“Our salvation is nearer, even than when we first came to believe.”
Last Sunday the Church had us end the liturgical year with Saint Matthew’s account of our Lord’s prophecy concerning the end of the world, and today we heard something similar from Saint Luke. Not too many years ago it was much more common to hear sermons based on the realities of Heaven, and Hell, and Death and Judgment—Christians were often reminded of the necessity to live a good life in order to have a good death, and in order to enter into eternal reward. Indeed, it is the Church’s wish that Catholics be aware that there will be a definitive end to the world before this human generation passes away. And, it is likewise the Church’s wish that we be well aware that even if the end of the world does not come for mankind collectively for many centuries, it will come fore each one of us individually not very many years from now—for the youngest one here, just as well as for the oldest.
But, somewhere along the line people began to label such Gospel readings and such preaching as “smelling too much of hell‑fire and brimstone.” The theory came in to vogue that one must preach only about God’s love and not about his justice; that it is somehow wrong to say that God is ever anything but gentle.
At roughly the same time, Christians began to forget that there are fallen angels—they began to forget that the devil is real—they began to think that such beliefs were just too primitive for “modern man.” Instead of thinking of him as the one who “goes about seeking the ruin of souls,” and taking delight only in their eternal damnation, the devil became a sort of cartoon character. Instead of a demon, we came to picture a more cheerful caricature—something like a tall black cat standing upright, waving his pointed tail, perhaps wearing a red silk suit, and carrying a pitchfork; a friendly imp, even if mischievous.
Not long after the devil came to be regarded as a fiction, we began to treat evil itself as another, equally fictional, idea. Certainly nothing we did ourselves was very evil, for, after all, we Catholics are for the most part good people. As long as we did things with “luv,” we did no evil and committed no sin. And, if there was real crime out there, it was attributed to criminals who had been damaged by poverty and difficult childhoods—the general wisdom was that the criminals were not evil, just misunderstood, and that they were really victims of society. The only evil recognized by modern society was natural evil—the evil of disease and disaster—both of which could be vaguely blamed on God, and not be considered to be the fault of men and women.
With no evil, and only a fictional devil, it became easy to postulate that there was no sin. This was a more serious development than it might otherwise appear, for the abolition of sin was brought about not by the cartoonists and the greeting card manufacturers, not by the editorial writers and the movie makers—but by religious people, often by the Christian clergy, some in the highest positions in the Church.
And even if there was sin, God would forgive it anyway. The modernist theory was that the crucifixion of Christ would serve not only for the redemption of all mankind, but for the forgiveness of all mankind’s sins—without contrition, or confession, or remorse, or penance, or reparation, or any such “medieval” thing. In spite of all that Jesus had to say about the necessity to avoid sin, modernism assured us that we were all saved by His Incarnation, whether He intend that or not. And, if we were not saved at the Incarnation, the modernists assured us that the blood of Christ was shed at the Crucifixion “for all men so that sins may be forgiven.”
Of course, not everyone was so naive as to believe in this universal forgiveness and universal salvation. In response to this lingering orthodoxy, the modernist theologians assured us that there was a good chance that “no one is in hell; that, perhaps, purgatory is enough.” And, finally, to answer even the most diehard pessimist, modern churchmen revived the early heresy that hell was not eternal—that some day the fires would go out (as though someone had forgotten to pay the gas bill), and everyone (maybe even the devil) would be welcomed into heaven. That is a pleasant idea, of course, but it is a bit difficult to reconcile with our Lord’s teaching about the “chaff that will burn with unquenchable fire,” or those who will “depart into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” and about fearing “him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”
The devil is real, evil is real, sin is real, and so is the possibility of eternal punishment for the unrepentant—everything to the contrary is a lie, and a contradiction of Jesus Christ, who is Truth Himself.
It should be no surprise that, simultaneously with the decline in belief about the devil and his evils, there was a decline in mankind’s appreciation of the majesty of God. Man became the “measure of all things”; human action and consensus became the modernist measure of morality and truth; Churchmen began to advertise themselves as “experts on man” (instead of on God). Bad art, poor music, and banal language replaced the majestic, the melodic, and the uplifting upon which the Church had always insisted in all of Its approach to Almighty God. The term “Sunday best,” long a common phrase in our language, came to mean blue jeans, a clean T-shirt, and one’s best bowling jacket.
Again, it is a lie to suggest that we should draw near to God with the poorer things of our lives; anything less than the best we have to offer.
But we have been warned. Our Faith tells us that there will be an end to things, and that there will be a judgment. There will be a particular end and a particular judgment for each of us, as well as there will be a general judgment at the end of the world for all of us in common. God is Love, but He is also Justice; He is also Truth
As we begin this new liturgical year with the season of Advent, “Our salvation is nearer, even than when we first came to believe.” It is the time to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” We are the adopted sons and daughters of God—it is time to please Him with our good and holy works, with the best we have to offer—to make sure of our place with Him in heaven among the angels and the saints. “The night is far advanced; the day is at hand.”