so for the sake of human applause copy the mind and behavior of the one on the left.” (Summa Theologica III, Q 46, Art. 11).
Yes, to follow Christ involves suffering and rejection. It also involves stricter observance, which postpones certain passing pleasures in order to inherit lasting ones, which rejects apparent goods in order to receive true goods. Some are willing to endure this, while others are not.
The good thief accepted that he was suffering as he deserved, asking only to suffer with Christ. He accepted the cross and was willing to be identified with the true Christ—crucified Christ. He was willing to endure this as the way to paradise.
The bad thief wanted to be taken down. He wanted nothing to do with the cross. He thought as human beings do, not as God demanded. Like the scoffers beneath the cross, he demanded that the Messiah come down rather than endure it, that the Messiah eliminate the cross rather than insist upon it. In so doing, the bad thief sought human applause rather than God’s approval. And so the bad thief suffered in vain.
Jesus said, Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me (Matt 10:38). Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Matt 16:24). St. Paul said, … we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:23-25). He also lamented, For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things (Phil 3:18-19).
The men on either side of the Lord are both thieves, but the similarity ends there. The one is not bad merely because he reviled Christ, but also because he refused the cross and the Messiah who embraced it. The other is good not only because he did not revile Christ, but also because he accepted his cross and was willing to suffer alongside Him. Christ’s cross (and his own sliver of it) was his spes unica (only hope), and he was willing to endure it.
The question for you is this: Which thief are you?
Many people today will have nothing to do with the cross, insisting that the Messiah would demand no such thing. Among them are many so-called Catholics. They scoff at the notion that God wants them to be anything but happy and content. Speak to them of any difficult thing such as turning away from sin or doing what is unpopular, and they will insist, “God wants me to be happy, doesn’t He?”
The latest “anti-cross” trend is physician-assisted suicide; it is a rejection of the cross. Yet those who support it insist on calling it “death with dignity” and/or the “right to die.” Among them, sadly, are many Christians, who should know better. They seem to think that suffering of this sort is meaningless.
Suffering is not meaningless. It brings wisdom, humility, perspective, strength, and trust. It reminds us of the passing quality of this world and prepares us to meet God.
To many, the cross must go; it shall not be. It is not far from the cry of the bad thief and the scoffers at the foot of the cross: “If you are the Messiah, come down from that cross!” But He will not be the messiah we expect. He does not seek human applause. He will be the true Messiah. Only the true Messiah can save us.
Which thief are you? Are you the one who accepts the cross and is willing to die outside the gate with Christ, or are you the one who insists that the cross must go?
At yesterday’s feast of Christ the King, we read the Colossians hymn in which St. Paul spoke of Christ’s power to deliver us:
Let us give thanks to the Father,who has made you fit to sharein the inheritance of the holy ones in light. He delivered us from the power of darknessand transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col 1:12–14).
So, what is deliverance? It is what happened to you when Christ took you out of the kingdom of darkness and transferred you to the Kingdom of Light, to the Kingdom of His beloved Son.
Notice that the action is in the past tense. Deliverance has happened to us. When we were baptized, we died to this world of sin and rose to new life in Christ. Hence, deliverance is accomplished. The key point is to live out of this reality and to experience its effects more and more deeply as our maturity in Christ grows.
So, deliverance involves taking hold of the full freedom that God is given us, of helping the faithful who struggle to lay hold of the glorious freedom of the children of God (cf Rom 8:21). St. Paul is told of his mission (and ours, too) by the Lord: I am sending you to [the Gentiles] to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God … (Acts 26:17–18).
Fundamentally, this is a description of the ongoing work of deliverance that the entire Church must accomplish for God’s chosen people. The goal of deliverance is to take people out from under Satan’s power and place them under the authority and Lordship of Jesus Christ. It is to bring (or restore) people to their true identity as sons and daughters of God.
For, even after our baptism, we can open the door to Satan, enabling him some degree of access to our heart and mind. When a Christian does this, he (working with others, clergy and/or fellow believers) must take a stand against the devil’s schemes by repenting of sin and renouncing any form of agreement with Satan’s deceptions.
Deliverance involves coming to an understandingof the tactics of the evil one and recognizing the flawed thinking that often infects our mind. It involves coming to know and name the devil’s tactics and these deep drives of sin within us. It involves repenting and resisting their influence so that we come to greater serenity, peace, and healing—to deliverance.
This deliverance is effected in many ways: through the Word of God proclaimed and devoutly read, through the frequent reception of the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confession, through spiritual direction, through the experience of the Sacred Liturgy, through praise and worship, through authentic fellowship with other believers, through personal prayer, through psychotherapy where necessary, and through what might be called a deliverance ministry, which often involves both clergy and laity praying together with those who struggle and offering them support and encouragement.
There has been a tendency to see deliverance as a specialized ministry to those undergoing particular struggles, but it is more than that. Deliverance is something all of us have received, and each of us needs to experience more fully. It is also something we are all called to facilitate in others. In tomorrow’s post we will examine some more specific forms of deliverance ministry, but the main point of today’s post is that deliverance is for everyone. We are all in need of it. Jesus has accomplished it for us already. It is simply for us to begin to experience its power in our life.
Jesus Christ is King of Thieves, though He never stole. He is savior of sinners, though He never sinned.
Today’s Gospel chosen presents Jesus as reigning from the cross. Nothing could be more paradoxical. Let’s look at it from four perspectives:
Vision –Today’s Gospel presents a vision or image of the Church.We like to think of more pleasant images: the Church is the Bride of Christ or the Body of Christ. Today’s image is more humbling to be sure: the Church is Christ, crucified between two thieves.
Yes, this is the Church too. In a way, we are all thieves.We are all sinners and have used the gifts and things that belong to God in a way contrary to His will. To misuse things that belong to others is a form of theft.
Consider some of the things we claim as our own and how easily we misuse them:our bodies, our time, our talents, our money, the gift of our speech, and the gift of our freedom. We call them ours but they really belong to God, and if we use them in ways contrary to His intention we are guilty of a form of theft.
Variance –Consider, also, that the two thieves were very different. In the Church we have saints and sinners, and in the world there are those who will turn to Christ and be saved and others who will turn away and be lost.
One thief (the “bad thief”) derides Jesus and makes demands of Him.Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!The text says that this thief “reviles” Jesus, treating him with contempt.
The other thief (the “good thief”) reverences Christ and rebukes the other, saying,Have you no fear of God?The good thief recognizes his guilt: We have been condemned justly. He asks, Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom, but he leaves the terms of it up to Christ. He acknowledges that he is a thief and now places his life under the authority of Christ the King.
Christ came to call sinners—thieves, if you will.Yes, we are all thieves, but pray God that we are the good thief, the repentant thief, the thief who is now ready to submit himself to the authority of Christ, who is King of all creation.
Heaven is a real steal, something we don’t deserve; it is only accessed through repentance and faith. The bad thief wants relief but will not open the door of his heart so that Jesus can save him. Mercy is offered and available to him, but it is accessed only through repentance and faith. The good thief does open the door of his heart and thereby is saved.
III. Veracity–Is Christ really your king?A King has authority, so another way of posing this question is, “Does Christ have authority in your life?” Consider whether you acknowledge that everything you call your own really belongs to God and think about how well you use those gifts.
How do you use our time?
Are you committed to pray and to attend Mass every Sunday without fail?
Do you use enough of your time to serve God and others, or merely for selfish pursuits?
Do you use the gift of your speech to witness and evangelize, or merely for small talk and gossip?
Do you exhibit proper care for your body?
Are you chaste?
Do you observe proper safety or are you sometimes reckless?
Do you reverence life?
Are you faithful to the Lord’s command to tithe?
Do you spend wisely?
Do you pay your debts in a timely way?
Are you generous enough to the poor and needy?
Do you love the poor and help them to sustain their lives?
It is one thing to call Christ our King, but it is another to be truly under His authority. The Lord is clear enough in telling us that he expects our obedience: Why do you call me, “Lord, Lord,” but do not do what I tell you? (Luke 6:46)
Is Christ your King? Which thief are you, really?
Victory –The thief who asked Jesus to remember him manifested repentance, faith, and a kind of baptism of desire. In so doing, he moved into the victor’s column. Jesus’s words, Today you shall be with me in paradise,indicate a dramatic shift in the thief’s fortunes.
To be with Jesus—wherever He is—is paradise and victory. Soon enough, the heavens will be opened, but the victory is now and paradise begins now.
Thus the good thief claims the victory through his choice for Jesus Christ. Will you have the victory? That depends on whether you choose the prince of this world or the King of the Universe, Jesus. Some think that they can tread some middle path, choosing neither Jesus nor Satan. But if you do that, you’ve actually chosen the prince of this world, who loves compromise. Jesus says, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters(Matt 12:30).
As for me, I’ve decided to make Jesus my choice. I pray that he will truly be my King in all things and that my choice will be more than mere lip service. Come, Jesus, reign in my heart. Let me begin to experience victory and paradise, even now!
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!
This is the twelfth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).