September 29; 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year C

26th OT2Get the Hell out of here

Hell is not a topic many people today are comfortable hearing about. Many modern folks, both religious and irreligious, find it unpalatable. In fact, of all the doctrines of the Catholic faith, hell is certainly one of the most neglected. Perhaps we have never, or hardly ever, heard a homily about hell. And the reason is simple: many struggle to understand how a God described as loving, merciful and forgiving can assign certain souls to Hell forever. No matter that the Doctrine of Hell is taught extensively in Scripture and quite a lot by our Lord Jesus Himself, the doctrine does not comport well with many modern notions and emphases of God, and, hence many think it has to go, and some even think that it has finally been buried by the Church.

Indeed, we live in a world which denies the existence of hell, a world which refuses to believe that eternal punishment is a real possibility. Perhaps we ourselves have fallen into this temptation at times. But notice the contradiction that often afflicts many of us. Even if we do not admit the reality of hell or if we do, we do not think that we will going there, we might still be inclined to reserve damnation to a select few, to those particularly horrible sinners – terrible murderers, war criminals, and our enemies. It’s easy to say to these kinds of people: “Go to hell!” Hell is for people like them, hell is for monsters, and if they don’t end up in hell for their crimes, then there is simply no justice. In doing this we separate ourselves from sinners, we exempt ourselves from God’s judgment but we make hell a place for “them”. But then we have a parable like in today’s Gospel. Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man goes to hell.

In another fictional story set out in one of C.S. Lewis’s books, The Great Divorce, the souls of various people from hell take a bus ride to heaven. In this fiction, the denizens of hell have the opportunity to turn away from the sins that led them to hell in the first place. But they do not take advantage of this second chance because they have been shaped to the core of their being by ways of thinking and acting that turned them away from God, others, and their own true selves. Their damnation was not the result of an arbitrary judgment; instead, it was a reflexion of the reality of who they had become by their own choices. As C.S. Lewis said in the book: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell, choose it.”

The rich man in today’s parable is such an example of a man who had chosen hell Now, nowhere is it suggested that he was a bad man by the world's accepted standards. For all purposes, he may not have gained his wealth in a dishonest manner nor deliberately mistreated poor Lazarus. What, then, were the sins that led to his damnation? It would appear that the rich man’s over absorption in self prevented him from seeing others. He was afflicted by the tragic disease of egocentrism which plagues so many unbeknownst to them. He passed Lazarus every day, but he never really saw him. He was too much absorbed in himself to be able to see. He was condemned because his selfishness caused him to lose the capacity to sympathise. There is nothing more tragic than to find a person who can look at the anguishing and deplorable circumstances of fellow human beings and not be moved. And when he called for mercy from Father Abraham, he made no confession and did no repentance. He may have had second thoughts about wanting to warn his brothers, but it was too little and too late. The gulf that divided heaven and hell could not be crossed, because as Lewis suggested the gates of hell are locked on the inside. The rich man had done that by the decisions he made in life. He had shaped his “hell” decisively by his actions, decisions and omissions.

It must be remembered that the point of the parable is not that the rich will be damned and the poor will be saved. There is nothing wrong with wealth, especially when it is shared with others and used for the common good. But, we may end up being tempted to focus on ourselves, and to allow our wealth, possessions, and successes in this world to keep us from our final goal. For if we love ourselves, our pleasures, and our status more than God and neighbour, no matter how much or little we have, we have already shut ourselves out of the kingdom.

Neither is the point of this parable one which shows God delights in sending souls to hell. The parable is told by the Lord as a warning, precisely to keep His listeners from hell. The last thing on God’s mind is to keep us apart from Him. You see apart from the parable, there is another gulf - a gulf between God and man. This gulf originated in the man’s sin and not in God’s choice. Yes, God, is like the rich man in one sense, rich in grace, rich in love, rich in mercy. Humanity is the Lazarus, poor in spirit, covered with the sores of sin, lying at the gates of God's throne, begging for the crumbs of God's grace. Man, like Lazarus, was too weak to bridge the gap. Even the best among men could never hope to narrow that rift: no patriarch nor prophet nor priest nor animal sacrifices could close that gap. It was impossible and impassable. Only God could accomplish this. The beauty of the Christian gospel is that God, the divine Omnipotent One, rich in Mercy and Goodness, is not like the pathetic rich man of the parable. It had been His intention from the beginning to bridge the gulf and He did so by sending His only begotten Son into this world, to assume our human condition and finally to offer a sacrifice of His own life on the cross. That cross is the boundless and unbreakable bridge of God's love connecting time and eternity, a humanity poor in sin and a God, rich in graces.

This is how God wishes for each of our stories to end. To be enclosed not just in the bosom of Abraham, but to be embraced in His loving arms for eternity. But in order for the story to end this way, He has given us the freedom to choose, and so we must choose a life of compassion instead of indifference, a life of love instead of hatred, a life of gratitude instead of resentment, a life of mercy instead of unremitting judgment. We can choose to build the prison of “hell” in our lives, brick by brick, stone by stone, chink by chink, or we can choose to make our communion with God and others a lifetime’s project which will last for eternity.

In the end we have to be clear: Hell exists. It has to exist for we have a free choice to make, and God will respect that choice even if he does not prefer our choice. You and I are free to choose the Kingdom of God, or not. God loves us and does not want us to go to end up in hell but He also respects our freedom. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man makes it clear that our choices lead ultimately to a final and permanent choice wherein our decision is forever fixed. We may be tempted to deny that hell exists, but our Saviour didn't. He lived proclaiming the truth of its existence and He died to make sure no one would ever have to go there. If we deny hell's reality, we trivialise His mission and jeopardise our own. If we fail to make use of the many opportunities accorded to us, we render the bridge that He has erected over that gulf meaningless. The time of being alive in the flesh, this is the time for repentance. This is the time for the doing of good works. You can’t do any more when you’re dead. You can’t change what your judgment will be.

To be sure, hell is a tricky subject. It's not something we should delight in or even enjoy talking about. It is, however, part of the reality we must face at the end. If we don't warn people about it, we may find ourselves in the very same position as the rich man – who thought only of warning his loved ones and others when it was too late, for ourselves and them.