When we were very young we learned from our Catechism lessons that God made us with a twofold purpose in mind. "God made me," we recited, "to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next."1 Now we know that "seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty if we are strong"; a few people live a bit more, but not much more. When we compare this biblical average of seventy-five or so in this world to the "forever in the next world," it ought to convince us rather quickly of the importance we must attach to the salvation of our own souls and the souls of our parishioners.
Today, I would like to review with you some of the things we know about Heaven and Hell, and the means which God has given us to gain the former and avoid the latter. Traditionally, a talk like this one might have referred to the "last things," and might have enumerated them as "Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell." Yet, that specific enumeration sometimes leads people to the idea that all they must do for salvation is to somehow contrive to be in the state of grace at the time of their death. In the very early Church it even led to the dubious practice of adult converts postponing their Baptism until just before death, in order that they might die in their baptismal innocence. So in addition to the traditional "four last things," we will spend a few minutes on what must be done in life to prepare for a holy death. We will also go over some of the less fortunate developments that have taken place in the modern church concerning the reality of Heaven and Hell.
As with many things that we do in life, it is probably best that we understand the goal toward which we are working, in order to best lay our plans for achieving that goal. In this case, it will help us to review the nature of Heaven and Hell, and to consider the supreme importance of reaching the goal of Heaven. And, while I think it is best to phrase the goal that way -- the achievement of Heaven -- rather than the avoidance of Hell, we are probably wise to consider the consequences of both alternatives.
In the early days of Judaism -- when man knew God only dimly -- the life that followed death was understood as nothing much more than a very dreary existence in a nether world called "shaeol." The Psalmist, for example, speaks of the "nether world," and those "who go down to the pit," whom God "remembers no longer and who are cut off from His care ... plunged into the bottom of the pit, the dark abyss."2 "It is not the dead who praise the Lord," he says, "but the living.3 The preacher, Ecclesiastes, has a similar outlook: "The living know that they shall die, but the dead know nothing more ... neither have they a reward anymore.... their love and their hatred and their envy have all perished."4
But even in the Old Testament, as God's people learned more about Him through the Prophets, we see a development of a greater understanding of the fate of the dead. For example, in Isaias, who so vividly described the coming of our Lord in prophetic words, we hear that "dead men shall live ... my slain shall rise again."5 And, shortly before the time of Christ, we read of Juda Machabee ordering "sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection -- for if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead ... those who had fallen asleep with godliness had great graces laid up for them."6
So by the time of Christ, God's people -- at least some of them -- expected not only a reward for the spirits of the dead, but even their bodily resurrection. Immortality was to be much more than being remembered by future generations. The Jewish people had come to understand that God's justice demanded more than just dreariness, that punishment awaited His enemies, that the godly could be helped by prayer and sacrifice after their death and would be rewarded, and that some day the dead would rise again in physical bodies. We see testimony of this belief in St. John's Gospel as Martha the sister of Lazarus greets our Lord after Lazarus' death: "I know that he will rise in the resurrection, on the last day."7 (Notice that she even knows when the resurrection is to be expected.)
And, our Lord's answer to Martha puts all of these centuries of speculation about the after life into proper perspective. "I am the resurrection and the life" -- and He is not speaking only about His own resurrection, or even that of Lazarus and the others whom He brought back from the grave -- "he who believes in me, even if he die, shall live; and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die."8
In speaking to Martha, our Lord was enlarging upon what He had already promised His disciples in His discourse on the Blessed Sacrament that we read in St. John's 6th chapter [and every priest should read and re-read that 6th chapter at least every six months or so -- it contains such important essentials of our Faith]:
"I am the living bread that has come down from heaven. If anyone eat of this Bread he shall live forever; and the Bread that I will give is My flesh for the life of the world. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has life everlasting, and I will raise Him up on the last day."9
In just a few words, our Lord has explained a good deal about what is required to gain eternal happiness: 1) we must believe in Him, and 2) we must partake of His most holy Sacraments.
The first of these -- belief -- is nothing new. Christ is God the Son of God after all, and He requires of us that we have no other; "no false gods before Him." The language of the Old Testament is still quite valid in our day -- our relationship with God must be like a marriage covenant faithfully kept. We must give Christ no reason to accuse us of the adultery of which He often accused His chosen people so long ago. No other may be permitted to come between us and our espoused God. And just as in marriage, mere fidelity is not enough, for the spouses must take an active interest in each other if the relationship is to prosper.
Then, too, there is a proper relationship that we must observe with this spouse -- respect certainly, and submission, but also a surrendering of the intellect that we call "faith." "He who believes in me shall never die." But faith is more than just a means to immortality -- it is the knowledge of God. That is to say, faith is the opportunity to know God; to be invited, so to speak, into the personal family life of the Trinity -- to know things with certainty that we might never even have been able to guess with our unaided natural reason. This "faith," of course, is a virtue that God freely gives us -- no man can come to Me unless he is enabled by My Father" -- but one that in the natural scheme off things we must cultivate.10
Closely allied with faith are its companions: hope and charity, which seem also to be a part of the relationship we must have with God. The Catechism briefly taught us that "to save our souls we must worship God by faith hope and charity; that is, we must believe in Him, hope in Him, and love Him with all our heart."11 Again we are reminded of the marriage covenant, in that hope and charity call on us to trust and to love God. Indeed, we might see them as progressively developing from one another, that when we know God by faith, we come to trust in His concern for our eternal salvation, and we become more and more able to return His love.
Now, before we stray too far, remember that there is a second thing that our Lord requires of us in those passages from St. John's Gospel. (We'll get to a third thing just a little bit later on.) There is at least the implication that eternal life requires the reception of our Lord's Body and Blood in Holy Communion: "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you."12 We might argue that salvation is possible without Holy Communion, but certainly not in the normal scheme of things. And this might be a good point to bring in another thing our Lord requires of us, closely related, which is Baptism: "He who believes in Me and is baptized shall be saved.13 Safely, we can say that our Lord is urging on us or demanding of us participation in His Sacramental system. Again in the normal scheme of things we can say that salvation is for those who "believe and are baptized" and who eat the Bread of Life. Normally, we would include sacramental Confession and probably Confirmation. Certainly, none of these are to be omitted if we can possibly receive them -- and the repeatable ones frequently.
Our Lord does speak of a third thing necessary for salvation. Everyone knows the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was the response of our Lord to a lawyer who quite correctly answered his own question about what is necessary for salvation. It is the same answer our Lord Himself gave to the Pharisees who goaded Him by asking Him to pick the most important of the Ten Commandments, hoping that they could get Him to pick one over the others, or that they could get Him to say something innovative and contrary to the revealed law of God. In reality, however, He is saying nothing new: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thine whole heart and thine whole soul and thine whole strength and thine whole mind, and thy neighbor as thyself."14
The first part of the answer comes from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy. It is more than a simple statement. It begins with the warning: "The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!" God's people are to have no other. And after commanding the people to "love God with heart and soul and mind and strength," there comes the demand that they make this knowledge part of their daily lives: "Take to heart these words ... drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign, let them be a pendant on your forehead, write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."15 The observant Jew in the time of our Lord, and even till today, took these words literally, praying with them held in place by leather straps called "t'fillen" and wearing them around his neck and nailing them on his door post in a little container called a "mezuzah."16 The second "great commandment" can be found in the Book of Leviticus, amidst a number of other laws about how God's people were to treat each other in a fair and equitable and kindly way.17
Simply, our Lord is saying: "Keep the Commandments!" The first three dealing with our obligations toward God, and the remaining seven with the people around us. But, instead of phrasing them in the "Thou shalt not" form, He is urging behavior motivated by love rather than by legal prohibition. That doesn't mean, however, that any of this is optional. The penalty for not ministering to the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned is "the everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels."18 And, note that this comes without violating so much as a single "Thou shalt not."
I am purposely going to avoid the controversial subjects like the fate of the unbaptized or the fate of those who die outside of the Church. The normal scheme of things -- as planned by God -- is for people to accept the gift of faith, receive Baptism, and persevere in His Church until death. Any of God's plans outside of that "normal scheme of things" are beyond what I am prepared to discuss today.
Still we have yet to address the question of what Heaven and Hell are like. Of necessity, some of what we generally accept has to be the product of philosophical speculation. (None of the investigators we have sent have returned!) But there is a fair amount that is revealed to us by our Lord in Sacred Scripture -- to which we can add the cogent arguments left to us by the early Fathers of the Church, and a few authoritative statements made by popes and councils.
The natural philosophers approach the nature of Heaven by looking at the nature of creation; and more specifically at the nature of angels and men. God made all things for His honor and glory, an end that is fulfilled only when created things become most like God, and when rational creatures have the highest possible degree of knowledge and love of God. In His Justice, God must grant rewards and sanctions beyond those which take place on Earth. God created man with love of virtue and happiness, with a desire for wisdom and knowledge, with a powerful inclination to love, friendship, and holiness. Above all, He made man "capax Dei -- capable of God"; or as St. Augustine puts it, "Thou hast made it for Thyself, O God, and our heart is troubled till it rests in Thee." God has created us for all of these things which cannot be fulfilled in this mortal life; God cannot deceive us nor be frustrated in His plans.19
Even this natural explanation of heaven is quite beautiful. It suggests that all of the elect will be perfectly fulfilled according to their capabilities and inclinations. The studious will have knowledge, the lovers will have love, the holy will have piety -- and perhaps, with eternity to spend, we will find new avenues of fulfillment that were never open to us on earth.
But, as Catholics we also have the testimony of Divine Revelation:
Isaias puts it in rather earthly terms, but clearly recognizable as Heaven: "They shall not hunger nor thirst, neither shall the heat nor the sun strike them: for He that is merciful to them shall be their shepherd, and at the fountain of waters He shall give them drink.... Thy sun shall go down no more, and the moon shall not decrease, for the Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God for thy glory."20
Our Lord speaks more directly of the Kingdom of Heaven: "Come ye blessed of My Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.... The just will go into everlasting life.... Labor not for the meat that perishes, but for that which endureth unto life everlasting, which the Son of man will give you.... In My Father's house there are many mansions. If not I would have told you, for I go to prepare a place for you."21
St. Paul, of course, in his epistles: "So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption, it shall rise in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it shall rise in glory. It is sown in weakness, it shall rise in power. It is sown a natural body, it shall rise a spiritual body.... Our conversation is in heaven; from whence we look also for a Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who will reform the body of our lowliness, made like to the body of His glory."22
Paul and John also speak of the Beatific Vision of God: "We see now through a glass, darkly; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know, even as I am known.... But we all beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, are transformed into the same image, from glory to glory as by the Spirit of the Lord.... We are now the sons of God ... we know that when He shall appear we shall be like Him: because we shall see Him as He is."23
St. John's description, at the very end of the New Testament, admits of no interpretation but the reality of heaven and its happiness: "Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and He will dwell with them. And they shall be His people and God Himself with them shall be their God. And God will wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away."24
The dogmatic writings of the Church are usually less poetic than the Sacred Scriptures, but still certainly useful to priests and the faithful in their charge. I'll not read them to you, but certainly all of us priests and priests-to-be ought to have a grasp of them. You might want to have a look at the book The Church Teaches by the Jesuit Fathers of St. Mary's college. It is available from TAN Books and Publishers in paperback, and has an excellent chapter on "The Last Things." It includes a few provincial councils and private papal letters as well as the teachings of several ecumenical councils. Look particularly for the constitution "Benedictus Deus" of Pope Benedict-XII, which is a veritable Catechism of the "Last Things" in a page or two.
And don't forget the Catholic Encyclopedia. It is obviously not an authoritative magisterial teacher, but it certainly contains easily "digestible" summaries of the Church's authentic teachings. If you don't have access to a copy, you can read many of its articles on the Internet (It is in the Catholic Links section of my website if you don't know how to find it otherwise). 25
We must shift now to the other side of the coin. For just as there is a Heaven, there is also a Hell.
Probably, none of us thinks of our Lord as a "fire and brimstone" preacher, but His parables speak of Hell with relative frequency. And, even if they didn't, from the philosophical point of view, there would seem to have to be a Hell in order to carry out God's justice. After all, there are plenty of bad people out there in the world, that seem to get away with many awful things. Many of them are not punished in this life, and justice can be seen to be at work only if we consider their "final destiny."26 Just imagine the chaos in which we would live if people had no fear that their evil deeds would be punished. A healthy "fear of getting caught" always brings a measure of civilization to society.
But we are not left to philosophy. At least one of the reasons for our Lord's Incarnation was to remove the need to use our own natural reason in the important matters that effect our salvation. Human beings may be capable of reasoning to the existence of God, or to the realities of Heaven and Hell, but altogether too many of us never bother to consider such things. The Ten Commandments, for example, could be intuited by a thoughtful person -- indeed, many societies made their principles a part of their law, even before they were given to Moses at Sinai. So God made this knowledge a part of His revelation.
Just as the idea of Heaven was not explicit throughout the New Testament, so too the idea of Hell. But we do have some references in Job, and certainly in Isaias: "They shall go out and see the carcasses of the men who transgressed against me: their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched: and they shall be a loathsome sight to all flesh."27
John the Baptist speaks of "the One who is to come" as "gathering His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn up with unquenchable fire."28 Our Lord speaks of separating the good from the bad based upon their treatment of their fellows; sending the bad "into everlasting punishment, but the just into everlasting life."29 He even speaks of it being better to cut off a hand or put out an eye, rather than allowing these members to bring one "into hell, into unquenchable fire."30 We are warned of being "cast forth into the exterior darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,"31 and to beware of him who "after he has killed, has the power to cast into hell."32 Even allowing for the fact that our Lord occasionally uses some hyperbole in His parables, it is hard to come away from the Scriptures with anything other than the conception that there is a Hell, and that some will find it their place of everlasting punishment.
And, just as with Heaven, you can find a great deal in the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, as well as in the magisterial pronouncements. There might be a little room for argument about the exact nature of the pains of Hell, but none for arguing about its reality.
Yet, there is tendency among modern Christians to try to minimize the reality of Heaven and Hell.
In the past thirty or forty years there has been a movement afoot to diminish many of the supernatural elements of the Catholic Faith -- downplaying the realities of a transcendent God, and of our relationship to Him in eternity. The works of many modern writers and preachers, at all levels in the Church today, seek to limit the outlook of man to a merely earthly and natural reality; a man who no longer seeks perfection in conforming to the divine will, but rather in his "authentic" human activities. The present Pope cites this paraphrase of St. Thomas:
In the modern church these sort of activities are said to bring about perfection -- in reality, Saint Thomas was writing about preservation of the race, and not its perfection.
Modern Catholicism is being refashioned as a religion in which spirituality is replaced with psychology, in which theology (the study of God) is replaced with anthropology (the study of man and human institutions). Modernism recasts our Lord Jesus Christ, who came to redeem us from our sins and re-open the gates of Heaven, in the role of a founder of utopian society here on earth.
Particularly offensive to the Modernist mind is the role of Jesus Christ as the one who will -- as we say in the Creed -- "come to judge the living and the dead." They don't at all like the way He described Himself in St. Matthew's Gospel, as a King sitting on the throne of His glory, surrounded by Angels, rendering judgment: "Come, blessed of my Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for you" or "Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels."34 They don't at all like the concept that one might be "cast into the Hell of unquenchable fire, where their worm dieth not and the fire is not extinguished."35 Or that the branches that are not united to the Vine of Christ will be "gathered up and cast into the fire to burn."36
Fifteen or twenty years ago, the "in" heresy was that Hell didn't really last forever, that the fires would one day go out, and everyone would be taken to heaven (as if God would forget to pay the bill, and someone would come to shut off the gas!). One of the principle proponents of this heresy -- a revival of the condemned teachings of Origin -- was named a Cardinal of the Roman Church. Although the appointment of a Cardinal is not a matter of Infallibility; that he died on the evening before he was to receive the Red Hat speaks volumes about the Indefectibility of the Church in spite of Her leaders.
This notion of a temporary Hell "a bit much" for most Christians to accept -- so five or ten years ago, they began again to admit that Hell was eternal, but the "in thing" was to suggest that nobody actually went there -- even Judas, after all, had never officially been taught to have gone to hell -- maybe only the devils lived there. I guess we have to admit the theoretical possibility of this, but it certainly wasn't a very good idea to give us sinners the idea that even the Pope wasn't sure we would be punished eternally for our sins!37
Today, it has become popular among the Modernists to speak of Hell as a "state" rather than a "place" -- and to speak of it as a state that bad people banish themselves to, rather than being told "depart accursed one" or being "gathered up and thrown into the fire."
One ought to ask immediately: "What do you mean by a "state" as opposed to a "place"? Try to answer that question, and you immediately see that same effort to reduce the spiritual to the psychological, the supernatural to the natural. Is Hell now like being in a "state" of confusion, or a "state" of anxiety? And how can anybody be in a "state" of anything without being in a "place." Certainly to claim that Heaven and Hell are not "places" in the full physical sense of that word is to deny the possibility of the resurrection after the general judgment (not to mention the dogmas of the Ascension of our Lord and Assumption of our Lady bodily into Heaven.
Then too, to suggest that banishment to Hell is solely one's personal choice, is surely to deny our Lord's description of Himself as Judge, a theme that regularly recurs in Sacred Scripture. And, again, it seems to reduce the Judgment from a supernatural act to a natural one -- to reduce the damnation of a sinner to some sort of neurosis; an "inferiority complex" that interferes with a natural relationship. It also suggests that the arrogant might have a better chance of salvation than the humble! We've all met people that think that they are _more_ than worthy of God! -- but they are rarely (if ever) the ones who have a right to expect a place in heaven.
Now, I've never been one for preaching hell-fire and damnation. I certainly don't want to scare anyone by speaking about the reality of Hell -- it should be something about which we already know, and are already taking steps to avoid. The best way to avoid hell is through the knowledge and love and service of God, much more so than through fear.
But in order to know and love God, we must have the _Truth._ Our Lord tells us: "I am the resurrection and the life ... and the way and the truth."38 All of these things are the things of eternal life -- and all of them come through Jesus Christ. Christians have the right to the truth. Damnation is not the "state" of an anxiety neurosis, any more than salvation is the mere thinking of happy thoughts. Heaven and Hell are both real; to deny one is to deny the other -- and to deny either one is to deny the power of God.
Salvation comes to us only through our Lord Jesus Christ -- "If you abide in His word, you wwill be His disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."39 (Remember, only Jesus is "Truth" with a capital "T"). As priests, it matters little that we speak with eloquence, or chant a beautiful Mass, or wear the finest vestments, if we fail to teach our people the truth. And, perhaps, it is even worse if we delude ourselves in such matters, for then our whole work will be contaminated.
Now, I've gone on for quite a bit here, speaking about Heaven and Hell. Let me close by reminding you of a quote from St. John Chrysostom: "We must not ask where hell is, but how we are to escape it."40