Jesus Speaks About Hell
26th Sunday Ordinary Time
September 26, 2021
“Better for you to enter into life crippled
than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.”
From Mark 9:38-48
This Sunday’s gospel features one of Jesus’ many teachings about hell. It’s hard to duck this issue when Jesus brings it up so often, though I don’t like to talk or write about it. Suffice it to say that for most Christians, the doctrine of Hell is among the least popular subjects, isn’t it? So let’s face it head on and look into this a bit.
Jesus actually speaks quite frequently about hell, and often uses the metaphor of “Gehenna” when describing it, but since we are far removed from his time we need a little help to understand this image. Gehenna was a real valley between the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives. Here went all the leftovers from the innumerable animal sacrifices of the Jewish temple. The Jews had built an elaborate pipe system that dumped the left-over blood and guts to the Valley of Gehenna to be burned. This was an ugly place of foul odors and continuous fires… a location one would strive to avoid at all costs. This is the image Jesus uses in conveying what hell is like.
The gist of Jesus’ teaching is that nothing is more important than getting to heaven. Better to lose an eye or a foot or a hand, or anything else, so long as we don’t lose heaven! Why do we believe in hell? Because Jesus taught it over and over. In fact, he speaks about hell more than heaven (I once had jet lag on a trip and counted all the citations in the gospels because I couldn’t sleep). If we believe in heaven, we must believe in hell! But what is hell, anyway?
Hell is the absence of God, where people who don’t want God choose to go. A soul that habitually lives in mortal sin or that consistently chooses to exclude and hate God from its life has already begun to live in hell. Of course, many situations on earth are more like hell than heaven (think Sept 11), but hell is not just eternal suffering: it is the eternal loss of God. People sometimes will say that a good God could not send anyone to hell—and he doesn’t! The amazing thing is that people can send themselves there when they reject God at the end of their lives.
How does a soul get to hell? Does God send them there? No, the soul decides this by the choices it makes and the life it leads. Faith, as expressed by our life and acts of repentance, leads to heaven while a life in which a person habitually says “no” to God can lead to that final “no” at the end that excludes God forever. This is not what the Lord wants! He died for us that all might live with him forever. But he also made us free beings: as long as we are on earth, we have the free will to choose or reject God. Otherwise, we would be like a potted plant or a lower animal—with no real moral choice or conscience. He wants all to be saved but we do have a choice in the matter. Such is the essence of life: we are here to choose heaven or hell, and also our rank in heaven Remember how Jesus also encourages us in this Sunday’s gospel that anyone who gives even a small cup of water to one of his little ones will not be without a reward!
It is hard to grasp why anyone would choose hell instead of heaven at the end of their lives, but if we remember that heaven is moving in with God, moving completely into the light, choosing only goodness, then it may make more sense that a person who has lived their life in darkness and evil may find such a destiny repulsive and turn away.
Therefore, if a person spent their life in a cave, living in darkness (which means a life of habitual mortal sin, which cuts us off from God), then at death, how painful it would be to move into God’s presence, who is all light. One can imagine the person moving further and further away from the light until their eyes could get adjusted to the brightness of the real world of goodness. If they move back only so far, this would be purgatory, a scripturally-based place where we allow our spiritual eyes to get used to the light of heaven. But some people find God’s light (which illuminates all the unrepentant sins a person has) so painful that they keep on moving away from the light until they reach hell. In other words, they want to be as far away from God (and his goodness and light) as possible, and this is the terrible risk of living in darkness, that we might choose this instead of heaven at the last moment of our lives.
Who is in hell? The church gives us few details about this: she has never ruled that anyone in particular is there, although we know certainly that the devil and his angels are there: it is their home, which they themselves created through their absolute rejection of God. Many mystics, such as the children of Fatima and St. Faustina, have seen heaven and hell and have testified to its existence, but we are also not called to dwell on numbers or particulars. Instead, we are called to live lives of hope and confidence in God who longs to save us.
How do we avoid hell? It is very easy: we are to believe in the name of Jesus and to repent of anything that can come between us and him. This is a life-long process. Our faith is renewed day by day and so is our need to repent. Our weaknesses and sins are no obstacle for Jesus, who is attracted to them, so long as we wish to keep trying and to repent (and go to confession as needed) on a regular basis.
In order to have a real choice as to whether or not to enter heaven, we have to be free to say “no” to God as well. This is not God’s will for us, of course, but the whole point of life is to give us a chance to make a free-choice of faith for God by our words and deeds. Every moment in life is deep with meaning.