Today I’m going to give you hell. I mean the subject of hell. We don’t talk much about hell anymore. I think there are three possible reasons: 1) it’s an unpleasant reality, so we avoid it; 2) in the past, it was sometimes used excessively as a threat without love; 3) some people just don’t believe in it anymore. Today, we’re going to speak of it like Jesus did, that is, with love, as a friend warns another friend about something dangerous.
In the Gospel, we heard that someone asked Jesus, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” This is a natural human question that expresses concern for other people: what will happen to them? Who’s going to heaven, who’s going to hell? For what reasons?
Let’s establish the facts. First, does hell exist? Scott Hahn says Jesus alone talked about it more than the whole Bible put together (“Why is There Hell?” Track 3, 4:20). Remember the parable about helping the hungry, thirsty, and strangers? Jesus says that if we don’t help them then we don’t help Him, and then He adds, “Depart from me… into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41). Hell’s so bad that Jesus instructs, “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off…. It is better for you to enter into life maimed… than with two hands…. to be thrown into eternal fire” (Mt 18:8; Mk 9:43). In other words, whatever in our life causes us to sin we should get rid of. In today’s Gospel, Jesus adds a parable about the owner of the house shutting the door and we finding ourselves outside knocking on the door, to which he says, “I do not know where you come from… Go away from me, all you evildoers!” (Lk 13:27). The point here is that there are consequences to our actions. For the same reason, in St. John’s Gospel He says, “Those who have done good deeds [will go] to the resurrection of life, but those who done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation” (5:29). We know hell exists because Jesus said so. It’s not imaginary, something made up to keep people in line.
Hell makes sense if we think in terms of relationship. Is it possible to separate ourselves from God, to break our relationship with Him? To break this relationship, to separate ourselves from Him is a kind of hell. Hell is not a place where God arbitrarily sends people. Hell is the state where people freely choose to go.
The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says hell is “The eternal damnation of those who die in mortal sin through their own free choice” (212). There are three elements here: 1) It’s eternal: once there, one is there forever; there’s no turning back or getting out. 2) There’s horrible suffering there. Jesus uses lots of images to describe this: fire, grinding of teeth, outer darkness, tormenting thirst. The worst thing is that we’re separated from God. We can’t be with the One we’re designed to be with, who loves us so much, who makes us happy. 3) How do we go there? We “die in a state of mortal sin through our own free choice.” Remember what a mortal sin is? It has to be a serious action; there must be sufficient knowledge, and full consent. A serious action means anything that can break our relationship with God. Just as marriage can be broken by adultery, and other relationships with serious lies, stealing a large amount of money, or murder, so we can break our relationship with God by violating anything that He teaches is important. If we know these serious actions are wrong and freely choose to do them anyway, then we commit a mortal sin, we separate ourselves from God. Please remember, however, every sin can be forgiven. God the Father wants to forgive every sin and greatly desires for us to heal our relationship with Him. But we have to humble ourselves, ask His forgiveness, go to Confession and try never to do it again.
This perspective makes it really easy to answer how an all-loving God would allow anyone to go to hell. The answer is that everyone’s free and God respects our choices. God sends no one to hell; people freely choose it and He accepts their choice. He doesn’t force us to do what’s right or force us to go to heaven. He wants us to very much, which is why He gave us His Son, who died for us! But He forces no one, just as forces no one to go to Sunday Mass, Confession, be pure, prayerful, kind, or self-sacrificing.
But why then would anyone ever consciously choose to separate themselves from what’s good? Sometimes we’re misled. Why would anyone disobey their parents and separate themselves from a loving home? Many of us have done that. Our parents told us not to spend time with certain friends or do drugs, get drunk, or have sex. At the time, we thought it would make us happy but, after we’re done, we’re left with regret. Other times we’re also stubborn. Have you ever been in an argument, and you knew you were wrong, but didn’t admit it?
And why would anyone not forgive someone? Everyone knows forgiveness is the best way to live. When we don’t forgive someone we only hurt ourselves; we stay in a place of anger and hurt and that is a kind of living hell. That’s why Jesus says if we don’t forgive, we will not be forgiven; We block His love from entering our hearts and we stay in an angry place.
Last question: “Will only a few be saved?” How many people choose hell? Let’s answer this question the way Jesus answers it, that is, indirectly.
When I go to Catholic high schools, I always ask the students, “Is it hard to graduate high school?” Many say, “Yes.” “What about getting into Langara?” “That’s harder.” “UBC?” “Even harder.” “Harvard?” “That’s very hard.” If I told you it were easy to get into Harvard, would you study hard? No, because everyone passes. Similarly, Jesus simply answers the question by saying heaven is hard to get into: “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able” (Lk 13).
I spent two summers in Harlem, New York, working with students from difficult backgrounds. They tended to goof off, but they were extremely serious when basketball tryouts started because they wanted to make the team. They knew it was hard, so they rose to the occasion. Jesus tells us that heaven is hard to get into, but hopes we too will rise to the occasion.
In Matthew 7:13-14, He says, “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.” Jesus goes against everything we’re told in our culture: everyone’s going to heaven and it’s easy to get in. On the contrary, the road to life is hard, narrow and few take it. Why? Go back to the idea of relationship. Look how many broken relationships there are. It’s so easy to break relationships, but it’s hard to keep relationships strong. I love when people tell me, after they have started to live a more devout life, “Father, it’s hard to be Catholic.” Yes, it’s hard to be loving! But it’s worth it. So, beware of the lie that says heaven is easy to get into. This will make more sense next week when we talk about heaven. Heaven isn’t a place for nice people. It’s the state of those who are completely united to God.
What’s the fruit of these two competing views? 1) Our culture says heaven is easy to get into and everyone’s going there. What’s the result of this? Mediocrity, complacency. We all know we can be doing better, but what’s the point? We’re already going to heaven. 2) Jesus says the road to love, to road to union with Him is hard and few people choose this. What’s the result of this view? We start listening to our conscience and trying our best to make Jesus more the center of our life.
No one today should leave feeling discouraged or in despair. Yes, heaven is really hard to get into but it’s also really possible. God love us so much and gives us all the graces and tools we need. We need only receive them and cooperate with Him. We should leave today feeling challenged and perhaps woken up a bit.
Everything we’ve talked about today (the existence of hell, how bad it is, that we freely choose to go there, that it’s easy to go there) makes sense with one idea: relationship. Hell is the result of a broken relationship with God.
(I always use this song during RCIA when I teach about hell.)