This question is of paramount importance because it deeply affects our view of God. Fear of punishment is a serious obstacle for Catholics in developing a close, intimate, secure and trusting relationship with God the Father. The fear of punishment is not usually associated with Jesus or the Holy Spirit, but in our relationship with the Father, and the frequent misconception of Him as a distant, angry and punishing God, looking down upon us with a critical gaze while scrutinizing our every step.
To begin, let us first examine the testimony of Jesus in the Gospels on this whole issue of sin and punishment. Frequently in the New Testament, Jesus warns His listeners of the punishment of hell. For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew, we read that ‘the Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ At first glance, this passage suggests that by Jesus’ direction, evildoers will be thrown into hell.
But how do we reconcile this with the constant witness of the Gospel of Jesus’ actual treatment of sinners? He did not punish a single person He met. Rather, to the consternation of the legalist Pharisees, Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. As St. Paul assures us in Romans, ‘It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.’ In Jesus’ kindness and tender compassion, He forgave sinners. Amongst many others, He forgave the paralytic, the woman caught in adultery and the penitent woman who wept at His feet.
One rule of biblical theology is to avoid drawing conclusions based on a single excerpt from the Bible. Rather, each passage should be interpreted with the whole of Scripture in mind. In the Gospels, Jesus forgave every sinner who came to him asking for mercy. Accordingly, we can correctly interpret Jesus’s earlier words on the punishment of hell. The evildoers that the angels of the Son of man throw into the furnace of fire are unrepentant sinners who refuse His mercy and essentially choose hell for themselves.
I have heard various Protestant preachers suggest that sin somehow demands that God directly punish us, but that Jesus took our place and absorbed the punishment for us. This is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. In the Catechism, we read that ‘. . . punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin’ (1472). When we freely choose to sin, we take upon ourselves the consequences of sin, which we often refer to as punishment. In essence, we punish ourselves when we sin, not God. What a comfort and consolation to be deeply convicted of this truth: God does not punish us for our sins.
If God does not punish us for our sins, why is it so common for some people to fear the punishment of God? First of all, at an intellectual level, many people are not clear on the actual teaching of the Church. Secondly, I think we fear the punishment of God because of our own guilty conscience, and we project our feelings about ourselves on to God. Our own troubled conscience can accuse us of our sins and failings, along with the subtle voice of Satan, the accuser of mankind. If we are absorbed in self, we may become trapped in our own guilty conscience, imprisoned in self-condemnation.
St. John writes that ‘whenever our hearts condemn us, we will be reassured that God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.’ Most English translations follow the Greek original, correctly translating ‘kardia’ as ‘heart.’ However, I think other translations of ‘kardia’ as ‘conscience’ can be helpful, offering a slightly different nuance: ‘(we) reassure our conscience before him whenever our conscience condemns us; for God is greater than our conscience and he knows everything.’ Implicit in this statement, ‘God knows everything,’ is the understanding of God’s perfect knowledge of us, with all our sins, weaknesses and failings. It is a knowledge imbued with mercy. Accordingly, even if our conscience condemns us, God will never condemn us. As St. Paul reminds us in Romans, ‘There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’
During His lifetime on earth, Jesus forgave sins with a mere word, as with the paralytic: ‘Child, your sins are forgiven.’ Yet Scripture also testifies that Christ died for our sins. Here is not the place to attempt to explain the deep mystery of sin and redemption. Saints through the centuries have meditated on this question of the necessity of Christ dying on the Cross, to offer the Father the atoning sacrifice which takes away the sin of the world and reconciles humanity to the Father. For our purposes, let us simply point out that Christ’s death on the Cross offers us the ultimate proof of His love for us.
Christ died for our sins. He suffered His Passion for my sins and yours. The Catechism states that ‘sinners were the authors and the ministers of all the sufferings the divine Redeemer endured’ (598). In human relationships, how readily we take offense at those who hurt us, even to the point of seeking vengeance. Yet when you and I tortured and crucified Christ by our sins, He absorbed all this evil into Himself and in return offered mercy and forgiveness: ‘Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.’
On the Cross, Jesus demonstrates the perfect love He has for every human being. As St. John writes so famously, ‘fear has to do with punishment . . . perfect love casts out fear.’ Whenever we catch ourselves fearing the punishment of God the Father for our sins, let us pause and contemplate the Crucifix. Let us remind ourselves of the truth: Jesus fully reveals the Father, who is love and mercy itself.
The ministry of mercy which Jesus accomplished during His lifetime extends through the ministry of the Church. Jesus continues to forgive sinners in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Furthermore, when God forgives, He also ‘forgets’ our sins.
Some people are familiar with the famous story from the life of St. Claude de la Colombiere, the spiritual director of St. Margaret Mary. When she first approached him, she explained that Jesus had appeared to her, and asked Fr. Claude to be her spiritual director. To test the veracity of her claim, he instructed her to ask Jesus what was the last mortal sin that he (Fr. Claude) had committed. When Jesus next appeared to her, she asked the question. Jesus responded quite simply: ‘I don’t remember.’
Scripture itself witnesses to the same truth. In Isaiah: ‘I will not remember their sins.’ In Micah, ‘You will cast our sins into the depths of the sea.’ Psalm 103: ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far He removes our sins from us.’ These beautiful metaphors from Scripture testify that when God forgives our sins, in a sense He annihilates them as if they never existed. When we are forgiven, it is as if we had never sinned. Accordingly, we will not fear the punishment of God if we truly believe in the forgiveness of our sins.
God does not punish us for our sins. Perfect love casts out fear. These two truths, if received into the heart, can help heal our distorted image of God, and allow us to approach Him with confidence, as the most loving, tender, merciful and forgiving Father.