Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Catholic revival: Hell and damnation

There has been a Catholic "revival" growing recently. Much of the spiritual fire has been stirred regarding the sacred liturgy: the "grand re-opening" of the 1962 Roman Missal, and the re-invigoration of the Ordinary Mass. Some have, inevitably, used this opportunity to further a theological and doctrinal cause; that of diminishing the role of current theological studies, and bringing into vogue once more theology that had been in place at the time of and prior to the 1962 Missal.

One of the talking points with the Catholic revivalists has been a call for a renewed emphasis, in homilies, preaching, and teaching, on the idea of Hell and everlasting punishment for sin. I think that this is a fascinating idea, so let's engage it, briefly.

There are certain topics about which, according to the Gospels, Jesus did not often speak. However, when Jesus does speak about one of these less mentioned topics, we should pay careful attention. One of the topics about which Jesus did not often speak was Hell and everlasting damnation. There are two instances in the Gospels when Jesus spoke directly about the idea of Hell.

In Matthew 25, Jesus spoke in a parable about separating the sheep from the goats. The sheep, he said, the Son of Man will put at his right hand, and the goats at his left. To the sheep he will say, "Come, inherit the kingdom." To the goats on his left the Son of Man will say, "Depart from me. Go to the eternal fire that was prepared for the devil and all of his angels." The King accepted the sheep on his right because they fed him when he was hungry, gave him water when he was thirsty, clothed him when he was naked, and visited him when he was in prison. The goats were indignant, and they asked him when they had never done these things for him. He told them that when they neglected to do it for the very least of the people in the world, they neglected to do it for him.

The only other time in the Gospels when Jesus spoke about Hell was in another parable: the parable about Lazarus (the only person ever named in one of Jesus' parables), and the rich man (not named). Lazarus begged outside of the rich man's house for years. According to the parable, Lazarus would have been satisfied with even the scraps of food that fell from the rich man's table. These and other comforts the rich man denied Lazarus. Eventually, both Lazarus and the rich man die. Lazarus is carried away and sat upon Abraham's lap, while the rich man was sent directly to Hell. The rich man could see Lazarus on Abraham's lap across a great divide, and called out to Lazarus to give him just a drop of water to ease the pain from the heat of Hell's flames. Abraham denies the rich man's request. Very obviously, the rich man was a religious man, because when he cried out, he called to "Father Abraham." But a gulf separated the rich man from Lazarus in death just as an uncrossable chasm had separated them in life.

Both of these parables have a common theme. And let's remember: these are the only two times in the Gospels that Jesus speaks directly about Hell. The theme? Those who neglect the poor end up in Hell when they die, while the poor and those that care for them are given the Kingdom.

Did you know that "Lazarus," the only name mentioned in one of Jesus' parables, means "the one God rescues?"

It is encouraging to see any sort of "revival" in Catholic circles, or in any Christian circles, really, given the times in which we live. But let us keep in mind the spirit of the Gospel while the winds of revival fires blow. Jesus was clear in his teachings about Hell. Those who care for the poor inherit the Kingdom; those who don't, well, they go to Hell.

Christianity is about loving people out of the hells of this world- not scaring them into Heaven in the next. Ultimately, our relationship with God is a personal, complex one that involves two parties: ourselves, and our Father. Jesus, on the Father's behalf, gave us our charge, our duty, as his followers while he was still among us: Love one another, as I have loved you.

Christianity promises life after death. It is our job, as followers of Jesus, to ensure that there is life before death.

I wholeheartedly give my support to preaching Hell. If we stick with the Gospel, we cannot go wrong.

Pax et bonum.