An Eternally Unbridgeable Chasm

(Twenty-Sixth Sunday, Year C)

In A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken tells about his conversion to Christianity and the death of his wife Davy. He wrote to a fellow Christian, C.S. Lewis, who had also lost a much loved spouse. He confided he yearned so much to see his wife that he was considering suicide.

Lewis wrote back giving reasons why suicide was out of the question. He spoke to Vanauken about the “absence of any ground for believing that death by that route would reunite you with her.” As Lewis stated, “You might be digging an eternally unbridgeable chasm.”

Vanauken tells how “the temptation vanished after one horrified look at Lewis’s ‘eternally unbridgeable chasm.’”

In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus also speaks of a separation which cannot be bridged:

"Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go
from our side to yours or from your side to ours." (Lk 16:26)

On one level this separation is so obvious. Consider the Serbian officers who imprisoned and systematically raped Moslem women, then joked about it. Can the officer and his victim share a meal as if nothing ever happened?

Regarding the hijackers, the wounds are too fresh to formulate a question – but it would have to address not just the magnitude of their deed, but what motivated them. Although God’s embrace reaches out to all, it involves an intimacy which some, apparently, could never abide.

Jesus presents a scenario which in some ways is more startling because it is so common: a man who cares more about his pet dog than a starving beggar. The former at least got table scraps. The rich man did not see Lazarus at his doorstep. Rather he saw through him. Thus he created an unbridgeable chasm not only between himself and the poor man, but the entire communion of saints.

To imagine someone, anyone, being eternally separated from God seems too terrible to contemplate. I wish I could say the doctrine originated with some medieval theologian and we don’t need to concern ourselves with it anymore. However, that is not the case. It comes from Jesus himself. We know about the possibility because of his solemn warning.

Although Jesus’ teaching is difficult, the alternative is worse. It means believing that evil is just a point a view, that there is no ultimate difference between Mother Teresa cradling a dying man and a hijacker driving a plane into a building filled with workers. For sure, both evidenced sincere motivation and a willingness to sacrifice themselves. Yet the fact we admire the former and condemn the latter indicates that, on some level, we accept the irrevocable separation Jesus taught. Do you see what I am saying?

Once one receives Jesus’ teaching, other things fall into place, for example the parasitical nature of evil. It does not exist on its own, but by leeching on something good. In Jesus' parable, elegant clothes and rich food are good in themselves, but the rich man focused on them to the exclusion of a much greater good - the human being on his doorstep. Likewise the narrow focus of the September 11 terrorists prevented them from seeing thousands of people in front of them. The hijackers lived among us, some of them for many years. They saw through us all right. But they never saw us.*

Jesus' teaching on the separation of good and evil sheds light on other aspects of our existence. Even though we cannot rigorously prove it, we know significant choices belong to us - not just to some inexorable evolutionary process. Jesus tells us how free we freely are: we can say "no" even to our Maker.

G.K. Chesterton helped many people appreciate that life is not simply a string of haphazard preferences (“You like mild cheese and I like sharp, so let’s agree to disagree”) but a genuine drama. That is, life involves true choices between good and evil, and our choices have enduring consequences. Chesterton put the issue this way:

"If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat." (See Orthodoxy.)

In recent years we Catholics have tended to reduce the Good News to a vague pantheism (“the importance of seeing Christ in every person we meet”). It fits with a culture where people say, “I believe in the basic goodness of all human beings.” The events of September 11 should make us say instead, “Yes, each person has great worth, because, by Jesus' blood, God’s wills the salvation of all, even the hijackers. But God also honors the freedom of each person to such a degree that He allows us to choose eternal union or eternal separation.”


*It is easy to see through someone. Even the very dull do it, especially after a couple of beers. However, it requires effort to actually see the other person. For how that refusal can lead to eternal damnation, see Charles Williams' novel Descent Into Hell.

Spanish Version

From Archives (26th Sunday, Year C):

2013: Geography of Faith: The Threat of Exile
2010: The Choice: Heaven or Hell
2007: Why Was the Rich Man Condemned?
2004: He Dined Sumptuously
2001: An Eternally Unbridgeable Chasm
1998: The Abyss Between Heaven and Hell

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Sunday Homilies

Bulletin (Darwin's Dangerous Idea)


An Excerpt from A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

Terrorism Profanes Name of God, John Paul II Says (Expresses Catholic Church´s Respect for "Authentic Islam")

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(September 2010)

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Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

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