The topic has come up a lot recently with my friends. It actually started when one friend told me she’d read a Catholic book which said there’s a Hell, but there’s no one there. I thought this sounded a little suspect, so I asked her to show me the book. She did. I won’t mention the title, but I will say it reminded me once again to avoid buying serious theology books with color illustrations.
The impression my friend got from this book (and I have to admit that, in skimming it, I got the same impression) was that, yes, there must be a Hell if God says there is, but that since he’s a loving God, He would never actually send anyone there. So whatever pain we experience on earth because of our sins is “hell” for us, but in the end, we all end up in the same place, and it’s on the right side of the tracks.
Gee, doesn’t that sound nice?
Unfortunately, it has no basis whatsoever in Catholic teaching. The Catechism clearly states that “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘Hell’.”
So what’s the deal? Does a vengeful, hateful God sit in Heaven waiting for us to “blow it” so that He can condemn us forever? Of course not. God loves us. He wants all of us to be saved to be with Him. But he won’t override our free will. We’re placed on earth, and given the choice to follow Him or not to follow Him. If we choose Him, we’ll have Him for all eternity. If we don’t choose Him… well, He’ll respect our choice.
I don’t believe that Hell is literally a burning fire. The catechism calls Hell a “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God.” Remember, God is absolutely everything good. He is truth. He is beauty. He is freedom. Without Him, we have none of that. Without Him, we have nothing good.
Hell is the absolute absence of God. Ergo, it is the absolute absence of any and all good. And that, my friend, is worse than fire.
So what does this mean for us? Do we, as Catholic Christians, wake up every morning shaking in our boots because we might go to Hell? Of course not. Remember, God loves you and wants you to be saved. If you want to be saved, too, then the two of you are off to a very good start. You’re working together. It’s His grace that saves us, but we have to respond to that grace, to incorporate it into our lives.
So pray and receive the sacraments. Know what the Church teaches. Avoid mortal sin like the plague. Strive to uproot even venial sin from your life. And when you do fall, go back to Him immediately, confess, repent and get back on the wagon.
And then you’ve got nothing to worry about.
You know what scares me? When books like this convince people that there’s no need for anyone to worry about our eternal salvation. If that were true, what would be the point of evangelization? If everyone is already going to heaven, then I’m certainly wasting my life running around telling them about God.
“But,” people say, “it makes us happier in this life to follow God.” No it doesn’t. Not in the temporal sense. Sometimes we suffer a lot more because we follow God. But we’re happier because we see the bigger picture. We see that this life is just a prelude to the next, and we know that by following Him, we’re preparing for the “eternal banquet.”
Let me tell you, I have one goal in life. My goal is to go to Heaven, and to drag as many other souls with me as I possibly can. I pray for that. I work for it. I dedicate a lot of my attention to it. Why so much effort? ‘Cause it ain’t gonna happen automatically.
(You may visit Mary Beth Bonacci's website at www.reallove.net.)