The Four Last Things - Part 4 - Hell
November 26, 2017
As I conclude my series on the last things – the most important things to ponder because they deal with our eternal life – I come to the most difficult one to write about and contemplate: hell. It is difficult to write on for several reasons: the first is that, understandably, we don’t like to think about it. But the second is even trickier: a huge number of modern Catholics don’t take it seriously. This might manifest itself in different ways: They either think it doesn’t exist at all, for example, that we “stopped believing that at Vatican II,” or they believe that it may be possible for some of the most egregious sinners to end up there (mass murderers, for example) but couldn’t possibly be something they personally had to be concerned with.
The problem with those attitudes is that they have no basis in the facts. In the Gospels, Jesus Himself frequently warns us about hell, and He is not speaking just to the most egregious sinners. In fact, He gives plenty of warnings that those who presume they will be in Heaven without giving it a second though might be disappointed. For example, Mt. 7:21, ‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but he that does the will of my Father in Heaven.’
So what about the claim that ‘we don’t believe that anymore’ – that this is just a medieval thing or pre-Vatican II thing. Not quite. Here is what Pope Francis said just one year ago today: “"Eternal damnation is … a death. And those who will not be received in the Kingdom of God, it's because they have not drawn close to the Lord … These are the people who journeyed along their own path, distancing themselves from the Lord and passing in front of the Lord but then choosing to walk away from Him. Eternal damnation is continually distancing oneself from God. It is the worst pain, an unsatisfied heart, a heart that was created to find God but which, out of arrogance and self-confidence, distances itself from God… [but our hope lies in turning to Jesus Christ and encountering Him]””
This echoes what the Catechism says about hell (written in the 1990s, and an unchangeable teaching):
We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves… Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell." … God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want "any to perish, but all to come to repentance" [CCC §§1033-37].
Because of the seriousness of this final choice, we certainly owe it to ourselves (and our children) to understand exactly what the Church is teaching here. To simplify it a little, it reminds us that, because God loves us enough to give us the freedom to love Him or reject Him, we can choose hell for ourselves in one of several different ways: living in a self-centered manor that distances ourselves from Him; neglecting our basic duty of Christian charity to those in greatest need; or to refuse to repent of our sins and go to the sacrament of confession when we have serious sin that we have not brought to the priest for forgiveness.
As we celebrate this solemn feast of Christ the King of the Universe, it is a good time to reflect on whether we are living our lives in such a way as to acknowledge His Kingship by loving and obeying Him so that we can avoid Hell.