Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

25 August 2013

On Sin and Hell

We need to learn the realities of our holy faith so that they can strengthen God’s relevance in our lives. Understood, the right knowledge doesn’t automatically translate to the right actions. That’s why they told us in the seminary that "theology is best conducted on one’s knees": the enthusiastic fusion of learning, praying, and doing is what God and the Church are looking for, and what the world could use.

So let’s talk about hell, why don’t we? 
H-E-double-hockey-sticks. If you weren’t just a wee bit stirred over what Our Lord was saying today, you’d better check your pulse. Hell has all but ceased to occupy people’s minds, because sin has done likewise. Call me a downer, but these topics are worth revisiting. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a brief section specifically on hell; it devotes only five paragraphs to the topic (1033-1037), but they’re meaty.

A mortal sin is a conscious and free choice against God, neighbor, or self in a serious matter. It results in our alienation from God, from neighbor, and from self. St. John, in his first epistle, reminds us, “He who does not love remains in death” (3:14). A callous and mindless neglect to make a good choice (a "sin of omission") achieves the same result. In the parable of the judgment of the nations, the king chastens those who failed to assist the hungry, thirsty, naked, ill, or imprisoned in their needs (cf. Mt 25:42-45). To die in this situation without repenting and accepting God’s mercy is to be forever alienated from the Source of our life and from all who have remained connected to that Source, the blessed. Hell is a “just punishment,” but the Judge acts without vengeance or impulsiveness, as we so often do. 
The only hope, or else despair
     Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
   To be redeemed from fire by fire.
(T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," Four Quartets)
Jesus depicts hell as “an unquenchable fire,” while Dante envisions the depths of hell as icy and frigid. Either way, it is a stifling atmosphere in which we will feel “out of place,” but permanently. I say “out of place,” because God’s children were not made for eternal torment and separation, but rather for eternal peace and union. God's love for us nonetheless respects our freedom, the freedom even to reject Him if we wished. By the use or misuse of that freedom we "prepare" for our eternal dwelling —as much as one can prepare, anyhow, for just as the joys of heaven exceed our imagination, so do the pains of hell.

The Church’s teachings on sin and hell serve to call human beings to responsibility and conversion. The sooner the better, we want to grow in communion with the Lord so that we can place our personal desires in the greater context of His love that we are called to share with others. This is a lifelong, difficult endeavor. It involves discipline, as our second reading notes: not only God’s discipline over us (which we usually consider punishment), but also (especially!) the self-discipline that heals and strengthens us for worship and service.

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We cannot ever forget that God is on our side in this endeavor. He wants you to succeed, and He wants to restore you when you fail! The Church’s liturgical prayer puts flesh on the Lord Jesus’ prayer “that all may be one” in love of God and neighbor. Nourished by the sacred Fruit of that Liturgy, we put flesh on that prayer by our daily choices.

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