Today's Wisdom

Those who do not pass from the experience of the cross to the truth of the resurrection condemn themselves to despair! For we cannot encounter God without first crucifying our narrow notions of a god who reflects only our own understanding of omnipotence and power
Pope Francis

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Does Hell Exist?

In the past couple of weeks a few people following the news of CERN's Large Hadron Collider being recharged and running have been asking the question whether the earth will be absorbed by a huge black hole. Scientists were fast to reassure them and us that there is no worry of such catastrophe happening. What people and scientists could not figure out is the question: what would happen to us if the catastrophe eventually happened? Would dead people have a life? And if yes, what kind of life? Hell or Heaven, or neither? There is no other question on people's mind, if not consciously then subconsciously, that requires an assurance: Does hell exist? And if it exists who will be saved from damnation? The question is eschatological and beyond the reach of science. According to theologian Roch Kereszty, O. Cist "Hell in the sense of damnation or definitive spiritual dying is taught unequivocally only in Christianity." In this view "the possibility of final damnation in its frightening reality has appeared only where God's love has been most clearly and most unambiguously revealed, namely inthe cross of Christ." In his book, "Jesus of Nazareth" published in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI comments in detail about the Lord's Prayer. There, the Roman Pontiff who is not only a well-known theologian but also a Biblical scholar commenting on "Lead us not into temptation," writes these words: We are helped a further step along when we recall the words of the Gospel 'Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil' (Mt 4:1) Temptation comes from the devil, but part of Jesus messianic task is to withstand the great temptations that have lead man away from God and continue to do so. As we have seen, Jesus must suffer through these temptations to the point of dying on the Cross, which is how he opens the way of redemption for us. This is not only after his death but already by his death and during his whole life that Jesus "descends into hell," as it were into the domain of our temptations and defeats, in order to take us by the hand and carry us upward...A brief look at the Book of Job, which in many respects prefigures the mystery of Christ, can help us clarify things further. Satan derides man in order to deride God: God's creature, whom he has formed in his own image, is a pitiful creature. Everything that seems good about him is actually just a facade. The reality is that the only thing man - each man - ever cares about is his own well-being. This is the judgment of Satan, whom the Book of Revelation calls "the accuser of our brethren...who accuses them day and night before our God" (Rev 12: 10). There is more to Benedict's exegesis - I only cited his words above where he speaks of Christ's descent into hell. You see how Benedict applies it, not only to his physical death, but to his entire life. Benedict pictures clearly the reality of man: the only thing that each man ever cares about is his own well-being. Christ himself in his human nature was tempted to care for his own well-being in the night of his arrest. He made an existential decision to align his human will with his divine will and accepted it to the point of shedding his blood for the salvation of all. Hell is not a place but a state of the self. Its fire is more than only physical torment, although it includes it. The fire referred to by Christ as "Gehenna" is most likely a figure that references the valley of Hennom outside Jerusalem where idolatrous Jews and pagans sacrificed their children as an offering to their god Molech and by the time of Christ was a huge burning place of garbage. This is a figurative way of describing hell. However modern Biblical and psychological research reveals that hell according to the definition given by Pope John Paul the Great "is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises set by people in this life." C. S. Lewis, in his masterpiece "Mere Christianity," thinks that there are certain sins that have a sense of hell - these include hatred, envy, and, above all, betrayal. This leads me to think that the fire of hell reflects the inner hatred of the selfish person who cared about no one in his life but himself. He accumulated fortunes and benefited nothing because he cared only for himself (Luke 12: 16-21). In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, we ask what was the rich man's mortal sin? His negligence of his fellow people and mostly the needy around him was probably nothing serious compared to the individualism we live today. Yet because he lived the "good rich life" his attention was limited to his immediate brothers (Luke 16: 19-31). He was the only one who could judge how much he loved. This was only a parable - there was not likely any real Lazarus who suffered at the rich man's door, but the parable has a message for all generations. Here in this life, we make our own existential choice with regard to the relationship with the Other (God and fellow humans). Hell is directly related to salvation in the Christian Tradition. The Church has never infallibly declared anyone is in hell, yet she has canonized many saints. However, hell remains a reality that we cannot avoid its possibility. Richard John Neuhaus, in the footsteps of the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote that as Christians we must hope that all humans may be saved from eternal damnation in hell. Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. who was the greatest contemporary American theologian, wrote in 2008 on the development of the doctrine of salvation. In it Cardinal Dulles carefully traces the question of salvation in the history of the Catholic Church. Anyone versed in understanding the development of doctrine is strongly encouraged to read this eloquent masterpiece in the global age we live in. There are endless questions that each one's conscience asks. We live in a materialistic society, with relativistic moral laws, and atheistic post-modern mentality. What is morally unacceptable in the Christian Tradition has become legalized as if it is normally acceptable - We now make our own truth which Pilate asked Christ. Take for example abortion, same-sex union, premarital sex, and divorce. Today, pre-nuptial agreements are used to guarantee engaged men and women their share in distributive assets should their marriage end in divorce. That is how low the marital commitment has come to be judged and seen by a falling civilization. There is, however, ample opportunity in this generation for living a Christian life of love. In spite of the increasingly hard and fast-paced life, many people - young and old - continue to help others. I see it at work, in the street, and in Church. More young people are seeing the light of God in prayer and spiritual nourishment. More too are engaged in Christian movements regardless of how orthodox it is. The internet used by many to publish selfish stuff, is also used by many to encourage others and help them. Doctors without frontiers is just one example of organizations that help life. Knights of Columbus is another, and Birth Right, here in Toronto, supports unwed pregnant mothers to have their babies. This, I think, is what Pope John XXIII meant when he said that this generation is not lacking in saints. Even when the reality of hell exists, the power of Christ is much more powerful. Our prayer is that, in spite of hell, Christ will win many many many souls. The Book of Revelation itself gives us this hope with its emphasis that multitudes will be in heaven (Rev. 19: 1). God will wipe the tears of many (Rev. 21:4). It is not us who work but the Spirit of God who works in us and helps us in all ways to repent. It is astonishing that where sin increased, grace multiplied (Rom. 5: 20). It is astonishing that a thief stole heaven before anyone else went in, only because he asked the Lord in the last moment of his life (Luke 23: 42). To the Apostles Jesus said "Rejoice for your names are written in heaven" (Luke 10: 21). Rejoice for our God's name is Love. He who cost himself to descend into hell would not let any person perish in hell unless that person insists with full knowledge and consent that he wishes to be in hell. "God runs after you to find even a tear in your eyes to save you" said St. John Chrysostom, Doctor of the Church and the greatest preacher of Christianity.
1) Pope Benedict XVI. (2007). "Jesus of Nazareth," pp. 161, 162, Doubleday.
2) Kereszty, Roch. (2006). "Christianity Among Other Religions: Apologetics in a Contemporary Context," p. 127, Society of St. Paul/Alba House.
3) Pope John Paul II. (1999). Papal Audience on Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, L'Osservatore Romano
4) Neuhaus, Richard John. (2001). "Will All be Saved?," First Things
5) Dulles, Avery. (2008). "Who Can be Saved?," First Things
6) Lewis, C.S. (1960). Mere Christianity, HarperOne

Today's Quote

"Behold I make all things new." (Revelation 21:5)


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