The lecture began with a discussion of God’s nature and ended with talk of hell.
In retrospect this isn’t surprising. Salvation history is the tale of God’s consistent outpouring of love toward humankind, his search for the lost sheep, his welcome to the prodigal son. But if God is love, as the Catholic Church teaches and we believe, then how could he possibly condemn sinners to the everlasting torment of hell?
Here too the Church as well as her saints and mystics return an answer. God destined us for salvation through Christ Jesus, as St. Paul wrote, but “we cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves …,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us.
In other words, God gave us freedom, so we have the choice to love him, or to sin. Why do we sin? Peter Kreeft, in the online lecture series I am listening to, has a great answer to this question.
”We sin because it looks like fun. If sin didn’t seem like fun, we would all be saints,” Kreeft says.
Fun, pleasure, happiness – for all of this we humans have an innate desire instilled in us by God, who is our ultimate good, and so it is he whom we should seek. If we are successful in our seeking, we will at the end of our days achieve heaven, which is “blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ,” as the Catechism says.
Hell, on the other hand, is a “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed,” according to the Catechism. A careful consideration of this definition of hell reveals no mention of God’s wrath condemning sinners to their state; rather, the damned are those who have chosen to withdraw from the Almighty.
This dovetails nicely with one definition of sin, which is that it is a turning away from God. Julian of Norwich said in her visions she was shown “no harder hell than sin.” In her visions, too, she said, “I saw no wrath except on man’s side.
In this context, then, it is worth pondering some words from Blessed John Henry Newman: “Heaven would be hell to an irreligious man.”
So, intimacy with God would be intolerable agony to a person who has turned from the Ancient of Days, a concern I have been considering in the context of my Lenten reflections. I would like to say I choose heaven, but I must admit that in everyday life I tend to act contrary to this desire. Beatitude comes only to those who are pure in heart, and I, like most of my brethren, am drawn to sin. Rather than follow in the footsteps of St. Augustine and seek a happy life with God “so that my soul may live, for my body draws life from my soul and my soul draws life from you,” I all too often allow myself to be deceived by the Prince of Lies when he dangles in front of me promises of pleasure that lead away from the path toward the greater good.
It is these false promises that I am attempting to discern during this penitential time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Do I turn in prayer to our God to ask him to conform myself to him, or do I ask that my will be done? Is the result of my fast a greater hunger for the Giver of All Good Things, or a desire for more of the worldly things that moth and rust will destroy? When I give alms, do I look for praise like the hypocrites, or do I see the face of God in my neighbors in need?
I know the answer to these questions, and to my shame it is not nearly the response that it should be. I cannot, at the end of my days, have heaven if during my earthly life I choose hell. Time to turn back to God and seek to draw life from him.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic.