Is Hell Really Real?

     We need balanced preaching about Hell instead of too much or too little
Fra Angelico, Last Judgment (detail of Hell), 1431-1435 Fra Angelico, Last Judgment (detail of Hell), 1431-1435 – See more at: http://wtfarthistory.com/post/5607909292/the-borgias-part-ii#sthash.Mn8Q…

 

Hell is something non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics assume priests talk about a lot. In fact, priests hardly ever talk about Hell. Similarly, non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics think priests sermonise about abortion, gay marriage and contraception a lot, an impression that was strengthened when the Pope said a few months back that the Church should not be “obsessed” with these things.

But priests no more talk about these things as a rule than they talk about Hell. In fact, Pope Francis himself talks about these matters far more than the average priest does. He also talks about the Devil a lot which is an indirect way of talking about Hell as well.

Existence

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is crystal clear about Hell. It says: “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of Hell and its eternity.”

It goes on: “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.”

Who is going to Hell? The Catechism says: “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.”

This is worrying. Jesus didn’t single out murderers and other obvious candidates such as that. In fact, Jesus compared those who hate their brothers with murderers and by ‘hate’ he meant those who harden their hearts to their brothers, and by ‘brothers’ he would not have meant literal brothers, but everyone and anyone because he said we should regard everyone as our brothers and sisters.

So Jesus is really saying that it is the hard of heart who have turned their backs on God and those who have turned their backs on God are the ones who, by their own choice, are going to Hell because Hell is separation from God.

A great deal of Pope Francis’ preaching is devoted to telling us not to be hard of heart and chastising those who are. In this, he is very like Jesus.

It’s how we treat those we have dealings with from day to day, rather than our attitude towards humanity in general, that reveals whether we’re hard of heart or not. What’s our attitude towards our family members, our friends and our work colleagues? Do we treat people well as a rule? Do we go out of our way to help people when need arises? Are we willing to forgive and forget?

Laxism

It’s telling that Jesus talks about Hell more than any other figure in the Bible, and it’s also telling that he reserved his strongest criticism for those who were unforgiving and who stood in judgement over other people.

At the same time, Jesus never pretended a sin was not a sin. When he saved the woman caught in adultery from being stoned to death, he didn’t pretend she had done nothing wrong, but he was tender towards her.

It was the same with the Samaritan woman at the well.

The tendency today, in reaction against the Church’s past authoritarianism is to preach a sort of ‘I’m ok, you’re ok’ gospel, to replace moralism with laxism. In fact, it is failure of love not to tell someone who is sinning to change their ways and to help them to do so.

Teaching about Hell is a tricky business. Overemphasising it is irresponsible because it frightens people unnecessarily and its replaces love of God with fear of damnation.

But underemphasising it is also irresponsible because Jesus said it is real and warned strongly of it.

Neighbours

Archbishop Martin said “Hell could be possible”, meaning going there could be a possibility. How strong a possibility? We can’t really say. Some theologians speculate that Hell might be empty because God finds a way to save us all. Others have speculated it is very full.

Today, very few people preach that. Instead it is barely spoken about at all, or else we convince ourselves that only the very worst, such as rapists, child abusers and murderers go to Hell, not the rest of us.

But that wasn’t the view of Jesus. He linked love of God to love of neighbour because the best way to show we love God is to show we love our neighbours.

If we don’t love our neighbours, we don’t love God and as the Catechism says, “We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him”. Those who do not love God are really choosing separation from him in eternity, which is Hell. They put themselves there in other words.

At the end of the day, what we need is balanced preaching about Hell instead of too much preaching about it, or as is much more likely today, too little preaching.

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