Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
My pastor delivered a sermon on hell a few weeks ago that really burned me up. I thought that we had abandoned the outmoded concept of hell. Are we going to return to the medieval practice of frightening people into the church? Didn’t they just make some guy a bishop who says there is no hell? Enough with the depressing sermons!
You’re talking about Bishop-Elect Robert Barron, a great theologian and all around good guy. You need to stop getting your religion from TV news. They can barely read the instructions on the hair spray bottle. Fr. (soon to be bishop) Barron was talking about the virtue of hope. You can hear what he had to say by doing a web search for Fr. Robert Barron on “Whether Hell is Crowded or Empty” on Youtube. He does a masterly job of explaining the theological and philosophical need for the existence of hell to a generation that rejects the idea. He points out that it was good and gentle Jesus who speaks most about hell in the Bible. He correctly says that the Church has never definitively put any human being in hell, and we can hope for universal salvation. Just don’t count on it!
We still believe in the reality of hell. Read the catechism. “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, eternal fire. The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” (Paragraph 1035)
How can a good and loving God ever send anyone to hell? Bishop elect Barron says, “God doesn’t send anyone to hell. We send ourselves to hell.” I would put it differently. God doesn’t send anyone to hell. He finds us there! Ever heard of original sin? Original sin is the alienation from God in which we are born.
I can hear you say, “That’s nonsense! Babies are sweet and innocent.”
Obviously you are not a parent. Babies are original sinners. Babies have a certain cry that can penetrate brick. I am not saying that a baby’s cry is sinful. A baby cries because it is his only way to communicate. The crying is not sinful, but it does indicate the neediness and aloneness that is the basic human state. An infant is aware of mother’s love and of his own need. Every human being is made in the image of God and at the same time is born into the world in a state of alienation from the God whose image he bears.
There is, I believe, a struggle in every human being from the moment of conception between love and selfishness. I know that babies are sinful, even if not culpable (a fancy word meaning worthy of blame). I am a former baby. My earliest documentable memory takes me back to my grandmother’s funeral 1953, when I was 3 years and 3 months old. I was so obnoxious at the first night of the wake that I was not going to the second night of the wake. I can remember my parents putting on coats and hats as I realized that I was to be left behind. I was furious! I was going to make them suffer. I can still remember my mother’s pained expression through the window of the back door. She thought I, poor baby, was suffering. On the contrary, I was angry and wanted them to suffer. I was a little original sinner.
I have an earlier memory than that. I remember my little white baby shoes and the wonderful noise they made when banged on the church pew. My parents were in a dither trying to get me to stop. For quite a while thereafter they went to different Masses while one of them stayed home to do guard duty over the little narcissist (me).
A newborn’s cry is a result of that newborn’s immaturity, but it can become an indicator of human selfishness, though an infant is certainly not morally culpable. A baby, at least one like me, learns to lie before he learns to talk. A baby has that certain cry that will bring mommy and daddy running. One does the diaper test. Nothing. One tries to feed the baby. Nothing. All that baby wants is for mommy to hold him. This is not a bad thing in itself. It is a longing for relationship, a good thing. Still, it matters not to the light of your eyes that daddy and mommy must be up at 5 AM to begin the struggle all over. As long as he has a bottle in his mouth, a change of clothes and mommy to hold him, junior is fine. I know old men who, if they have a bottle in their mouth, a change of clothes and mommy to hold them, they are just fine.
My point is this; the cry of a baby is evidence of and a protest against the fundamental aloneness into which we are born. In a baby it is appropriate. It is not so appropriate in whiny old men like me. My suspicion is that when we die, time simply stops. We become timeless, eternal. If when we die we have not accepted the grace of God, and grown out our essential aloneness, that is who we are forever, the self-centered sons of our mothers that we were born.
Jesus calls hell the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Heaven is a wedding banquet. God’s grace finds us in an outer darkness. If we admit our need, our infant cry, as it were, He is generous. The Scripture says that God does not wish the death of a sinner, but as Fr. Barron points out, he will not override our freedom. We must, in the end choose love or hate, light or dark, God or ourselves. 1 Timothy 2:4, (God) “…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” And again, Ezekiel 33:11, “Say to them, 'As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.’” God seems to agree with Fr. Barron here. We can hope for universal salvation, but we darn well better not count on it.
There really is a hell. I’ve met people who have been there. If you are at all decent you shouldn’t want your worst enemy to go there. I remember well the first person I met who claims to have gone to hell. He was only about 18 years old, and already a horrible human being. He was a drug dealer and general low life. He overdosed on his own product, and found himself all alone and sinking into blackness. His family were all devout believers and an ocean of prayer was being offered for him. He told me that he saw Jesus in the distance standing in light. He cried out “Give me another chance!” and woke up on the emergency room gurney. He said yes to grace and was able to turn his life around.
Another story of hell was told me by a good friend, also from a devout family. He, however, was not so devout. He was a great fancier of recreational pharmaceuticals, which he also sold. He was a purveyor of used cars, though without their owners’ permission and quite a few other unsavory occupations. (For the humor impaired: He was a drug dealer, addict and car thief.) I was at a family gathering and some of the children asked me about life after death. I was sharing stories of people I know who claim to have seen heaven.
My above mentioned friend chimed in, “That’s all b@#$%^!t. When you’re dead, you’re dead. I know. I died.” He found me a little later and said, “What I said wasn’t true. I was in hell.”
All of us have heard stories of the light and the tunnel etc. etc. It seems that very few people report hell. I once read that only about one out five people who lose vital signs report anything, and these are generally positive. BUT…I remember hearing the story of a doctor whose patient had a heart attack in his office. It took a few attempts to get him stabilized. Every time the pulse returned and the patient was conscious, he would shout, “Get me out of here! I’m burning in hell!” The doctor, an atheist, was quite shaken, and when he visited his patient in the hospital he asked, “What was all this about burning in hell?” The patient just looked at the doctor and said, “What do you mean? I was unconscious. I don’t remember anything about hell.”
It hit the doctor like a ton of bricks. If the death experience was unpleasant it was repressed. He began to ask people he revived about their experience as soon as possible, and he was able to double the number of people who had experiences and quite a few more were negative. This is not good science, and not good theology, but it is interesting. Hypothetically, if these things are what they appear to be, there are a lot of people going to hell.
Next week: Try to look on the bright side.