Posted by: frroberts | October 29, 2017

The hell there is!

It is quite common today to question the existence of Hell.  We are told that a loving God could not possibly send anyone to Hell.  We presume that all except perhaps serial killers and moral monsters automatically go to Heaven.

Who is the person in the Bible who speaks most about eternal punishment? Jesus.

The word our Lord uses most frequently is Gehenna.  In Matthew 25, Jesus mentions the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels into which unrepentant sinners would be cast on Judgment Day.  In the parable of the The Rich Man and Lazarus, our Lord speaks of an impassible chasm between Lazarus, who is comforted after his death in the Bosom of Abraham and the Rich Man who is tormented by flames in Hell.  Christ even says of his betrayer Judas that it would have been better for him that he would have never been born (Mt. 26:14), a statement that would be hard to make sense of if Judas were ultimately saved.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, we read about eternal fire and everlasting destruction.  Although the New Testament is much shorter than the Old, references in it to what English-speaking Christians have come to refer to as “Hell” are much more frequent and more clear than in the Old Testament.  All of this data makes it clear that we would be mistaken if we thought that the Old Testament talks about angry God out to get us and that Jesus reveals that all of us are going to Heaven when we die.  That position is simply untrue.

All of these things having been said, we can be certain that God sends no one to Hell.  Let me repeat that, God sends no one to Hell.  The only people in Hell are those who have freely chosen to be there.  The British Christian writer C.S. Lewis put it best when he wrote that Hell is a place with door locked from the inside.

Who would freely choose to go a place of eternal torment for all eternity?

If we take our lived experience of people who freely choose to live in self-made Hells on earth, I am afraid that we can say that most of us could choose to do so.  We cannot know more than that about percentages, numbers and probabilities.

We might understand a bit more about Hell by reflecting on the common contemporary problem of addictions, often experienced as kind of hell-on-earth in the light of the first reading from the Second Book of Maccabees.

How does an addiction work? We seek the infinite happiness that only God can give in the finite goods of pleasure, honor, power and wealth.  We know that pleasure, honor, power and wealth are good things so far as they go.  But they are emphatically not God.  When we try to fill up our infinite desire for happiness with one of these finite things, it is easy to believe at first that we will be filled.  Eating an enitre quart of Hagen-Daas ice cream packs a lot of pleasure the first time one does it.  The second time gives rather less. The third brings even less.  This law of diminishing returns from pleasure, honor, power and wealth gives rise to spiritual panic wherein we begin to turn more and more to the thing for the little comfort we can hang on to until we do so compulsively.  At this point we can begin to speak of an addiction.

The first reading tells the story of a Jewish family and the Greek King of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanies.  Antiochus was a powerful man.  Unfortunately, he was addicted to using his power to dominate others.  One day the King decided that it would better if everyone in his kingdom adopted Greek culture and religion.  Antiochus elected to force his subjects to do so, which meant that the Jews in his kingdom would have to stop practicing circumcision of newborn boys, engage in idolatry and eat food that the Old Testament law pronounced unclean, like pork.

Some Jews went along with the King, but many resisted.  At this point a reasonable man would have realized that a slow course would be the best way to achieve his goal.  But Antiochus was addicted to power so much that he decided to threaten those Jews who refused to betray their faith with torture and death.  The reading that we heard to today recounts his attempt to force faithful Jews to eat pork, something forbidden by the Old Testament law, and how he martyred seven Jewish brothers.

Imagine what it would like to be so drunk on power that you can dismember seven sons in front of their mother for the simple crime of wanting to practice their religion and we get a good sense of what Hell on earth might look like.  Addictions to pleasure, power, honor and power imprison us in ourselves and make our existence miserable, both for ourselves and those around us.  We should not take took much solace in the fact we would find doing what Antiochus did unlikely.  None of us have enough power that we could do it. No.  Our addictions take more subtle forms.  Despite this difference, they are the same in shutting God out of the center of our lives.

What does God do in the face of our self-created hells on earth?  He comes down in the midst of them as a human being and takes our self-inflicted wounds on Himself.  “He who knew no sin was man sin for us” as Saint Paul said.  On the Cross, Jesus allowed all of human sin to wash over Him.  Objectively, He took all human sin to Himself.  If we put our life in His hands, He will set us free from our self-made Hells.  There is a deadline for the invitation, however.  If we do not say yes to God’s helping hand before we die, we will stay in our self-made hells for all eternity, not because God sent us there but because we chose to stay there.

How do we say yes?  We will pick this question up next week when talk about the perseverance in the life of grace that will lead us to Heaven.

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