Bottom line: Jesus speaks about Gehenna where the worm that does not die and the fire is not quenched. With these images he wants to convince us that nothing could be worse that separation from God.
Jesus has some sobering words in today's Gospel. He says that a person would be better off to lose a hand, a foot or an eye than be thrown, entire, into Gehenna: A place, he says, where the "worm does not die and the fire is not quenched."
Jesus is speaking about the reality of hell. It is a difficult topic - one that most preachers (including me) would gladly avoid. Still, I cannot faithfully represent Jesus and not speak about hell. He spoke about it often.
Before defining hell (telling you what it is) let me explain the image Jesus uses. He refers to hell as "Gehenna." It was a valley outside Jerusalem with an ugly history. In that place unfaithful Israelites offered tiny children in sacrifice. I will not describe how they did it - except to say that it involved fire. (II K 23:10; I Chr 28:3, 33:6; Jer 7:31, 32:33) The prophet Jeremiah cursed the place and Gehenna became a garbage dump. It smouldered with a constant fire and gave off a foul odor.
So, when Jesus speaks about being "tossed into Gehenna," he is warning about a horrible place. Keep that image in mind, because when I give you the definition of hell, you might be tempted to think, "that doesn't sound so bad."
So what is hell? The Catechism defines it this way: "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed." (#1033) The way a person winds up in hell, says the Catechism, is "to die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love."
The doctrine of hell affirms human freedom, choice - in the most radical way possible. Not just how you choose to spend this evening, not just how you spend next weekend, not just you spend retirement. We are talking about how you spend eternity, for ever. Once again, to quote the Catechism: "Our freedom has the power to make choices, for ever, with no turning back." (#1861) It is ironic that some people accuse the Catholic Church of being "anti-choice." On the contrary, we reverence choice.* We believe that God has placed within each of us a breathtaking freedom. We can choose to spend eternity with God or to separate oneself from him for ever. None of us can take a pass. To not choose means to slide - and a person can only slide one direction. I've seen a lot of people sliding down, but never seen anyone slide up.
The doctrine of hell poses particular problems for people today. Our society has a strong "victim mentality" that influences all of us. If things go wrong, we look for others to blame. Deep down, freedom scares us. Jesus' teaching on hell means that in the end, you and I are free. As my dad used to say, "You have not one to blame but yourself." To avoid hell, the first step is to take ownership for one's life. Jesus says it in one word, "Repent."
Some think that a loving, merciful God would not allow anyone to spend eternity in hell. But God does not create hell. We do. Fr. Candido Amantani tells about what happened once while he was performing an exorcism. He told the demon, "Go from here. The Lord has prepared a place for you." The demon replied, "You know nothing. He did not make hell. We made it ourselves."
God did not create hell - nor does he will anyone to go there. The choice belongs to you - and me. Now, when some people hear about hell as "separation from God," they think, "Well, that doesn't sound so bad. I just want God and everyone else to leave me alone."
Be careful what you wish for. Jesus speaks about Gehenna where the worm that does not die and the unquenchable fire. With these images he wants to convince us that nothing could be worse that separation from God. The Russian novelist, Feodor Dostoevsky put it this way.
"They talk of hell fire in the material sense. I don't go into that mystery and I shun it. But I think if there were fire in material sense, they would be glad of it, for I imagine that in material agony, their still greater spiritual agony would be forgotten for a moment."
Sobering words from Dostoevsky - to match the even more sobering words from Jesus.
Now, I don't want anyone to leave here with the idea they are doomed. No, no matter what you have done, as long as you have breath in you, Jesus invites you to come to him. God wants you to spend eternity with him - and he will do everything possible to get you there. The one thing he will not do is to take away your freedom. That would destroy your essence. God does not want to fill heaven with robots. He desires souls.
In coming weeks - and then especially during Advent and Lent - we will hear to what lengths God goes in order to save us. Today Jesus wants to warn us about the terrible alternative. If it causes a certain fear, consider the words of the Psalm: "The fear of the Lord is pure." It is not a cringing fear, but a salutary fear - the fear of eternal separation. Today you can say this prayer: "Jesus, I trust in you, I love you. May nothing separate me from you."
*By way of contrast, atheists have no room for choice. Richard Dawkins, for example, argues that a "selfish gene" drives all our actions. Fair enough, but then Dawkins and other determinists spoil it by exhorting the rest of us to do all sorts of things: save the planet, support scientific research, reject "fundamentalism" (even using the public school system to do so) and, most ironic, have less children. If selfish genes determine all our choices, why bother exhorting anyone?
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