Sunday, August 22, 2010

Good Things We Experience Because Hell Exists

(Twenty-first Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 22, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R. I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 13: 22-30.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-first Sunday 2010]

I passed a pickup truck on the highway the other day that had a bumper sticker on it with a cartoon image of the devil (complete with horns, tail and pitchfork, of course!)—and next to the image were written the words, “I’ve been to hell and back.”

Since I was thinking at the time about what my topic would be for this week’s homily, I took that as a sign of what I should preach on—a sign from above, incidentally, not a sign from below!

First of all let me say that we know with absolute certitude that what that bumper sticker said isn’t true! It can’t be. Because anyone who goes to hell never comes back!

‘Tickets’ to hell are always ‘one way tickets’; they’re never ‘round trip’!

The glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hell as (and here I quote): “The state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed, reserved for those who refuse by their own free choice to believe and be converted from sin, even to the end of their lives.”

Notice that the Catechism says that hell involves a “definitive self-exclusion” from communion with God. That means no one ends up in hell by accident! Hell is chosen freely by those who freely choose to commit mortal sins and who also freely choose never to repent of those sins.

And it’s “definitive”—which means final.

Now you might say, “Fr. Ray, why talk about hell this morning? It’s a very depressing subject!”

Well, on the one hand, it is. But on the other hand, it needs to be addressed directly at least every once in awhile in homilies and sermons, simply because our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ did it so often himself! In fact, Jesus spoke of hell (sometimes using terms like ‘Gehenna’) more than anyone else in the New Testament.

So obviously he thought it was pretty important!

He alludes to it, for example, in today’s gospel text from Luke 13, after someone says to him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”

He responds, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then you will stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’ Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’”

Now, for reasons that should be obvious, we tend to see the existence of hell in purely negative terms. But I submit to you today that there are actually some blessings that we experience as human beings because hell exists! Now please do not misunderstand me here, I’m not saying that hell is good in and of itself; I’m simply saying that because there is a hell there are certain good things—certain blessings—that we experience in our lives that we would not experience if hell did not exist.

For example, the gift of freedom! Do you realize that if hell does not exist, then human freedom is just an illusion! Think about it—if I’m truly free, that means I must be capable of choosing for God or against God in my earthly life. If God is going to force me into heaven at the end of my earthly existence against my will, then I’m not really free! I’m just a pawn in a divine chess game—nothing more.

Secondly, if there is no hell, then true justice doesn’t exist either! If everyone gets heaven automatically when their time on earth is finished, then people who live like Adolf Hitler and never repent get the same reward that people like Blessed Mother Teresa get.

If God is a just God as well as a merciful God, then hell must be a reality.

Something else to consider: If hell does not exist, then ultimately life has no meaning or purpose. In response to the question, “Why did God make me?” the Baltimore Catechism said, “God made me to know him, to love him and to serve him in this life, and to be happy with him forever in the next.” Of course, being happy with God in the next life was understood to be contingent on whether we made the effort to know, love and serve the Lord here on earth. So it was clear from that answer in the Baltimore Catechism that life on earth has purpose and meaning. But if heaven is automatic for everyone—no questions asked—then it doesn’t matter what happens here on earth! Life here is meaningless.

This leads logically to the next point: If there is no hell, there’s no compelling reason to do good and avoid evil. So do whatever you want—or perhaps I should say, ‘whatever you can get away with’—since heaven will be yours in the end, whether you live like the greatest saint or the worst sinner.

And how about this one, which cuts to the very heart of our faith?—If hell does not exist, then Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, did nothing for us on the cross. Absolutely nothing! His passion and death were a total and complete waste of time! The teaching of Christianity has always been that Jesus died on Good Friday and rose from the grave on Easter Sunday to save us from eternal death (which, of course, is just another way of saying ‘hell’). But if there is no hell, then Jesus saved us from nothing! I can’t think of a bigger waste of time than that.

Let me close this morning by saying this: What’s really good is not that hell exists (although, as I hopefully have made clear in this homily, there are a number of good things that we experience because it exists). WHAT'S REALLY GOOD IS THAT JESUS HAS SAVED US FROM HELL! That means it’s possible for EVERYONE to avoid it by the Lord’s saving grace—even if they’re on the road to hell at this moment!

So yes, it’s scary even to think about eternal damnation (as it should be!); but the bottom line is that if we stay close to Jesus always—if we make our relationship with him our number one priority; if we’re faithful to Mass; if we read and try to live the Scriptures; if we examine our conscience honestly every day and get to Confession whenever we realize we’ve committed a mortal sin; if we seek to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourself—then we really have nothing at all to worry about.

Yes, we will get a one way ticket at the end of our earthly life, but that ticket will take us UP, not down!