In today’s Gospel, Jesus mentions the word “hell” three times.
If we were to carry out a survey in this parish today and ask people, “Do you believe in hell?” How many of you would say you believe in hell? In 2004, in a survey in America, on this question of hell, 70% believed in hell, and amongst those who attend Church weekly, 92% believed in hell. So, my guess is that we are not too different; we may even have more than 95% saying that they still believe in “hell.”
Jesus, in all the Gospels, explicitly mentions “hell” ten times; elsewhere in the New Testament “hell” is mentioned five times. Thus, from the Bible we can see that “hell” is a belief of our faith that we cannot ignore so simply. So, it is important that try to understand its meaning more clearly.
Yet, this topic is rarely spoken and preached about these days for various reasons. Many feel that if God loves us so much, then“hell” should not exist at all because God would not want anyone to suffer eternally. Many of us too prefer to speak about God’s love instead of God’s punishment –which the topic of “hell” seems to berelated to.
Michelangelo's "Last Jugement" at Sistine Chapel, Rome
However, in today’s Gospel Jesus Himself speaks and preaches about “hell.” So, what do we do? For many of us, including preachers, we rather brush the topic of hell aside and try to ignore it because basically many of us feel uncomfortable about it and do not really know how to deal with it.
One of the reasons why we find it difficult to understand the meaning of “hell” is because on one hand we hear Jesus speaking of “hell” (as in today’s Gospel), and on another occasion He explains how God’s love for us is always unconditional – as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son or when we hear Jesus forgiving His enemies even as He is dying on His Cross.
Perhaps, one of the main reasons for our lack of clarity of the reality of “hell” is that we are looking at the wrong side of the reality of our faith. We are focusing too much on why God punishes a person in the fires of hell for all eternity, when perhaps we should be looking at whether we deserve the punishment of the choice we have made of the way we live?
If we want to understand the meaning of “hell” in our faith, we must first learn to understand and appreciate more fully how God’s love for us is infinite and unconditional. In God’s infinite love for us, He has given each human person the gift of freedom. And this freedom is real and so powerful that we as mere creatures can freely even choose to reject God who is almighty. It is only when we have such real human freedom that we can speak about a real relationship with God.
Our choices are real; our freedom is real; God respects us fully because He loves us deeply. In human relationships, our good parent, our good spouse or our good friend can love us so unconditionally, but it is still up to us to accept or reject the love that is shown to us.
Let us take a hypothetical case of Jack who is a very irresponsible married man. He gambles, he drinks and has recently been hooked on drugs. His behaviour gets from bad to worse. Jane his wife has to take up several jobs to bring up her family. Yet, every time Jack returns home he beats up his family. Jane and his children cannot take his violence anymore; they leave Jack for good. Jack continues to live in his sinful ways and refuses to listen to his parents and friends who try so hard to help him change is evil ways of living. Nobody could persuade Jack to change his ways even on his dying bed. Finally and tragically, Jack who is angry with himself, his family and everyone in the world dies unrepentant.
My brothers and sisters, Jack who lived such a sinful and self-centered evil life freely chose to live that way. He continually rejected all the help he received to change his ways. He remained obstinate and self-centered. In all his life, Jack chose to be isolated from his family and his loved ones. Nobody in this world mattered to him in any way. He lived totally for himself and died a miserable and lonely death. This I believe is a good description of what “hell” could be like.
“Hell” is not a physical inferno that cannot be put out nor is it a lake of boiling liquid or a place filled with worms that will crawl all over us and feed on us forever. These descriptions are not meant to be literal; they are metaphors to describe graphically the intense sufferings of “hell” that come from a sinner’s separation from God for all eternity. Jack suffered intensely from choosing to cut himself off from his family through his sinful and evil ways. Our Catholic Catechism explains that, “the chief punishment of hell is our separation from our communion with God for ever by our own free choice. Our separation from God is called “hell” because as human persons we can only possess life and happiness if and only if we are united with God.(CCC, 1033, 1036).
Jack’s choice of living in a totally selfish and self-centered way without any concern and care for his family and any person and indeed the world, and dies unrepentant is a suffering that Jack had freelybrought upon himself. Thus, “hell” is not a place we go to when we die, “hell” is a state of separation from people we love and most importantly from the God who loved us so infinitely and so unconditionally; and for all eternity; such a separation is “hell”!
It is in the context of this possibility that Jesus in today’s Gospel reminds us strongly that “if our hands, or our foot, or our eye should cause us to sin and reject God’s love, then it would be better that we cut off and loose such bodily parts than to lose our eternal communion with God.”
The “cutting off of our hands and foot and the tearing out of our eye” is Jesus’ way of reminding us that God and eternal life is the most important reality of our lives. What we have in life on earth is always of secondary importance to what and how God wants us to live our lives.
If we take Jesus’ words of today’s Gospel seriously, then we should each put them into action by challenging ourselves “cut off” certain “comforts and time” that we have or perhaps “tear ourselves” from certain material and financial wealth that we have or make the additional sacrifices we ought to help the needs of others who are poor, aged, exploited and lonely – all out of love and to continue to deepen ourrelationship with the Lord.
But, if on the contrary, we become so self-absorbed by our own needs and pains or our possessions such that they isolate us from God and people, then we, like Jack will surely be experiencing “hell” while already on earth.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we cannot blame God for creating “hell;” “hell” is createdby our free choices in life. We either choose to remain with God or reject God. If a blind man chooses to jump out of a building, then the reality of gravity will cause him to hit the ground and kill him. The pull of gravity did not kill him; it was his free choice that killed him.
Likewise, if we prefer to isolate ourselves from others and from God and suffer the loneliness and pain of separation, then it is our choices that separate us from God and others that brought about “hell” in our lives.
So, while the possibility of suffering eternal isolation from God is real, we can also say that this threat of “hell” does not have a grip on us insofar as we are willing to repent, say sorry to God and return to Him. . . This truth is clearly explained in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
As I conclude, my sisters and brothers in Christ, I believe today’s Gospel is challenging us, through Jesus’ preaching on “hell” to return to the basics of our faith. Jesus is challenging us to make clear and decisive choices in our lives. We are called to make the fundamental decision to love Him as fully as we can in life.
If we do this, we are assured of eternal happiness in heaven. But, if we choose to reject Him constantly, then we will surely bring upon ourselves the pain and sufferings of loneliness and isolation of ourselves from God, and thus, create “hell” for ourselves. Selfishness always brings pain and isolation. Selflessness and love of God will always bring joy, fulfillment and happiness, in this world and the life to come, for all eternity.
I am sure none of us here have chosen the evil paths in life that Jack did. The fact that we are all here in this Mass is already a sign that we don’t want to be isolated from God when we die. While “hell” in principle is a possibility because God respects our human freedom fully, the Church has not confirmed and identified any one, including Judas, as being condemned to the eternal sufferings of hell.
So, let us be grateful to God for the real freedom that He has given us. Let us renew our commitment to Him to be more fully responsible in the care and love we ought to have for one another’s faith. As community, let us daily learn to love Christ in the good and love we have for one another. If we can live in the ways of Christ, eternal happiness awaits us and the threats of “hell” will have no force on us, and we will surely live our faith with joy, peace and fulfillment daily.
Fr Philip Heng, S.J.