Hell is Real, But...
Hell is real, but it doesn't have to be your reality. That's Good News!
Some say not many talk about hell these days. Some speculate this is because we are too afraid of feeling uncomfortable--that we are too comfortable with ourselves (that we "presume upon God's mercy" too much). Certainly there is a danger in such presumption. But I'd suggest there's a different reason, namely that for many of us, it is already a reality.
I mean the spiritual reality that so many are living on a day to day basis--that is, degrees of separation from God through the walls we put up to keep Him away, the walls we build out of our sinfulness and apathy and fear and lack of gratitude for the great gift of grace that He unceasingly offers to us.
We don't want to talk about hell not so much because we are afraid to admit it is real. We are all too aware of its reality. It is that gnashing on our consciences as we go deeper into the darkness of our sins. It is that persistent emptiness and recurrent ennui we experience after we try to satisfy our burning desire for Good (that "God-shaped hole") with things and pleasure and status and control. We feel all too readily God's love forever shining fiercely down upon us but will not--will not--turn towards Him and let go of all the fleeting substitutions that we so foolishly cherish in place of Him.
We know it is real. We feel it, but we stupidly want to try to treat the symptoms rather than heal the wound. We want to numb the pain of our distance from God, and so we take the drugs of passing enjoyments to try to obscure the pain. We will do anything, try anything but simply humbling ourselves and returning to God. So while the wound festers and putrifies in our souls, we convince ourselves that everything's fine. Worse than that, the Devil has convinced some (often due to the failings of Christians!) that God Himself is the source of the pain--and so they run farther from Him, only deepening the wound of separation from Him.
Some suggest we should talk about hell more. Yes, maybe we should. But not out of a counter-cultural desire, which seems to me to be a kind of pride--an inner voice that whispers so subtly "I know so much better than these sinners," a perverse desire that takes pleasure in shocking others by impetuously shoving in their face something they find repulsive, that wants to use talk of hell to show others just how bad they really are. We are always--always--in danger of standing straight and thanking God we are not like those people while we ought, rather, to beat our chests and pray for His mercy. (Luke 18:11)
I think we really have to pause and deeply examine our motives any time we think "if only Father (or 'the bishops') would talk more about X." That's a pretty sure sign that we think we're in the free and clear, that we feel we are not challenged by X and so would not be challenged by them speaking about it. It would be a rare person indeed who craved for Father to preach against the sins that they personally struggle with! No, wanting Father and the bishops to speak more on X just might be an indicator that we're more interested in making others feel convicted and more concerned with others repenting than being concerned with what the Holy Spirit is trying to convict us of, what we need to repent of. If we want Father or the bishops to preach more on something, let us pray that God leads them to preach on what will lead us to greater repentance and what will lead us to a closer relationship with God. And let God handle convicting others in His good time.
The Gospel is not that hell exists. The Gospel is that Christ has shattered the power of hell! Heaven and hell are not rewards and punishments for our moral virtue--we cannot buy our salvation (Eph 2:9), and we have already lost heaven through the sin of Adam. The only hope for us is in the grace of God that we might become sharers in the holiness and divinity of Christ. (Gal 3:27; 1 Peter 1:4) The way to hell now and in eternity is to scorn and refuse this gift.
Heaven and hell are existential realities that are essentially bound up with and in our relationship with and our closeness to God--or the breakdown of that relationship and our consequent distance from Him. Both heaven and hell are with us as we walk upon this earth.
So if we want to talk more about hell, we ought to do so not as a "scared straight" tactic but rather to raise our awareness of how it can already be real, here and now in our lives, and more importantly to urge us on to what we can and should do about that reality (or potential reality). Our aversion to sin and consequent penitence ought to stem from a love of God much more than a fear of hell, for perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4:18) The Good News is that we simply need to repent--to turn back towards God.
And we can and should do this every day, every time we fall, no matter how often! God's willingness to forgive the penitent and shower us with His mercy knows no limits! We cannot make Him sick and tired of forgiving us! He never grows weary of welcoming us back into His loving arms. "There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." (Luke 15:7) There is cause for celebration in heaven every time we repent!
It is a fearful thing to distance ourselves from God. There is no doubt about that. But this is not a cause to be paralyzed with fear, to fall into despair, to hide from God, as if we can, as if He doesn't know us through and through, better than we ever could hope to know ourselves. We laugh at the silliness of Adam and Eve hiding themselves in the Garden, and yet so often this is what we are tempted to do when we sin. No! The right reaction, the right immediate course of action is to turn away (yet again!) from our sin and rush back to God.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner!
It is something of a mystery why God has made us in such a way that the state in which we find ourselves at the end of this mortal life has a decisive impact on the next. We must trust in God's perfect goodness and infinite love that this is just and that His mercy will find us even if we have the tiniest, most imperfect sliver of will to turn towards Him. That hope and trust notwithstanding, we ought to make every effort to make that more than just a sliver. (2 Peter 1:5) And we should hope that His revealed will that none should perish may be realized (2 Peter 3:9), despite our inability to understand how. May we never be tempted to rejoice, hope for, or even pretend to know the damnation of any soul. May God have mercy on us all!
If we speak more of hell, then, let it be first to ourselves--to remind ourselves of our own need to repent and to love God with our whole heart at every moment of every day. Let our own lives of penance be the "speaking more" that will witness to the infinitely greater reality of God's goodness and mercy that overcomes death, hell, and the grave through the victory of the Cross, a victory He freely offers to us not for our own merits but by the merits of Christ alone.