Give them Hell!
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

These are very serious readings, and if they are part of the liturgy today, it must mean that the Lord wishes us to address this difficult topic, and it would be profoundly irresponsible to avoid it. In fact, addressing the topic of hell is really a spiritual work of mercy.

But I've had a lot of practice talking about hell. I am a high school religion teacher, and I've been at it for 21 years now, but my first 10 years were in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto, and they were difficult years. We had some pretty difficult kids, and after a while I knew that the only chance I had to get through to some of them was to begin sounding like an Evangelical preacher. When you're dealing with drug dealers, or kids who have no problem punching an 80 year old woman in the head in order to get her purse, sublime theology and human reason don't go very far. You have to speak the language they understand, so I learned early on to be very direct and blunt when dealing with certain kinds of students. I'd walk into what is probably a drug deal taking place in the school washroom. What do you do? Give them a sermon on hell! If that doesn't work, nothing will. So I got pretty good at scaring people.

The students I deal with now, however, are well brought up and they are some of the finest students in the city, so I don't have to use those tactics anymore. But when students ask about hell, I always recall what my friend the Late Monsignor Tom Wells from Washington D. C. used to tell me. He'd say that hell is one of the greatest signs of God's love for us. He loves you and me so much that He will allow us to reject him for all eternity. He'd ask students: "How many of you have ever fallen in love with someone?" A number of kids would put up their hands. "And how many of you have ever fallen in love with someone who couldn't care less if you disappeared off the face of the earth, someone who totally rejected your love?" Some had experienced that. And he'd ask us: "Would you be happy with someone who was forced to love you?" And the answer was, of course, always 'no'. That's not a meaningful relationship. That's not genuine love. Love isn't love unless it is freely given. And if you truly love the person that you've fallen in love with, you will allow that person to reject your love. You wouldn't force him or her to love you.

Well, God is Love. He is pure, absolute, love without limits. And He brought us into being precisely because He loves us, and love is effusive. It pours itself out, it extends beyond the self. More than that, He joined a human nature, entered into human suffering, died on a cross wearing a crown of thorns precisely in order that we might have an eternal life of unimaginable joy in the Beatific Vision, a joy that I could not begin to accurately describe. And all He asks is that we receive the love that He has for us. All He asks is that we allow Him to love us, and then to love Him back. And He loves us so much that He will allow us to say 'no'.

And some people choose to say no. Some people freely choose to make themselves their own god. I don't know if any of you here have ever come across real evil before, but there are certain characteristics that belong to those who love evil. The one predominant characteristic is that they are always well disguised and live behind a facade of goodness. They usually have most people in their immediate environment fooled. But the most important characteristic, which is well hidden, is that they have made themselves the absolute center of their own lives, and everybody else has been reduced to nothing more than a means to their own personal ends. Those who love evil are absolute egoists. They do not pray "Thy will be done" according to the words of the Our Father. For them, it is "my will be done".

Does God love these people, whoever they might be? Yes he does. Will He force them to love Him? No, because that is contrary to the nature of love.

And so Hell is the abode of all those who love themselves exclusively and who habitually regard others as a means to their own personal and private ends. There is not an ounce of genuine benevolence in hell. It is the abode of complete lovelessness.

Imagine what it would be like to have to spend eternity in the presence of all those who refused to respond with gratitude to the Lord's absolute generosity and ineffable love, who have refused to love all those who belong to God, who are users through and through. I ask my students what it would be like to move to a new city, be enrolled in a new school, only to discover on the first day of school that everybody in the classroom hates your guts, and then to discover that everyone in the school hates your guts, and then later discover that everyone in the city hates you and will offer you not one benevolent gesture. That's just a tiny glimpse of the darkness of hell.

The old Baltimore catechism had it right; the purpose of our life here is to know God, to love God, and to serve God. Life is about learning to be dependent again, to be dependent upon God. Life is about learning to be a child again. We were not created for here, we were created for there, for eternal life. Our life here is about learning to trust God, to love God, and it is about learning to love all those who belong to God, namely human persons. We are just passing through, as students pass through a school. 100 years from now, not one person who is on this planet today will be around. This life is the arena in which we decide our destiny, whether we will cooperate with divine grace and choose God for all eternity, or reject grace in favour of the worship of the self and the pursuit of fleeting pleasures or temporary goods. In the Second Reading, we heard: "Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted." In other words, everything here is passing away. To make the goods of this world our god is to worship death.

Character is the key to making sense out of the doctrine of hell. It is not true that you are what you eat. Rather, you are what you will. Our character, our moral identity, is determined by the free moral choices that we make. The one thing you and I have that is more intimately our own than anything else we might possess, including our own flesh, is our character, the kind of person we have made ourselves to be by our free choices.

God provides each person with sufficient grace to achieve salvation, and we have the ability to cooperate with that grace, or to reject it in favor of making ourselves our own god, but if we reject grace and make ourselves the center, we begin to shape ourselves into the kind of person that loves the self more than God and others. In doing this, we render ourselves incapable of heaven. We would be the kind of person who would be profoundly uncomfortable in the presence of those who are holy. Just as we are drawn to people of like character as ourselves, those who reject holiness and choose selfishness render themselves unable to exist comfortably within the communion of saints. Heaven would be hell for them. They have loved only themselves, and so they have become their own prison, for all eternity. Imagine having to look at yourself in a mirror for all eternity. That would be despair, and that would be hell.

Who are these people? The gospel and the second reading describe them. They are those who exploit human beings and who are deaf to the cries of the poor and who live for luxury and pleasure. They are those who have been a stumbling block to those with real faith, who have contributed to the secular conditions in which the faith of "these little ones" could not be sustained. They are those who are indifferent to truth, who compromise it and have made themselves the measure of what is true and good, instead of God.

Just as the sadness of hell is the result of being self-contained, the happiness of heaven is the result of being completely divested of self. The happiness of heaven is the result of loving God more than you love yourself, as well as the happiness of loving others more than you love yourself. It is through genuine caritas that we become the other. The other becomes another self, and so their happiness becomes yours. Life becomes so much lighter when we love others more than we love ourselves. When you see someone driving a nicer car than you, instead of envy, you experience a genuine delight. You meet someone who is smarter than you, better looking than you, lives in a nicer house than you, because you are able to love that person as another self, you experience a genuine happiness, one that is truly your own. And if and when we finally love God more than we love ourselves, then His happiness becomes our own, and the wonderful thing about that is that His happiness is boundless; it has no limits.

If your eye should cause you to sin, that is, your most precious source of delight, tear it out. If your hand should cause you to sin, that is, your closest friend, cut off your relationship with that person. No genuine friend will lead you into sin and threaten your own eternal salvation. If your foot should cause you to sin, that is, your work, your source of income, your colleagues or your boss, then quit. It is better to enter heaven unpopular, unemployed and poor than to lose your eternal destiny for the sake of some passing and temporary pleasure.

If we hold fast to truth, love truth, refuse to compromise it, the Lord will provide everything we need and more. There is never anything to fear in this life, for God is in control, and He will not allow anything to happen to those who are faithful to Him that is not ultimately for their greatest happiness. Amen.