Countering an Irrational Fear of Hell
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By Fr. Robert J. Carr
It is time to get Hell right in our teaching. One of the problems that has come to mind is the issue of people turning from God out of an irrational fear of Hell. Indeed, in the aftermath of my article on the Blasphemy Challenge, (Making Fools for Satan) I learned that some people take that challenge to free themselves from the fear of accidentally blaspheming the Holy Spirit and, therefore, accidentally committing what they believe, falsely, is the unforgivable sin.
Such fears are not uncommon and some with such diseases as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are tortured by this and similar phobias. Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is actually an attitude that rejects God's grace, it is not a specific action.
How does one respond to those who have a false understanding of this sin? Jesus gives us a good standard to follow in the seventh chapter of Matthew, the final of the Sermon on the Mount:
"If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!" (Matt 7:11 NASB)
If even evil people give good gifts to their children, why would the Heavenly Father not do more? Yet, we need to take this to the next level. If the Father is going to act even above the best of the most good, then can it not be assumed that He will act even above the best of the Forefathers of our country? They developed a standard of justice and punishment that was simple: The punishment must fit the crime. If that is the human standard, the divine standard must be even greater.
Generally, people who live in terror about going to Hell are the last people who should worry about doing so. Even so, the Catholic Catechism gives us a measure:
"God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want 'any to perish, but all to come to repentance' " (CCC 1037)
One must commit a serious sin and persist in it until death. Therefore, the concept of accidentally committing such a sin is just not possible. This act must be committed with full knowledge and consent of the will. It is done in a purposeful way that cannot be mistaken for an accident. People who maintain this choice are not hard to miss.
The third chapter of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, which is of course the sixth movie in the series, actually gives an excellent dramatization of this reality. Anakin Skywalker turns slowly towards the dark side of the Force. He has purposefully rejected the guidance that leads him away from the wrong path. Yet, this itself is not the ultimate act that leads him into evil. It is walking down that road to where he finally gives himself over to the emperor, a purposeful act on his part that solidifies his status.
However, it continues. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is at the climax when Anakin, now Darth Vader, is blinded by his evil and turns to Obi Wan Kenobi. They are surrounded by a whole volcanic world where they meet. This, the former Anakin claims, is his new kingdom. He is completely blind to the fact that the planet is a wasteland.
Now the Star Wars movies are just stories, but the reality is such dynamics do exist in real life. I remember when I was involved in prison ministry. I ended up bringing communion in what is called the hole. That is better known as solitary confinement. There I met people seeking to be freed from their pain, but occasionally you would meet the intensely manipulative person blind to his reality. Just like that scene from Revenge of the Sith where Darth Vader is lost in his evil, so you meet the occasional prisoners who will call you over and demand that you get them something to which they have no access or some other but similar favor.
First, it is forbidden and second it is impossible, but most importantly it indicates a complete denial of reality. They are in solitary confinement separated from everything because of their inability to accept their reality. They just don't get that they are totally isolated. This is exactly the mindset you see portrayed in the budding Darth Vader: He does not get that he is the king of nothing on that planet.
This is a persistent narcissistic blindness that cannot be mistaken and may take years to manifest. The bible demonstrates it well in the hardness of heart of the Pharisees, in the manipulation of the bad thief on the cross and in the self-centeredness of the rich man who ignores the poor Lazarus in Jesus' parable. These states of existence are real, but you cannot accidentally enter them. One enters them by making real choices that slowly make one more and more self-centered and self-absorbed. This is why, the inordinate fear of Hell needs to be countered by a solid education in the dynamics of its reality. People choose Hell by choosing to be their own gods in their own worlds.
You cannot accidentally fall off the Empire State Building, but you can do so by making a series of real choices. The reality of someone going to Hell is similar.
Those who chose hardness of heart become those who are enslaved to what Pope Benedict XVI describes in his book Jesus of Nazareth, "the random process of evolution." They turn from being agents for God and become agents acted upon by the forces of nature. They turn from being in cooperation with God towards the ends of their destiny, which is Heaven, to being like the dying tree that must yield to the harsh forces of nature that decay it and consume it. They do so by cutting themselves off from the light that shines into the darkness.
St. Paul teaches that where sin abounds, grace abounds more. Those people who are caught up in sin are the ones whom God is calling even more deeply to turn from and towards Christ, as a tree turns grows toward the sun. So there is a counter force working to lead people out of that hell bent mindset, even prison itself can be part of such a counter force. However, some persist and remain committed to a narcissistic evil that closes them down. The person who fears that will happen to him has no need to fear. It is the person who wants to be caught up in a world where he alone is his own god that ends up there.
It is time for us as Church to make sure we have sufficient focus on the mercy of God which seeks all that is possible to prevent someone from entering that horrifying state. When we turn toward God, even ever so slightly in humility, we are already that much closer to Heaven. Getting to Hell takes some real effort. One does not end up there accidentally as the punishment in that case, would not fit the crime.
http://www.stbenedictsomerville.com MA, US
Fr. Robert J. Carr - Priest, 202 580-8212
Hell Mercy Justice
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