During the month of November, the Catholic Church celebrate feasts which remind us of the next life, All Saints Day and All Souls Day for example. Therefore, I thought it would be appropriate to post this sermon on the topic of Hell.
The Holy Gospel for Mass this morning is the familiar story of the Miracle of the Healing of the Centurion’s servant from the Gospel of St. Matthew. This Gospel almost always elicits a sermon about the importance of Faith. However falling as it does at the end of the Octane for Christian unity, it is tempting to put the focus on the Ecumenical implications of the beautiful phrase
I tell you that many will come from the east and the west to sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven.
And as a matter of fact it is that substance that I want to draw your attention on this morning; but in a very different context.
While the first half of our sentence is very attractive; so much so that it is occasionally treated as a free standing sentence, but if you actually look at it in context, it is only the first part of a much more sobering teaching of our Lord, who goes to add:
While the sons of the Kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth
It is perhaps a curious defense mechanism that modern people always seem to filter out the more challenging teachings of Our Lord.
This passage is in fact only one among many in both the Old Testament and the New that testify to the doctrine of Hell.
Hell is a very simple concept-it is the reality of both the fallen Angles and Human being who have departed this life not in a state of grace. Hell is likewise an eternal state of terrible suffering. Theologians have taught that these sufferings are felt in two ways; the pain of damnation and the pain of sense. The primary suffering of Hell is the anguish and torment caused by the loss of God. The secondary suffering is real mental and indeed physical pain.
There is a temptation to focus primarily on the secondary aspect of Hell and this can early cause us to lose sight of the very important aspect of this teaching. Almost all the Scriptural references to Hell describe this reality in terms of darkness and especially fire. St. John Chrysostom cautions us about the dangers of focusing too much on the physical anguish of Hell and neglecting the fact that the reflection of the soul who has lost the glory of Heaven is far more bitter than any physical torture. The way the in which Hell is described in the Bible is to a large extent figurative, and this is because of the difficulty of expressing Divine truth in human language. Abstract ideas such as the loss of God’s unity, truth or beauty or the unsatisfied longings of the soul are a bit hard to fully understand, while the coarser concepts provide a more vivid image.
Outside the city of Jerusalem was a place called the Valley of Hinnom which was also called Gehenna. In ancient time, this accursed place was dedicated to the hideous worship of Moloch and Astarte. This was where children were immolated by the Canaanites and so it was particularly associated with fire and smoke and the horror of idolatry. There is also the possibility that in the time of Our Lord’s preaching this Valley was used as a rubbish heap where fires were kept constantly burning to the consume the rubbish and filth of the city. It should come as no surprise that Our Lord uses the images of Gehennia to the sufferings of Hell 11 times in the Gospels. Given that Our Lord is consistently preaching repentance, much of His public ministry can be understood in light of the tension between the Kingdom of Heaven for those who turn to God’s mercy and Hell where the obstinate and the unrepentant “weep and gnash their teeth.”
An overly simple reduction of Hell to a place of punishment for sin risks turning God into a horrible and resentful figure bent on having His pound of flesh for every single mistake and sin we have ever committed. Since Hell is more about our tired relationship with God rather than a metaphysical torture chamber we must get beyond these childish ideas.
The greatest suffering of the damned is loss for eternity of the one great good for which we were created and for which our fallen humanity longs and yearns for—union with God. This is coupled with the realization-the bitterest realization- that this loss has been entirely our own fault, that we have betrayed and denied the Savoir who shed His blood for us and that our life could and should have been different. The sinner is left only with the self that he had chosen to serve in life.
Meditation on the very real reality of damnation should cause us to hate our sins and seek reconciliation with both God and our neighbor. Can you conceive of any folly greater than preferring the transitory pleasure of our sins to the Eternity of happiness that Our Lord’s death on the cross merited for us? Truly modern men and women recoil for this sort of reality because all around us the world, the flesh and the devil beckon to us saying that these things do not matter. The devil wishes to deceive us, to distract us and to blind us to the consequences of our actions. We hear repeated over and over that God is merciful, that God is forgiving-all of this is true, but it is not God who crafts Hell for us. We do that ourselves. The mercy of God, the forgiveness of God, indeed the love of God is all at work in our lives at this very moment at every instance of our life. Our Savior pleads for us to come to Him now, He longs for have us with Him and yet we stay away. Hell is not about any lack in the love of God for us; it is our lack of love for God that feeds the fires that never die.
*Note: this is a sermon given on the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany by Fr. Bede. Published with permission*