What the Hell!
An elderly lady looked worried as she celebrated her 90th birthday. Her daughter asked her, “Mom, it’s your birthday. But you don’t look happy. What seems to be worrying you?” The old lady replied, “It’s because I’m getting so old already. I’m the only one left behind. All my friends, I suppose, may now be in heaven. And I’m afraid they could be thinking I did not make it and have gone to the other side.”
Are we sometimes afraid that we might not make it to heaven? Nowadays, there are some people who, in their smug complacency, presume that they will surely go to heaven: “God is love, and He will always understand me. So, I am sure He will welcome me into His kingdom, no matter what I do in my life on earth. So, I don’t need to go to regular confession or attend Sunday Mass. If God is love, how can He condemn sinners?” Such people get offended when they hear the priest preaching about the evil of sin and the reality of Hell and eternal punishment. They consider it as being insensitive, intolerant and uncharitable.
Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly bewailed the onslaught of what he calls the “dictatorship of relativism.” This is the thinking that everything is relative, and there is nothing absolute. In morality, it is the belief that there is nothing absolutely evil, but only relatively evil, depending on the surrounding circumstances. Hence, the claim that there is nothing absolutely sinful, and so no one deserves eternal punishment. Hell is only for the extremely evil people like Hitler. The rest of us will go to heaven. Relativism, indeed, is very dangerous because it breeds pride, complacency and presumption.
It is true that we have to “hate sin but love the sinner” for, after all, we have to follow the example of our merciful God. It is true that we must not judge anybody, for we are all sinners. This is what the parable of the wheat and the weeds clearly points out. We have no right to pull out the weeds from the field, but instead wait for harvest time when the Eternal Judge will order His angels to separate the weeds from the wheat. It is true that the people who may be considered weeds can, at a later time, become wheat as well, through the grace of repentance and genuine conversion. It is true that in each one of us, there are weeds and wheat, and so we all need God’s mercy and kindness.
However, while we should not judge and condemn anybody, and must in fact be understanding, kind and loving to those considered as weeds, we have to proclaim the truth of the Gospel, no matter how unpleasant and painful it is to some people. In the Gospel this Sunday Jesus makes it very clear that besides the hope and assurance of heaven, there is also the frightening reality of hell: “They will throw them into the fiery furnace where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (Mt 13:42).
Definitely, this is a terrifying image. But Jesus and his followers did not avoid speaking about hell, nor did they use euphemisms in referring to it. St. Paul, for example, gives us a stern warning by mentioning specific sins that keep a person out of heaven. In his First Letter to the Corinthians he said, “Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10 NAB).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states the doctrine of hell: It is the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed…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” (no. 1033).
The key word here is “self-exclusion.” The image of a God who mercilessly throws down an unrepentant sinner to hell is not accurate. Rather, the sinner, by his free choice, has rejected God, and thereby willfully excluded himself from the relationship and communion with God. Hell, therefore, is self-exclusion. It is the person’s free choice.
If people obstinately persist in their sins and do not reform their lives, they are going to end up in hell. This truth has not and will never change. And it should be told to everybody as warning. Hiding this truth and being silent about it, for fear of offending the feelings of some people, or of being accused as intolerant and uncharitable is actually the most uncharitable thing to do. Seeing a man walking towards a cliff and you did not say or do anything to stop him is grossly uncharitable and outright cruel. The prophet Zechariah pointed this out: “If I say to the wicked man, ‘You shall surely die’; and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his wicked conduct so that he may live: that wicked man shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death” (Ez 3:18).
The parable of the wheat and the weeds is not meant to scare us and drive us into panic. Rather, it still is good news for all of us – for several important reasons. First, it reminds us that it is God who will ultimately judge us in the end. Today’s first reading declares, “But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency, and with much lenience you govern us (Wis 12:16). Second, it proclaims the truth of God’s universal love for all people, both the good and the bad, for he allows the wheat and the weeds to grow together until harvest and “he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45). And third, it reveals God’s boundless mercy for us sinners, giving us all the time and opportunity to reform our lives and be saved. Through the prophet Zechariah, He declared, “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ez 18:32).
Fr. Mike Lagrimas
St. Teresa Church
141 Henry Street
New York, NY 10002