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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

  • The blog header depicts an important and yet mis-understood New Testament scene, Jesus flogging the money-changers out of the temple. I selected it because the faith that gives us consolation can also make us very uncomfortable. Both Divine Mercy and Divine Justice meet in Jesus. Priests are ministers of reconciliation, but never at the cost of truth. In or out of season, we must be courageous in preaching and living out the Gospel of Life. The title of my blog is a play on words, not Flogger Priest but Blogger Priest.

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Three Points about Hell

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A priest friend of mine wrote recently that given the current cultural climate any reasonable discussion about hell is difficult.  While I would admit that many wrongly deny the existence of hell or any form of external judgment toward what the Church deems as “sinful” behavior; I would disagree that this makes such a conversation difficult.  We live at a time in human history where certain sins cry out to heaven for judgment.  Millions of children are destroyed in the womb as unwanted and unloved.  Christians are suffering martyrdom at the hands of militant Islamic religious extremists around the globe on a scale that is staggering.  Women and children, in particular, are increasingly victimized by human trafficking, prostitution and pornography.  Much of the world is weighed down by oppression, wars and a crushing poverty.  While there may be jobs, too often people do not make a livable wage.

Whenever and wherever the theological virtues are assaulted, a window is opened to the reality of hell.  Dante understood this with his entry warning to those who would cross over to the Inferno, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”  Those who have despaired and lost hope are already beginning to experience hell.  The gift of hope is closely aligned to the mystery of love.  We do not live in vain.

We are loved by God and valued as precious and irreplaceable.  The growing atheism gives people a taste of the alternative, abandonment.  It is the price tag that comes with not believing.  The larger cosmos does not love us.  It does not care if we live or die.  Often people think that the opposite of love is hate and that it is hate that rules hell.  I suspect that it is not hate but an apathetic indifference that prevails.  We are not prized enough by the devil to even be on his radar.  Hatred at least would signify acknowledgment.  The devil hates humanity but individual persons are invisible to him— they are nothing and have nothing of value to him.  He couldn’t care less what happens to us.  Note that while the Church speaks of the communion of the saints in heaven, we do not mention any appreciable community in hell.  It is as if there be as many hells as heads, each soul locked in a cell of its own making— shut off from God— cut off by inward looking selfishness from any other person, human or angelic.

In addition to hope and love, we are called to keep faith in Christ, our saving Lord.  Deliberately turning away from Christ, plants us on the road to perdition.  We cannot save ourselves.  We are made for God.  Separated from the Lord and we are eternally frustrated, unable to be what we are called to be.  The pieces of the puzzle that make up our existence are assembled and yet when all is said and done, the damned person finds that a piece is missing.  He or she will never be whole or complete.  Only God can fill the emptiness inside.  Without God, flame or no flame, the darkness consumes us.  If there is a good God then there must be judgment.  Given the gravity of sins around us, divine justice demands it.  The scales must be balanced.  If heaven and purgation are expressions of the Divine Mercy, then hell is the full and necessary realization of divine justice.

The active will of God seeks our salvation.  The mystery of sin and hell can only be understood in terms of God’s permissive will.  God created the human race, not to be mere animals of instinct or remotely controlled robots.  God gives us a profound and terrible freedom.  This freedom is abused by our first parents and their rebellion is confirmed by the sins of men and women throughout history.  It is only in Christ that we can respond to God as we are commanded.  God does not directly intend evil.  He would have us rightly use our freedom; but, he will also not stop us from misusing it.  Divine providence will prevail as we see with the resurrection of Christ after having endured at our hands his passion and death.

1.  What God creates, God creates.

The divine economy will not permit the annihilation of souls.  This teaching is challenged by the Seventh-day Adventists and by the Jehovah Witnesses.  God by knowing us keeps us in existence from moment to moment.  He will not destroy those who refuse to love him in return and reject a place in his kingdom.  He will not forget us.  The mystery of Christ teaches us that love is stronger than death.  It is in Jesus that divine love conquers the grave.  We are made in the image of God.  While bodies without souls are corpses, our souls have no parts and cannot break down or die.  We are promised restoration, body and soul.  Jesus tells us that in his house there are many rooms.  He will not force us to enter his house.  The damned refuse the invitation to make a home with God.  If heaven is fashioned by God; hell is built brick by brick by the damned, themselves.

2.  God’s love for us is unconditional and eternal.

God is immutable and can no more stop loving us than he can deny himself as personified love.  God loves everyone, including sinners who reject his love. This teaching is rejected by the Calvinists and Jansenist churches.  They would insist that God hates unrepentant sinners as well as the damned in hell.  It is a tenet of Jansenism that God wills for the damnation of most; only a certain few are predestined for salvation and that only they would be moved to repentance and to receive divine grace.    By contrast, we as Catholics speak of Christ dying for all while only the many would make the redemptive offering of Christ their own and thus embrace salvation.  Salvation is a gift that must be accepted.  It requires a disposition of openness toward God and his love.  Our Lord wants us to imitate divine love and mercy.  He tells us to love those who hate us; and to forgive those who hurt us; to give to those who steal from us.  Indeed he says that we must be made perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.  The soul that rejects Christ, either in venial or mortal sin, is the perpetrator for the passion and death of Christ.  Some of our number will reject the overture of redemption.  They will play the part of Judas and Herod.  Christ dies on the Cross loving those who murder him with their sins.  There is an eternal dimension to this love.  This is the measure of meaning behind the Sacred Heart devotion.

The theme of love and life are joined in the Christian faith.  The love of Jesus makes possible our redemption and share in eternal life with God in heaven.  Eternal death is not annihilation but damnation in hell.  Just as we are commanded to love our enemies; God loves his and sustains them in existence. The damned suffer but God withdraws as much as possible knowing that their hatred and his love is a tormenting combination. He draws away all but a spark of his loving presence so that the damned souls may remain in existence.

Perhaps at the very first instant of creation, God veiled something of his infinite goodness and allowed the angelic hosts a decisive moment that either perfected or corrupted their nature forever.  The good angels remained in heaven, always seeing the face of God and giving him glory.  The demons fled to hell, fleeing the divine presence so as to hide their shame and spite.  Our own first parents failed their test in the primordial garden.  They were cast out of paradise.  There would be no preternatural gifts.  They had broken off their friendship with God.  But God would not give up on them.  He promised a messiah and a future reconciliation.  That is realized in the saving work of Christ.  At the moment of death, like the angels before us, our stance before God is made permanent.  God loves us but he will not force us to love him.

3.  Hell is not the opposite of heaven.

Nothing compares to heaven.  The saints find their communion in divine love.  They are invited to live within the Trinity forever.  They see God who is the perfection and source of every good.  The saints possess God but they can never perfectly envelop him.  The distance between the creature and the Creator is infinite.  The divine mystery can never be exhausted.  Hell is defined not so much by what it has but by what it is missing.  Except for the spark of God’s love that torments the damned and keeps them in existence, God has withdrawn his face.  The master of hell, if it has one, is not divine but a creature.  Satan or Lucifer may have been a great archangel, likely a Seraph although some have speculated that he might have been an uppity Cherub.  He epitomizes the old saying, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”  He loses everything.  It may be that a third of heaven rebelled with him.  When speaking of Hell, the late Catholic evangelist Frank Sheed spoke of it as doctrine but said that we can hope that the devil is “lonely” even if unlikely.  Where heaven has joy; in hell there is pain to the senses (fire) and the pain of loss.

Hell is an abode of evil but there is no such thing as pure evil.  Evil is defined as the privation of a good that should be present.  What goods can we find in hell?  There is life or existence, even if there is pain or unhappiness.  The damned are aware.  Their wills are corrupted but still operative.  Angels and men in hell also have working minds. Unfortunately, fallen angels and damned men, alike, have forfeited saving grace.  God is not a monster.  He does not want us to suffer.  Art and literature often depicts the demons and damned as having make themselves into monsters.  Just as our Lord speaks of many rooms in his heavenly house; I suspect that there are various levels of hell depending upon the depth of one’s rejection of God and sinfulness.  However, it is difficult and probably unhelpful to reflect upon what constitutes commensurate suffering among the damned.  When I have pondered how the damned might keep busy it seems that all that really remains is the employment of the intellectual life.  But I would not want to take this too far and speculate about the nature of discourse or debate in hell.  When I mentioned this to one critic, he said, “Great, you would put the theologians who wrestle with God’s truths in heaven where they can find absolute certitude and you would deposit the philosophers in hell where they can endlessly debate the meaning of life with its decisions, actions and consequences.”

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