“What the hell?”
“Are you saying I’m going to hell?!” I have been asked that question a lot in my life. And I assure you, I have never, not even once told anyone that they are going to hell. I may say something like, “You are living apart from the teachings of Christ and his Church, which is dangerous.” But I have never, never, told anyone they are going to hell…mostly because I don’t know who is in hell. Interesting fact: The Catholic Church recognizes thousands – some lists have over 10,000 – saints meaning, that these people are in heaven, but she has never – not even once – declared that anyone is in hell. Never.
People often make sarcastic comments about the Church “sending people to hell for eating meat on Fridays.” While disobedience to the Church is a grave matter that could constitute mortal sin, never has the Church said that anyone is in hell. So, if you were told that someone is in hell or was going to hell by any priest or religious “back in the day,” they were wrong. Yes, “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity” (Catechism 1035) The teaching of the Church, however echoes scripture which teaches that God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4). Therefore, as the Catechism states:
“God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) “order our days in your peace, and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those you have chosen. (CCC 1037, Eucharistic Prayer 1)
Avoiding sin because it may “send us to hell” is a juvenile approach to the Will of God. It’s very much like infants or toddlers who avoid the displeasure of parents because it will yield punishment. As a child grows, hopefully they will come to know that their parents only desire that for them which is good, and as Our Lord says “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13) So, as we grow in faith, we should realize that God is the Good Father, who loves us and seeks us to be happy in this life and in the next, so we will find perfect happiness in his Will. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
When asked the question about salvation in the gospel we hear today (Luke 13:22-30), Jesus does not give a direct answer, but rather tells us “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” What is the way through the narrow gate? Him. Jesus alone is the one who can free us from the pain of existing apart from the Will of God in this life, or in the next. We know that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and that “all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.” So, we must understand that eternal life for God is not something we deserve or something we could ever earn, rather all is God’s grace. So, we rely on his grace, which is given to us in the waters of baptism (John 3:5) and again in Confession after we have forfeited his grace through mortal sin. (Jas 5:14-16; Jn 20:22-23; 1 Jn 5:16-17) What happens to those who die without baptism or explicit faith in Jesus? What happens to the soul who dies with unconfessed mortal sin? Well, we have a duty to trust in God’s mercy and rejoice that he is sovereign. We also have a duty to live the Christian life, remain in God’s grace, and tell others of the Good News, that God wills their salvation. We also realize that final judgment, where a person ends up, is for God alone to decide (not that this excuses us from telling people that actions are sinful, or of the importance of the grace Jesus pours into the life of his Church). This hope that we have in God’s mercy enables us to pray as we do at the end of each decade of the Rosary: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Your Mercy”.