Tuesday, 8 February 2011
The reality of hell
The doctrine of the existence of hell is one of those central planks of our religion: if hell doesn't exist, what is the point of the struggle to do good? How can we deal with the injustices of this world if there is no hope of justice in the next? And assuming there is an afterlife, if hell doesn't exist in what sense can we really be said to have free will?
Unsurprisingly given its reality, many religions and philosophies, from Ancient Egypt, to Plato's myth of Ur, to Aztec religions as well as many more recent ones share something similar to the Catholic belief on this subject.
Yet for equally obvious reasons many people do want to deny the doctrine, explain it way, or act as if it doesn't exist.
The Magisterium of me...
Take this rant from the US National aCatholic Reporter, picked up with glee by the aCatholicas in this country:
"I’m writing about hell because it is an unthinkable, horrible, destructive concept that can’t possibly be true. I frankly can’t even imagine how anyone came up with something so horrific. Could any wrong merit the terrible pain of burning in fire, while fully conscious, for a week or a year, much less eternity? What kind of a monster would inflict that on anyone? How could such cruelty and sadism be consistent with a God of love? I don’t buy it for a minute.
I don’t care if scripture mentions hell or Jesus talked about it, if saints had visions of it, or if it’s a time-honored Catholic teaching. It simply can’t be justified on any level."
Well at least the author, Carol Meyer, is honest about her position - her view is right no matter what authority might say otherwise! Hmm, where have we heard that before recently...oh yes, a certain Melbourne priest on why women should be ordained for a starter!
But sadly, also someone who does not understand that it is ultimately our choices, not God's, that serve to condemn or save us. We can choose the good, choose to live eternally with God - or we can choose to reject him and be excluded forever from his presence. And doesn't understand that if we choose to sin, to hurt others and/or ourselves and fail to repent and do penance, then our actions will still catch up with us in the end.
Lessons from nature
Ms Meyer goes on to argue that punishment can't be real because God's creation is so benign:
"The bottom line in all this is the nature of God. When we look at creation (and thus at God), we see that it is essentially benevolent, kind, and nurturing. Yes, there is some pain and certainly death, but it is part of a beautiful process of life, growth and rebirth, not some never-ending punishment for being imperfect. I’m not sure where we got the idea that the meaning of life is about judgment, that it’s some kind of cosmic test almost impossible to pass. Nature is about harmony, balance, compassion, unity, interdependence, joy, and all life coming to its fullest potential."
Well, yes and no. It is true that creation is good, and allows us by reason to understand that God is good. But at the same time, Australians suffering over the last few weeks variously from the ravages of bushfires, floods, cyclones, plagues of locusts and heatwaves might beg to differ about the entirely benevolent view of nature! Indeed, the Old Testament repeatedly speaks of natural events such as these as evidence of God's anger at times when his people turn away from him and worship false gods instead, a reminder that his justice must be faced sooner or later.
Still, in a way Ms Meyer's honesty about her rejection of Scripture and church teaching, which cannot in any way, shape or form be reconciled with Catholicism is, in many ways, a lot less dangerous than some of the other forms of denial of the doctrine in my view.
The classic example of course is the claim of Hans Urs von Balthasar - who died unexpectedly a few days before he could be made a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II - that hell could be empty. This view too seems totally at odds with both Scripture and Tradition. But a theologian can argue the case with a great deal of sophistication, and by virtue of his credibility, persuade many, to their downfall.
Another less obvious form of this denial of reality is an excessive focus on righting wrongs in this world, while neglecting to remember that our true treasure lies in the next. That views Social Justice as an alternative to God's eternal justice rather than as a complement to it that keeps it in a proper perspective. It is the view, to use words from one of Sr Carmel Pilcher's Cathblog entries on her fellow Josephites, that lauds dying "not with their own salvation uppermost in mind, but imploring a loving God to be compassionate toward the poor and the needy".
The narrow way
It is of course the hope of heaven rather than the fear of hell that should primarily motivate us.
But fear of hell is always a good place to start, a grounding for us in why we must strive to stay in a state of grace at all times, and prepare ourselves for the one inevitable event in all our lives, namely death!
Let us pray that all those we love may yet be granted a holy fear of hell, and be converted.