Of Sledgehammers and Subtleties – Images of Hell

blog-11-29In the Office of Readings last week we read a letter from St. Paul of the Cross. In it he presents a brief image of Hell, comparing it to the prison life he is enduring. It is a description that helps us to understand that Hell and its sufferings may be about more than just a fire that is never extinguished, worms that die not, and wailing and grinding of teeth. More of his description in a moment.

To be sure, eternal fire, undying worms, and wailing and grinding of teeth are descriptions of Hell from Christ Himself. Rather than lingering on extensive descriptions, Jesus goes to the deepest aspects of the sufferings of Hell. The fire In Hell is more than a merely physical one; it is a fire of rage and disgust that consumes as it causes pain, rather than purifying as does the refining fire of God’s love.

The worms, real and allegorical, gnaw and devour what little energy the rage has not already burned away. Their gnawing brings weariness and weakness, lethargy and listlessness. Indeed, when Dante got to the pit of Hell he saw Satan, strangely bored and up to his waist in ice! In fact he was so bored that he barely noticed the presence of Dante and Virgil. Satan’s anger had sapped him and worms consumed what little remained of his energy. A sad, consumed and pathetic creature: How you have fallen O Lucifer, O Daystar … Cast down to Sheol, into the pit! (Isaiah 14:12, 15)

And as for the wailing and grinding of teeth, the double image makes it clear that the wailing has nothing to do with repentance. Rather it is about anger at having been conquered, having been bested, having lost.

Yes, the Lord gives powerful images! But we do well to understand also the subtleties of Hell. Perhaps 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!  Bishop 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 more subtle, but piercing, description of Hell. Perhaps Hell has its “pleasures” but there is no way to enjoy them!

This brings us back to the images of Hell that St. Paul of the Cross supplied. He wrote to his brethren as follows:

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 Saint 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 this passage, Hell is described as a place of violence, hatred, vengeance, and calumny. It is a kind of death by a thousand cuts. There is no need to imagine such terrible things; they are the daily fare of this world. But in Hell they will never end. From Hell there is no hope of escape through the emergency exits of forgiveness, mutual mercy, or reconciliation. That day is gone. Those in Hell have opted permanently for hate, revenge, envy, wrath, bitterness. They have chosen endlessly hideous practices that don’t even provide the passing “pleasure” they sometimes gave on earth. St. Augustine called envy “the diabolical sin,” since it seeks to destroy that which is good or excellent in others. Others have added that envy is perhaps the truest precursor of Hell, since it is the one sin that provides no perceivable pleasure at all.

Hell may well have its subtleties. The grim descriptions of Jesus remain dogma. The subtleties are perhaps a bit more speculative. But 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.

Why Is the Road to Destruction Wide and the Road to Salvation Narrow? A Meditation on a Teaching by Jesus

blog.6.24In the gospel earlier this week, we read a warning from Jesus that too many people just brush aside:

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few (Matt 6:12-13).

I have commented on this blog at some length in the past on the serious problem of universalism (the notion that nearly everyone goes to Heaven). I will not create another whole post on that just now, but you can read one of those older posts here: Hell is for real and not rare.

But just to summarize, most people today have the teaching exactly backwards. Whereas Jesus says “many” are on the road to destruction and only “a few” travel the narrow road (of the cross) to salvation, most reverse what Jesus says and claim that many go to Heaven and only a few (if any) go to Hell. Don’t do that. Jesus is not playing games with us. No one loves us more than Jesus does, and no one warned us more of judgment and Hell than Jesus. And even though He doesn’t give percentages for each category, do not refute His words by trying to make “many” mean “few” and “few” mean “many.”

The question does surely arise as to why many walk the wide road to destruction and Hell. Is it because God is stingy or despotic? No. God surely wants to save us all (Ez 18:23; 1 Tim 2:4). The real answer is that we are hard to save and we must become more sober about that. We have hard hearts, thick skulls, and innumerable other traits that make us a difficult case.

If even a third of the angels fell, that ought to make us very aware of our own tendency to fall. This should make us more humble about our own situation. The fallen angels had intellects vastly superior to ours and their angelic souls were not weighed down with the many bodily passions that beset us. But still, they fell!

Adam and Eve, possessing preternatural gifts and existing before all the weaknesses we inherited from sin, also fell. Are you and I, in our present unseemly state and vastly less gifted than the angels, really going to claim that we are not in any real danger or are easy to save?

We need to sober up and run to God with greater humility, admitting that we are a hard case and in desperate need of the medicines and graces that God offers. He offers us His Word, the Sacraments, holy fellowship, and lots of prayer! We need not be in a panic, but we do need to be far more urgent than most moderns are about themselves and the people whom they say they love.

Consider some of the following ways we can be a hard case in terms of being saved (Disclaimer, I do not say all these things are true of you personally, just that we, collectively, have these common tendencies):

1. We have hard hearts and stubborn wills – While some of what this includes is specified more below, here is a good place to begin. God, speaking to us through Isaiah the Prophet, says, I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead is bronze (Is 48:4). He is talking about us!

2. We are obtuse in our desires – In other words, if something is forbidden we seem to want it all the more. St Paul laconically observes, When the commandment came, sin sprang to life (Rom 7:9). If something is harmful we want it in abundance, but if it is helpful we are often averse to it. We like our sweets and our salty snacks, but vegetables rot in the refrigerator. In the desert the people of Israel longed for melons, leeks, onions, and the fleshpots they enjoyed in Egypt. Never mind that they were slaves then. But when it came to the Bread from Heaven, the Holy Manna, they said, We are disgusted with this wretched manna (Num 21:5). We are obtuse, that is, we are turned outward toward sin instead of inward toward God in a Holy embrace. Jesus sadly remarked that judgment would go poorly for many because The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed (Jn 3:19).

3. We don’t like to be told what to do – Even if we know we ought to do something, or to stop doing something, the mere fact that someone is telling us often makes us either dig in our heels and refuse, or else comply, but resentfully rather than whole-heartedly.

4. We are not docile – When we were very young we were fascinated with the world around us and kept asking “Why, Mommy?” or “Why, Daddy?” But as we got older our skull thickened; we stopped asking why. We figured we knew better than anyone around us. The problem just worsens with age, unless grace intervenes. St Paul lamented, For the time will come when people will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths (2 Tim 4:3-5).

5. We love distraction and don’t listen – Even when saving knowledge is offered to us, we are too often tuned out, distracted, and resistant. ADHD is nothing new in the human family. God says through Jeremiah, To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ears are uncircumcised, they cannot listen; behold, the word of the LORD is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it (Jeremiah 6:10). Jesus invokes Isaiah to explain why He speaks to the crowds only in parables: For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed (Is 6:10).

6. We are opinionated – We tend to think that something is true or right merely because we think it or agree with it. Having opinions, even strong ones, about what is right and true is not wrong per se. But if God’s Word or the Church’s formal teaching challenges your opinion, you’d better consider changing it, or at least making distinctions. The last time I checked, God is just a little smarter than you are. His official teaching in the Scripture and the Doctrine of the Church is inspired and you are not. Scripture says, All we, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way (Is 55:8). Or again, Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”? (Is 29:16) Or yet again, Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, “What are you making?” (Is 45:9) But still many go on with their own opinions and will not abide even the clear correction of God.

7. We have darkened intellects due to unruly and dominating passions – Our strong and unruly passions cloud our mind and seek to compel our will. Too easily, without training and practice in virtue, our baser faculties come to dominate our higher faculties, making unreasonable demands for satisfaction. And thus we love to tell ourselves lots of lies. We suppress the truth and our senseless minds become darkened ( Romans 1:21). The catechism says, The human mind … is hampered in the attaining of … truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful. (Catechism #37). And the Second Vatican Council, in Lumen Gentium 16, says, But very often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasoning and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.

8. We are lemmings – We are too easily swayed by what is popular. We prefer ephemeral notions to ancient and tested wisdom. Tattoos, tongue bolts, and piercings are in? Quick, run out and get one! Whatever the fad or fashion, no matter how foolish, harmful, or immodest, many clamor for it. Let a Hollywood star get a divorce and soon enough everyone is casting aside true biblical teaching against it. The same goes for many other moral issues. What was once thought disgraceful and the stuff of back allies is now paraded on Main Street and celebrated. And like lemmings, we run to celebrate what was once called sin (and is still sinful from any biblical stance). Instead of following God we follow human beings. We follow them and the “culture” they create, often mindlessly. Yes, lemmings is the right image.

9. We live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. Many seem to abide all of this quite well and make quite a nice little home here.

10. If all this isn’t enough to show that we are a hard case, consider a “few” others. We are so easily, in a moment, obnoxious, dishonest, egotistical, undisciplined, weak, impure, arrogant, self-centered, pompous, insincere, unchaste, grasping, harsh, impatient, shallow, inconsistent, unfaithful, immoral, ungrateful, disobedient, selfish, lukewarm, slothful, unloving, uncommitted, untrusting, indifferent, hateful, lazy, cowardly, angry, greedy, jealous, vengeful, prideful, envious, contemptuous, stingy, petty, spiteful, indulgent, careless, neglectful, prejudiced, and just plain mean.

So if the road to destruction is wide (and Jesus says it is), don’t blame God. The road is wide for reasons like this. We are a hard case. We are hard to save. It is not that God lacks power, it is that we refuse to address much of this. God, who made us free, will not force us to change.

We ought not kid ourselves into thinking that we can go on living resistant to and opposed to the Kingdom of God and its values, but that then magically at death we will suddenly want to enter His Kingdom, which we have resisted our whole life. Jesus said that many prefer the darkness. Is it really likely that their preference will suddenly shift? Will not the glorious light of Heaven seem harsh, blinding, and even repulsive to them? In such a case is not God’s “Depart from me” both a just and merciful response?  Why force a person who hates the light to live in it? I suppose it grieves God to have to abide such a departure, but to force a person to endure Him must be even more difficult to abide. I am sure it is with great sadness that God accepts a person’s final “No.”

Yes, the road is wide that leads to destruction. It is wide because of us. The narrow road is the way of the cross, which is a stumbling block and an absurdity to many (1 Cor 1:23), who simply will not abide its message.

So, we ought to be sober about the Lord’s lament. We ought also to be more urgent in our attempts to secure our own unruly soul and the souls of those we love for the Kingdom. The blasé attitude of most moderns is rooted in the extremely flawed notion that judgment and Hell are not real issues. That is a lie, for it contracts Jesus’ clear word.

Why is the road to destruction wide? Because we are hard cases; we are hard to save. We ought not be unduly fearful, but we ought to run to Jesus in humility and beg Him to save us from our worst enemy—our very self. If you don’t think you’re a hard case, read the list above and think again.


The "Great Gettin’ Up Morning" as Described in an Unlikely Advent Hymn

120814Here in the heart of Advent, we are considering how prepared we are for the Lord to come again. Either He will come to us or we will go to Him, but either way we must prepare. In today’s post I’d like to consider some teachings about the Day of Judgment, from an Advent hymn that most do not know is an Advent hymn. Tomorrow I would like to consider the great Parousia, wherein the saved enter into glory with the Lord.

Regarding the “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord, Judgment Day,” I am of the mind that one of the great treasures and masterpieces of the Church’s Gregorian Chant is the current sequence hymn for Latin Requiem Masses, the Dies Irae. This gorgeous chant was one of the more beautiful and soaring melodies of Gregorian Chant, and many composers such as Mozart and Verdi set the text to stirring musical compositions.

But the hymn was not in fact composed for funerals. Actually, it was composed, by Thomas of Celano in the 13th century, as an Advent hymn. Yes, that’s right, an Advent hymn. Don’t forget that Advent isn’t just about getting ready for Christmas; it is also about getting ready for the Second Coming of the Lord. And that is what this hymn is really about. At this time of year, as the the leaves fall and summer turns to winter, we are reminded of the passing of all things. The Gospels we read are those that remind us of death and the judgment to come.

Journey with me into the beauty and solemn majesty of this hymn. I will offer an inspiring English translation by W. J. Irons, one that preserves the meter and renders the Latin well enough. (You can see the Latin Text along with English here: Dies Irae.) I will also offer the scriptural verses that serve as background to the text.

The syllables of this magnificent hymn hammer away in trochaic dimeter: Dies irae dies illa solvet saeclum in favilla, teste David cum Sybila!  Perhaps at times it is a bit heavy, but at the same time, no hymn more beautifully sets forth a basis for God’s mercy. The dark clouds of judgment part and give way to the bright beauty of the final line: Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem (Sweet Jesus Lord, give them [the dead] rest).

The hymn opens on the Day of Judgment warning that the day will reveal God’s wrath upon all injustice and unrepented sin. God’s wrath is His passion to set things right. And now it is time to put an end to wickedness and lies:

    • Day of wrath and doom impending,
    • Heaven and earth in ashes ending:
    • David’s words with Sibyl’s blending.

Yes, all are struck with a holy fear! No one and no thing can treat this moment lightly: all are summoned to holy fear. The bodies of the dead come forth from their tombs at the sound of the trumpet and all of creation will answer to Jesus, the Judge and Lord of all. Consider two scriptural roots to this first verse:

  1. (Zeph 1:15-18) A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring distress on men, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the Lord; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the Lord. In the fire of his jealous wrath, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full, yea, sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.
  2. (2 Peter 3:10-13) But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up … the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire!

The “Sibyl” referred to here is most likely the Erythraean Sibyl, who wrote an acrostic on the name of the Christ in the Sibylline Oracles. These will figure prominently in tomorrow’s meditation on the Parousia.

And now the stunning, opening stunning scene of creation. All have been set aghast; our rapt attention turns to Jesus, who has come to judge the living and the dead and the whole world by fire:

    • Oh what fear man’s bosom rendeth
    • When from heaven the judge descendeth
    • On whose sentence all dependeth!
    • Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
    • Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
    • All before the throne it bringeth.
    • Death is struck and nature quaking,
    • All creation is awaking,
    • To its judge an answer making.
    • Lo the book exactly worded,
    • Wherein all hath been recorded,
    • Thence shall judgment be awarded.
    • When the Judge his seat attaineth,
    • And each hidden deed arraigneth:
    • Nothing unavenged remaineth.

Here, too, many Biblical texts are brought to mind and masterfully united. Here are just a few of them:

  1. (Matt 25:31-33) When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left …
  2. (Matt 24:30-32)  And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven. And then shall all tribes of the earth mourn: and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with much power and majesty.  And he shall send his angels with a trumpet and a great voice: and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the farthest parts of the heavens to the utmost bounds of them.
  3. (Rev 20:12) And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.
  4. (Rom 2:4-6) Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works:
  5. Luke 12:3 What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.
  6. 2 Peter 3:14 and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.

So, Judgment shall be according to our deeds; whatever is in the Book! Ah, but also in God’s Word is the hope for mercy. And so our hymn turns to pondering the need for mercy, and appeals to God for that mercy, basing it on the very will of God to save us. Was He not to be called Jesus because He would save us from our sins? (Mt 1:21) Did not God so love the world that He sent His own Son? And did He not come to save rather than condemn? (Jn 3:16-17) Did He not endure great sorrows and the cross itself to save us? Ah, Lord, do not now forsake me as I ponder my last end. Keep me faithful unto death!

    • What shall I frail man be pleading?
    • Who for me be interceding?
    • When the just are mercy needing?
    • King of majesty tremendous,
    • Who does free salvation send us,
    • Font of pity then befriend us.
    • Think kind Jesus, my salvation,
    • Caused thy wondrous incarnation:
    • Leave me not to reprobation.
    • Faint and weary thou hast sought me:
    • On the cross of suffering bought me:
    • Shall such grace be vainly brought me?
    • Righteous judge for sin’s pollution,
    • Grant thy gift of absolution,
    • Before the day of retribution.
    • Guilty now I pour my moaning:
    • All my shame and anguish owning:
    • Spare, O God my suppliant groaning.
    • Through the sinful Mary shriven,
    • Through the dying thief forgiven,
    • Thou to me a hope has given.

Yes, there is a basis for hope! God is rich in mercy. Pondering the Day of Judgment is salutary, since for now we can call on that mercy. For of that day, though there will be wailing and grinding of teeth at a just condemnation, such tears will be of no avail then (Mt 13:42). Please Lord, let me not be with the goats at the left, but with the sheep on the right (Mt 25:33). And in the end, it is only grace and mercy that can see us through that day. Only you, Jesus, can save me from the wrath to come (1 Thess 1:10):

    • Worthless are my tears and sighing:
    • Yet good Lord in grace complying,
    • Rescue me from fire undying.
    • With thy sheep a place provide me,
    • From the goats afar divide me,
    • To thy right hand do thou guide me.
    • When the wicked are confounded,
    • Doomed to flames of woe unbounded:
    • Call me with thy saints surrounded.
    • Lo I kneel with heart-submission,
    • See like ashes my contrition:
    • Help me in my last condition.

And now comes the great summation: that day is surely coming! Grant me O Lord your grace to be ready; prepare me:

    • Lo, that day of tears and mourning,
    • from the dust of earth returning.
    • Man for judgment must prepare him,
    • Spare O God, in mercy spare him.
    • Sweet Jesus Lord most blest,
    • Grant the dead eternal rest.

It is a masterpiece of beauty and truth, if you ask me. Some years ago, I memorized most of it. I sing it from time to time over in Church late at night, the hauntingly beautiful chant ringing through her echoing arches. When I die, please sing it at my funeral! For I go to the Lord, the judge of all, and only grace and mercy will see me through. Perhaps the plaintive calls of the choir below at my funeral will resonate to the very heavens as I am judged. Amen.

The Hell of It. A Short Teaching on Hell

I have written here before on the reality of Hell, as revealed in Scripture. And though many dismiss Hell as either non-existent or a very remote possibility, no Biblical figure spoke more of Hell than Jesus, who also taught that “many” go there. It is a sober and straight-forward teaching of Scripture that there is a Hell and that many mysteriously choose to live apart from God and the values of God’s Kingdom.

Yet, while fully asserting all this, I do wonder why the teaching on Hell is so unambiguously “hellish” and why  the focus of the Lord’s teaching is almost entirely on physical torments. There is very little subtlety  in what the Lord teaches. Hell is described as a fiery furnace (e.g. Matt 13:42), an outer darkness (e.g. Mt 8:12), where there is wailing and grinding of teeth (e.g. Mt 13:42), where the worm dies not, and the fire is never quenched (e.g. Mark 9:48; Matt 25:41, inter al).

Let me be clear, the Lord is the Master teacher, and for reasons of his own he seems to have decided that speaking of Hell in more subtle terms was unnecessary. Yet we live in times when even many believers, consider the teaching on Hell as set forth in the scriptures to be cartoonishly excessive and hardly worthy of a God who is Love.

Thus many of us, pastors and teachers,  who seek to reestablish the teaching on hell as both reasonable and necessary (in light of human freedom and our capacity to choose for or  against God and his Kingdom values), also look for other ways to teach on Hell. We use these methods out of no disrespect for Scripture and our Master teacher Jesus. But these are “dainty” times and even many believers are easily offended and lack the spiritual strength and courage necessary to hear Jesus’ undiluted words and accept their straight-forward admonition. Both believers and unbelievers, just get stuck on the images and miss the teaching.

To my mind, no modern metaphor for Hell is better than the “Golf story” told by the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. It is remarkable for its subtle yet clear teaching that the heart of Hell is ultimately to be lacking in the “one thing necessary.” It is from his book,  Three to Get Married. Sheen repeats the following joke in his Book:

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. That’s the hell of it!” (Three to Get Married, Kindle Edition, Loc. 851-57).

Wow! Ouch!  That IS the hell of it! To have all that, and lack the one thing necessary! Nothing else really works, or matters much, without the one thing necessary. In the joke, everything is in place and wonderfully set forth on the golf course, except the one thing necessary, the ball!  The golf course becomes a golf curse.

In my last parish I lived in a rectory with a long hall. I used to putt a golf ball up and down the hall. I had an executive putt-putt set with obstacles, and golf goals with automatic returns, etc. But in the end, all I really needed was a ball to have fun. I didn’t even need a club, I could use a long umbrella if I had to, or even just kick the ball. My cat would also love to chase the ball up the hall and pounce. But all the other gizmos and gadgets I had meant nothing without the ball, they were useless.  Without the ball even the cat wouldn’t show up.

The heart of Heaven is to be with God. Scripture says, Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these other things will be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)

The heart of Hell is to lack God, to lack the one thing necessary. God is the sine qua non, the absolute requirement for every other joy or pleasure to make any sense or be operative. The heart of Hell is to have rejected God permanently, and to discover that the absolute and final rejection of Him is to experience the withdrawal of every other pleasure. Only in God will my soul be at rest! (Ps 62:5)

In fact, like the golf course in Hell, those pleasures look at the denizens of  Hell and mock them, make the suffering more intense. Because, though the pleasures are near at hand, they may as well be ten thousand miles away. They are useless and their nearness only intensifies the pain and the frustration. This is possibly worse than any hell-fire and may well explain the wailing and grinding of teeth by the hell-bound described in Scripture.

In life, don’t miss the one thing necessary, which is not a thing at all, but is God himself. The Father, in the prodigal son parable came out and begged his second son to enter the feast and celebrate with him. The Heavenly Father does the same now….What is your answer?

Does God Love the Souls in Hell? Then Why Do They Suffer?

Every now and then an older post of mine lights up again with a new bevy of comments. Such is the case with a post I wrote over a year ago entitled, Is God’s Love Really Unconditional?.  This sometimes happens because a link is picked up and posted somewhere and people click through. This recent bevy of comments was mostly hostile toward God and faith so I suspect that an agnostic or atheist site posted my article as an example of how naïve believers are etc. That’s OK. I am happy to be a fool for Christ.

One of the comments was rather interesting to me though, and I’d like to see what you think as well. For a little background let me print a paragraph I wrote a year ago and then give you the reader’s comment in response:

MSGR POPE: God’s love never fails. I will go so far as to say that even the souls in hell are loved by God. How could they continue to exist if He did not love them, sustain them and provide for them? God loves because God IS love and that is what Love does, it loves. We may fail to be able to experience or accept that love, and that inability may at some time become permanent for us. But God never stops loving. How could he? God does not merely have love, He IS love. And love cannot NOT  LOVE for it pertains to love that it love. God has not stopped loving the souls in Hell. How could He? They surely refused to empty their arms to receive his embrace but God’s love for them has never been withdrawn. How could God not be love?

COMMENTER:  Are you trolling Msgr? Where is the love in keeping you alive in hell? It is a lot better to just cease existing than suffer eternal torment. Is that his way of showing love? Let me put a good example. I will let some bad people torture you and your family for your mistakes. They will rape your children, slice them up, but since I LOVE YOU, I will keep them alive, to be tortured again. And you can multiply this example to a trillion, zillion, quantillion whatever illion times and it still doesn’t fit eternity. Do you think I love you?

God a monster?  Now, the likely point of our commenter is common to a lot of atheist comments I get. Namely, that our God, the Christian God of the Bible, is a monster, that he is vengeful, punitive and hateful. The point is to make God, and the whole notion of faith, seem unreasonable and untenable, cruel and despotic, especially when squared with the far more “reasonable” and “civilized” notions of humanism.

And yet our commenter has effectively presented a conundrum that can really only be resolved by a kind of nihilism. For, if God keeps the souls in hell alive, then he is vengeful and hateful. But if he slays the wicked, then it would also seem, to most observers, that  he is vengeful and hateful. So no matter what he does, God is vengeful and hateful. The only solution would seem to be a kind of nihilism in which we remove all ultimate notions of right and wrong, all notions of consequences, all notions of reward and ultimate justice. This in turn requires that we remove human freedom as well since, no matter what we did, the result would be the same.

This would seem the only way our commenter could envision a God who is not vengeful and hateful. It’s very all or nothing. Either God is vengeful and hateful or he completely removes our freedom and everything associated with it, thereby forcing one solution.

Questions to ponder – Beyond this though there are other questions to ponder, based not only on what the commenter says, but also what I have said. I want to say that I do not write these questions glibly or merely to tweak. They are not rhetorical (merely argumentative) either. What I am trying to do is take up the voice of a questioner who is authentically trying to wrestle with a difficult topic. I think many of the questions I raise have a clear answer, and propose one at the end. But I merely raise them to paint a picture of what might go through the mind of one pondering the matter. So here are some questions that might occur in terms of God and the souls in Hell:

  1. Is it really a sign of hate or vengeance, rather than love, that God sustains the souls in Hell?
  2. Does he really keep them alive merely to torment them?
  3. What is more loving, to sustain them or to slay them?
  4. Is the description of hell advanced by our commenter over the top or is it accurate? Granted, the torture of my family for “my mistakes” would be wrong since, theoretically they are innocent of my mistakes and would not be in hell.
  5. But what of the torture of guilty in hell? Is our commenter’s description accurate in this sense? Jesus after all, uses some pretty vivid descriptors of hell where the fire is never extinguished and the worm dies not (Mk 9:48). Where there is wailing and grinding of teeth (Matt 13:42) and where there is torment and thirst (Lk 16:24).
  6. Are these images of Jesus just allegory (figurative)?
  7. Are they Jewish hyperbole (exaggeration)?
  8. Or are they to be interpreted in a literalistic way?
  9. In other words, is Hell really this bad?
  10. Are the Biblical descriptions as understood literally the only way to see Hell?
  11. And if it is, is our commenter right that it would be better for God to slay the wicked?
  12. If it IS better, is God despotic and vengeful in keeping them alive in this condition?
  13. Is “killing the patient” ever good therapy?
  14. Should God just cancel the reality of hell and bring them to heaven?
  15. If He did, would this also cancel justice?
  16. If He did, would this violate the freedom and the choice of those who preferred not to live in his Kingdom?
  17. If it does violate their freedom, is killing them only thing left?
  18. Is THAT just?

In striving to resolve these sorts of questions we might start by saying that Hell is not unjust. In a way, hell has to be since God ultimately respects our freedom to choose him and his kingdom or not. That hell is eternal would seem caught up in the mystery of who we are, and that, at some point, our choice becomes forever fixed and definitive.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him….. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.” (CCC #1033). Note that we “self-exclude” ourselves in some definitive way. Mysteriously, Hell is the final choice of some who finally reject God and the values of his Kingdom, such as mercy, love of the poor, chastity, worship and so forth. It is we who do this, not God who wants no one to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

But what of the sufferings of Hell? Could God not at least turn down the temperature a bit?  Our commenter has surely honed in one of the great mysteries of hell: its sufferings and why God seems content to allow it. Here too the Catechism may be of some help in sorting through the problem. While acknowledging the fiery descriptions of hell in the Scriptures, the Catechism finally states: The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. (CCC # 1035)

Note that the chief punishment is not the fire etc., but eternal separation from God, who alone can be the true fulfillment for what we long. As fleshly creatures we tend to want to focus on fire, and worms not dying, on tormenting thirst etc. But all of that is secondary, and may well flow from the primary suffering, which is the self-imposed and adamant desire of the soul to permanently live apart from God. The fire may not be literal fire and the worms etc.,  may be descriptive of a kind of fiery anger, a self consuming hatred that knows no depth. The thirst may describe the longing that results from having eternally rejected the medicine of God who alone is true and living water. The gnashing of teeth may be a symbol of the anger of the souls in Hell. But all of this results from the primary suffering the self-imposed exile of the soul from God.

The vivid descriptions of hell in Scripture are surely meant to get our attention. Here too the Catechism is helpful:

The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Mt 7:13).” (CCC # 1036)

In the end the only ways for God to resolve the situation of hell would be to disregard the free choice of the damned and force them into his presence, or to kill them.

As for killing them, we live in strange times and in the culture of death wherein Death is an oft recommended “therapy.” Inconvenient children, unborn children with prenatal diagnosis of handicaps,   the suffering and the seriously sick, are all to be “treated” by death, according to many in our culture. A strange and sick therapy indeed.

And in the end if God were to kill the souls in Hell  He would be saying to them, and to us, you really only DO have one choice. Love me, choose me,  or die, cease to exist. Is that really a choice? Is that really to love God if, in the end we there is only one lasting choice?

We are left ultimately with the mysterious reality of hell and can only conclude that, in the end hell has to be.

Here’s an interesting take on similar question:

The Hell There Is – A Meditation on the Gospel for the 26th Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel for today about the rich man and Lazarus the Lord gives us some important teachings on judgment and on hell. Now it is a fact that we live in times where many consider the teaching on Hell to be untenable. Many struggle to understand how a God described as loving, merciful and forgiving can assign certain souls to Hell forever. No matter that the Doctrine of Hell is taught extensively in Scripture and quite a lot by Jesus himself, the doctrine does not comport well with many modern notions and emphases of God, and, hence many think  it has to go.

But this reading goes a long way to address some of the modern concerns about Hell and so we ought to look at it. Prior to doing that however it might be important to state why Hell has to exist. I have done that more extensively on this blog here:  http://blog.adw.org/2010/07/hell-has-to-be/   However I summarize that lengthier article in the nest paragraph

Hell has to exist essentially for one reason: “Respect.” God has made us free and respects our freedom to chose his Kingdom or not. Now the Kingdom of God is not a mere abstraction. It has some very specific values and these values are realized and experienced perfectly in heaven. The values of the Kingdom of God include: Love, kindness, forgiveness, justice to the poor, generosity, humility, mercy, chastity, love of Scripture, love of the truth, worship of God, God at the center and so forth. Now the fact is that there are many people in our world who do not want a thing to do with chastity, or forgiveness, or being generous and so forth. And God will not force them to adopt and live these values.  While it is true that everyone may want to go to heaven, heaven is not merely what we want, it is what it is, as God has set it forth. Heaven is the Kingdom of God and the values thereof in all their fullness. Hence there are some (many?) who live in such a way that they consistently demonstrate that they are not interested in heaven, since they are not interested in one or many of the Kingdom values. Hell “has to be” since God respects their freedom to live in this way. Since they demonstrate they do not wnat heaven, God respects their freedom to choose “other arrangements.”

Now this  leads to today’s Gospel which we can see in three stages.

1. The Ruin of the Rich Man As the Gospel opens we see described a rich man (some call him Dives, which simply means “rich”). There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. Now it is clear he lives very well as has the capacity to help the poor man, Lazarus,  outside his gate. But he simply does not. His sin is not so much one of hate, but of indifference. He is living in open rejection of one of the most significant Kingdom values, that of the love of the poor. His insensitivity is a “damnable sin” in the literal sense since it lands him in Hell. So the ruin of this rich man is his insensitivity to the poor.

Now the care of the poor may be a complicated matter and there may be different ways of accomplishing it, but in no way can we ever consider ourselves exempt from caring for the poor if it is in our means to help them. We simply cannot avoid judgement for our greed and insensitivity. As God said in last week’s reading from Amos regarding those who are insensitive to the poor: The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done! (Amos 8:7)  God may well “forget” many of our sins (cf Is 43:23; Heb 8:12) but apparently, trampling the poor and disregarding their needs isn’t one of them.

Hence this rich man has willfully and repeatedly rejected the Kingdom and is ruined by his greed and insensitivity. He lands in Hell since he doesn’t want heaven where in the poor are exulted (cf Luke 1:52) Abraham explains the great reversal to him: ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.

2. The Rigidity of the Rich Man– Now you might expect the rich man to be finally repentant and to have a change a heart but he does not. Looking up into heaven he seems Lazarus next to Abraham. Rather than finally seeing Lazarus’ dignity and seeking his forgiveness, the rich tells Abraham to send him to Hell with a pail of water in order that the rich man might be refreshed. He still sees Lazarus as beneath him (even though he has to look up to see him). He sees Lazarus as a “step and fetch errand boy” and wants him to come to Hell. Notice too, the rich man does NOT ask to be admitted to heaven!  He is unhappy with where he is but still does not seem to desire heaven and the Kingdom of God with all its values. So he has not really changed. He is regretful of his currently tormented condition but does not see or desire heaven as a solution to that. Neither does he want to appreciate Lazarus’ exalted state. He wants to draw him back to the lower place he once occupied.

Now this helps explain why Hell is eternal. It would seem that there is a mystery of the human person which we must come to accept. Namely,  that we come to a point in our life where our character is forever fixed, where we no longer change. When exactly this occurs is not clear. Perhaps it is death that effects this fixed quality. The Fathers of the Church often thought of the human person as clay on a potter’s wheel. As long as it is on the wheel and moist it can be molded, changed and fashioned. But there comes a moment when the clay is taken off the wheel and placed in the fiery kiln (judgment day (cf1 Cor 3:15)) and it’s shape is forever fixed and cannot be changed. The rich man manifests this fixed quality. He has not changed one bit. He is unhappy with his torments and even wants to warn his brothers. But he apparently does not intend to change or somehow experiences his incapacity to change. Hence,  Hell is eternal since we will not change there. Our decision against the Kingdom of God and its values (a decision which God respects) is forever fixed.

3. The Reproof of the Rest of Us – As already noted, the rich man, though he cannot or will not change, would like to warn his brothers. Perhaps if Lazarus would rise from the dead and warn his brothers they would repent! Now let’s be clear, we are the rich man’s brethren. And we are hereby warned. The rich man wants exotic measures but Abraham says no, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ The rich man replied, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets,  neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'”  Of course, this reply is dripping with irony given Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. That aside, the fact is we should not need exotic signs to bring us conversion. The phrase “they have Moses and the Prophets” is a Jewish way of saying, they have Scripture.

And the scriptures are clear to lay out the way before us. They give us the road map to heaven and we have but to follow it. We ought not need an angel or a ghost, or some extraordinary sign. The Scriptures and the teachings of the Church are sufficient. Their instructions are clear enough: Daily prayer, daily scripture, weekly Eucharist, frequent confession all lead to a change of heart wherein we begin to love the Kingdom of God and its values. We are more merciful, kind, generous, loving toward the poor and needy, patient, chaste, devout, self controlled and so forth.

In the end we have to be clear: Hell exists. It has to exist for we have a free choice to make and God will respect that choice even if he does not prefer our choice. You and I are free to choose the Kingdom of God,  or not. This Gospel also makes it clear that our choices lead ultimately to final and permanent choice wherein our decision is forever fixed. The modern world needs to sober up. There is a Hell and its existence is both reasonable and in conformity with a God who both loves us and respects our freedom.

This Homily can be heard here: http://frpope.com/audio/26%20C%20OT.mp3

Hell Has to Be

If God is Love, why is there Hell? And  why is it eternal? In a word there is Hell because of respect. God has made us free and respects that freedom. Our freedom is absolutely necessary if we are to love. Now suppose a young man wanted a young lady to love him. Suppose again he found a magic potion with which to lace her drink. So she drinks and suddenly, presto., she “loves” him! Is it love? No, it’s chemicals. Love, to be love,  has to be free. The yes of love is only meaningful if we were free to say no. God invites us to love him. Love has to be free. There has to be a hell. Ther has to be a real alternative, a real choice. 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 often a heaven as they define it, not the real heaven. Many people’s understanding of heaven is a very egocentric thing where they will be happy on their terms,  where what pleases merely them will be available in abundance. But the real heaven is the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. Truth be told, 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 some of the following examples:

  1. The Kingdom of God is about mercy and forgiveness. But not everyone wants to show mercy or forgive. Some prefer revenge. Some prefer severe justice. Some prefer to cling to their anger and nurse resentments or bigotry. Further, not everyone want to receive mercy and forgiveness. They cannot possibly fathom why anyone would need to forgive them since they are rightand the other person or nation is wrong.
  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 gential sexual contact. For the married this means complete fidelity to one another. Further, things like pornography, lewd conduct, immodesty and so forth are excluded from the Kingdom. But many today do not prefer chastity. They would rather be unchaste and immodest. They like pornography and do not want to limit their sexual conduct.
  3. The Kingdom of God is about Liturgy – all the descriptions of heaven emphasize liturgy. There are hymns being sung, there is the praise of God, standing, sitting, prostrating. There is incense, candles, 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 Mass. They stay away from Church because it is “boring.” Perhaps they don’t like hymns and all the praise. Perhaps the scroll (the Lectionary) and its contents do not interest them. Having God at the center rather than themselves or their agenda is also unappealing.

Now my point is this: If heaven isn’t just of our own design but things like these are features of the real heaven, the real Kingdom of God, 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 heaven (the heaven of their own design), but NOT everyone wants to live in the Kingdom, which is what heaven really is. Now God will not force any one to live where they do not want to live. He will not force anyone to love Him or what 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 way was very devout. She went to daily Mass and prayed the rosary most days. But there was one thing about her that was very troubling, she couldn’t stand African Americans. She often told 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 one day I thought I’d make it plain. I said, “You know you don’t really want to go to heaven.” She said, “Of course I do Father.  God and the Blessed Mother are there. I want to go.” “No you won’t be happy there,” I said. “Why? Want are you talking about Father?” “Well you see there are Black people in heaven and you’ve said you can’t stand to be around them. So I’m afraid you wouldn’t be happy there. And God won’t make you live some place where you are not happy. So I don’t think you want to go to heaven.” I think she go the message because I noticed she started to improve.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? God will not force us to live in the Kingdom if we really don’t want or like what that kingdom is. We can’t just invent our own heaven. Heaven is a real place and 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 that are there is that they wouldn’t be happy in heaven anyway. A pretty sad and tragic plight, not to be happy anywhere. But 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 what ever is required to provide for that existence. He does not anihilate them or snuff them out. He respects their wishes to live apart from the kingdom and its values. He loves them but respects their choice.

But 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. For now we always have the possibility of changing our mind so the idea of a permanent decision seems strange to us. But I think that those of us who are a bit older can testify that as we get older we get a little more set in our ways and it’s 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 potters 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. And 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 final. For now this is mysterious to us and we only sense it vaguely but since heaven and hell are eternal, it seems this forever fixed state is in our future.

So here is the best I can do on a difficult topic. But 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. The following video is Fr. Robert Barron’s take on the matter.

Where is Christ after he dies on Friday afternoon and before he rises on Easter Sunday?


Where is Christ after he dies on Friday afternoon and before he rises on Easter Sunday?  Both Scripture and Tradition answer this question. Consider the following from a Second Century Sermon and also a mediation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

An Ancient Sermon:

 Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.” [From an Ancient Holy Saturday Homily ca 2nd Century]

   Consider also this from the Catechism which I summarize and excerpt from CCC # 631-635

 [The] first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell [is]  that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.[Acts 3:15; 1 Peter 3:18-19; Romans 8:11; 1 Cor 15:20; Heb. 13:20] Scripture calls [this] the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God.[1 Peter 3:18-19] Such [was] the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they awaited the Redeemer: It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior …whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.”[cfPsalms 89:49; 1 Sam. 28:19; Ezek 32:17ff; Luke 16:22-26] Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him. [So] the gospel was preached even to the dead. The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption. Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”[1 Peter 4:6] Jesus, “the Author of life”, by dying destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.”[John 5:25; Mt 12:40; Rom 10:7; Eph 4:9] Henceforth the risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and Hades”, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”[Heb 2:14-15; Acts 3:15]

For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead that, though condemned in the flesh in human estimation, they might live in the spirit in the estimation of God. (1 Peter 4:6)