“And fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
Recently, a co-worker who is struggling with his faith commented to me that it seems unreasonable and unfair to have to love and worship God, or else be sent to Hell. To my friend’s mind, the notion that God would demand our love at such a steep price for refusal, doesn’t seem right or good. Unfortunately, work being work, I didn’t have the opportunity to engage my friend’s confused line of thought at any length, but it has certainly left me pondering the question, and the fundamental theology underlying such a position. Ultimately, the notion that faith in God is simply about placating a spiteful deity who is ready to plunge us into a fiery pit is something which is much more reminiscent of pagan ideas of gods from old myths (or new myths, for that matter, as illustrated by the upcoming new X-Men film’s megalomaniacal villain’s claim to divinity attest). The Christian faith, on the other hand, is so much more than subservience to a vengeful and capricious God. Rather, the God we serve is the God Who Is Love Himself!
Now, of course, this desire to distance ourselves from the notion of a God such as my co-worker envisions has led many well-meaning folks to suppose that perhaps there is no such thing as Hell at all, or that, at the very least, it’s only temporary, but in the end, all will be saved. The claim is often heard that all that “Hell” stuff is “Old Testament” theology, whereas Christians are “New Testament” people. Chief among the many problems with that ideology, however, is the fact that Jesus Himself warns us more about Hell than anywhere else in the Bible, and He’s very clear about it lasting forever!
So how does the threat of Hell square with worshipping a loving God? In the first place, we shouldn’t think of Jesus’ and the Church’s teachings about Hell as “threats”, any more than we consider the gas gauge on our car pointing to “E” as a threat. Your car does not “threaten” to stop running unless you give it gasoline and proper maintenance. These are simply requirements necessitated by the car’s design.
So it is with our relationship with God—it’s not that He needs us. He is not so small or weak that our love for Him feeds Him, or our rejection of Him hurts Him in some way. He is not like the old Irish gods who, when no longer worshipped, diminished in both stature and power to the level of the fairies of folklore. God is the very ground and source of all being. He is pure existence, pure act. It is we who are the changeable, contingent beings, wholly dependent upon God for our very being, and all else besides. We owe our existence not to a felt need within God, but purely as an overflow of His infinite love. We were made to live in and with and through Him, just as cars are made to run on gasoline. And if we, through the exercise of our free will with which God endowed us, choose to reject Him, preferring the lesser goods of the world which He has made instead of He Who Is the Greatest Good, then we cut ourselves off from His grace, the supernatural life which He gives to us through baptism, and renews in us through the Eucharist. And if we persist in that graceless state, never returning to Him through Confession, and die in that state, we will indeed end up separated from Him in Hell.
But it is not that He is casting us into Hell in some vindictive act of judgemental rage. Rather, He is merely honouring our decision to not love Him, to desire to be without Him. But since God is the source of all goodness, to be without Him can be nothing other than Hell—pain, suffering, and bitterness.
So yes, Hell is real, and Hell is forever. Does that fact necessarily lead us to a mere servile fear of God—only obeying Him to escape that horrible reality? Ideally, no. When we truly come to know and love God for Who He Is, we see in Him the end of all our longings and desires, the source of all our happiness, and the fulfilment of all our hope. And in our highest moments, the thought of Hell never crosses our minds, except insofar as prompting us to rescue others from that fate. However, while the spirit may be willing, the flesh is indeed weak. Our passions and desires change frequently according to myriad factors. As physical beings, we are especially attracted to physical goods, and forget that Greatest Good, which happens to be Spirit. Yet even in our weakness, God accommodates Himself to us—first by Himself becoming a Man, Jesus Christ, in order to redeem us to Him. Moreover, He gave us seven Sacraments, physical signs of that immaterial, spiritual grace, which is transmitted to us through those very signs and tangible realities. Even so, however, the noise and lights and distractions around us blind us to the Goodness and the Glory of God. Sometimes the positive reinforcement isn’t enough, and so the reminder that there are consequences to rejecting God, ultimate among them being Hell, can be a good and saving influence, albeit of the lowest sort.
While the goal of the spiritual life is a love of God for His own sake, entering into a life of perfect happiness with Him in Heaven, the path toward that end is often turbulent. And while it may not be ideal, we often find ourselves much closer to the beginning of our journey to God. And it is at the beginning of our spiritual life that the words of the Proverb are addressed:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is prudence.” (Proverbs 9:10)
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