Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Making Sense of Hell

From First Things:
Fortunately, we are not totally ignorant, because we have the guidance of the Church. Not just the authoritative teaching statements, though that is enough, but all the expressions of the Church’s wisdom through 2000 years: the standard interpretation of many, many verses in the Old and New Testaments; the sermons of the saints, with their terrible warnings about the next life; the ancient prayer of the Mass that we be “delivered from eternal damnation”; the mystics, including those of the last century, who saw things that nearly made them die of fright; Dante’s Inferno and Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.

And then there is St. Thomas More at his trial, saying that if he was not telling the truth “then pray I that I may never see God in the face”; the little children of Fatima doing their penances to help imperiled sinners, and in the process launching one of the great devotions of the twentieth century; the testimony of exorcists who, in the course of their liberating work, have spoken with demons about the next life; the countless holy men and women who have gone out to preach and care for the sick and spend themselves in love—not mostly, but partly, because they feared what they might hear on Judgment Day; the countless ordinary men and women who have forced themselves into the confessional—not wholly, but perhaps, on that day, mostly, because they believed they needed urgent rescuing. If Catholicism is the work of the Holy Spirit, then it looks like this is one of the truths He wants to lead us to.

Even non-Catholics will have to contend with Jesus’s words on this subject, which seem designed to make impossible the sort of creative rereading of which modern scholars are fond. He speaks, repeatedly, of the unquenchable fire. It is hard to downplay this and call it the fire of God’s love, because he also promises to tell the damned: “I never knew you.” He employs vivid images, like the narrow gate, but you cannot say his teaching is all metaphorical, because he describes literally the desperation of hell: “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Our Lord does not sound like he is referring to some process of difficult but healthy purification. He sounds like he is warning of a fate worse than death. Get rid of the doctrine of hell, and you will ultimately have to treat Jesus as though he does not know what he is talking about. For any Christian, that is an untenable conclusion. (Read more.)

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