The Fiery Furnace

(Homily for Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A)

"They will throw them into the fiery furnace,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth." (Mt 13:42)

These words of Jesus are chilling. Most of us prefer not to think about such a terrible possibility. TV programs reassure viewers that Hell was a medieval invention. Others blame St. Paul - even though he had relatively little to say on the topic. However, the one who spoke frequently and vividly about eternal damnation was Our Lord himself.

Recently, I was discussing this doctrine with a bright young man. He said something which made me think. I was explaining to him that the principal suffering of Hell is spiritual, namely, the separation of the soul from its Creator. I added that, after the final resurrection, the lost soul would also experience physical pain. He asked whether the physical suffering might in reality be part of the divine mercy.

What do you mean? I asked.

He said that the suffering of separation from God would be so horrible that perhaps God allows a certain physical pain as a distraction.

You would think we humans would do anything to avoid unending pain. However, we fear something else even more - to surrender our own will. The truth is that we flee God. Blase Pascal described how men seek constant diversion because "they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber." (Pascal invented the computer. How ironic his invention has been converted into one of the great sources of diversion!)

What we fear is being alone with God. I am not speaking about an amorphous mother/father God, but the God who reveals himself and requires something of us. People are fine with feel-good spirituality, but religion is something else.* As Pascal noted, "Men despise religion; they hate it and fear it is true." (Pensees, 187)

He doesn't mean religion as superficial observance. The clergy sex abuse scandal and 9-11 show that a man can maintain religious formalities and still be far from God. To run away from Him we will go almost anywhere: pornography works well, but devotion to family can also keep God at arm's length. Religion on the other hand, true religion, involves meeting God and surrending ones will to Him.

C.S. Lewis observed: "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. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell."

In a similar vein, the Catechism defines Hell as the "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed." (#1033) Hell is self-exclusion. It depends on our own choice. St. Paul mentions certain ones who cannot enter heaven: fornicators (that is, sex before marriage), adulterers, practicing homosexuals, drunkards and robbers. (I Cor 6:10) But while St. Paul gives a strong warning, he also makes it clear in the very next verse that it is possible for any of those people to repent. "Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus."

What's involved here is grace - God's free gift. The fact someone has indulged in self-destructive behavior does not necessarily mean they are destroyed. If we simply turn to God, he can pull us from the path of destruction, set us on the road to life.

Today's first reading expresses that hope with a beautiful prayer:

But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency,
and with much lenience you govern us...
and you gave your children good ground for hope
that you would permit repentance for their sins. (Wisdom 12:16,19)

************

*From re-ligare, to join together. Religion involves the recognition that I cannot do it on my own. The initiative comes from God - and he provides the community support we need each day.

Spanish Version

From Archives (for Sixteenth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2011: Himself the Kingdom
2008: Allow Them to Grow Together
2005: Distinguishing Wheat from Weeds
2002: The Fiery Furnace
1999: Jesus' Teaching Concerning Hell

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

See also: An Eternally Unbridgeable Chasm

Jesus Teaching Concerning Heaven

Bulletin (Staff Changes, RCIA & RCIC, Hidden Gospels)

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Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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The Catholic Difference by George Weigel

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Registration Form for Fr. Corapi Conference (Holy Family, Seattle, October 25-26, 2002)

In Vitro Fertilization: Risky for Mother and Child

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