Which images or thoughts come to mind when we hear the word hell? For some people, hell is merely an expletive or a more emphatic substitute for heck. For atheists, hell is a fictional place of eternal punishment invented by believers to frighten sinners into repentance.
For Christians in general and for Catholics in particular, hell, as defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1033, is “a state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God…reserved for those who refuse by their own free choice to believe and be converted from sin, even to the end of their lives.” The key word here is self-exclusion. Many folks fail to appreciate this very positive corollary associated with hell, which is our human freedom.
God does not predestine any souls to hell. On the contrary, God’s wish is that everyone should be saved. However, God will not make us love Him or keep His commandments. This is the epitome of our free will.
Would it be preferable if God forced everyone to do good and avoid evil? Would we be happy if our usual liberty were replaced with unusual coercion? If this happened we would be little more than machines, programmed to always choose sanctity over sin. The world would be a peaceful place, but it would be populated by assembly-line robots, not human beings reflecting God’s image and likeness.
When a man and woman approach the altar to become husband and wife, their exchange of vows must be offered to each other freely. If there are any pressures to say “I do,” then their marriage is invalid. Similarly, God freely chooses to love us and longs for us to freely choose to love him and our neighbor. What sinners fail to realize is that, although this is the narrow and more difficult path that Jesus spoke about, it is the only way to attain happiness. And happiness is a hunger everyone strives to satisfy.
Are thieves who “smash and grab” merchandise really happy? Absolutely not. They know what it feels like to have their own possessions stolen and how devastating it is to be taken advantage of by others. Even if their dark deeds elude surveillance cameras, they live in constant fear of their crimes coming to light. They freely choose to be unhappy deadbeats, which includes being dead in their relationships with others and with God.
Violations against any of the other commandments or decrees given by Christ end up with the same restless results. St. Augustine said it best: “Our hearts are made for Thee, O Lord, and they will not rest until they rest in Thee.”
Holy Homework: During August, when the summer heat makes us uncomfortable, let’s remember there is a much hotter place where we can spend eternity if we use our free will to distance ourselves from loving God and others.
Father Pagliari's monthly Holy Homework column can be found at https://www.cny.org.
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