Bottom line: Jesus desires the salvation of all, but he also warns that hell is real - and that you and I must make a choice where we will spend eternity.
In today's Gospel, Jesus tells about a self-sufficient rich man who dies and winds up in the flames of hell. At a distance the rich man sees St. Lazarus, held in the arms of Father Abraham. He begs the patriarch to send Lazarus with a single drop of water. Abraham explains that a "great chasm" separates heaven from hell. No one can cross from one side to another.
This is a hard teaching. I'd love to tell you that someone invented hell in the Middle Ages, to scare people, that we don't need to take it seriously today. Or as some say, Jesus was gentle, but St. Paul made things harsh. The attempt to blame Paul has a problem: Paul speaks sparingly about hell; most of the references to the doctrine come from one person - Jesus himself. It would be comforting if I could tell you that Jesus taught that hell is only a temporary state, that someday we will all get to heaven. In many passages, however, Jesus makes it clear that a a gulf, a chasm, exists between heaven and hell - and no bridge connects the two. When a person dies, he winds up in heaven or in hell.* The state lasts forever: "The worm does not die, and the fire is not extinguished." (Mk 9:48)
In this life, we are like salmon in a river: either struggling to get upstream - or drifting downstream. A live fish, of course, goes against the current while a dead fish "goes with the flow." For that reason, the Bible refers to hell as eternal death - and heaven as eternal life.
Our daily choices have eternal, life and death consequences. To understand how this works, early Christian writers used a striking image: They compared the human soul to clay. When moist, clay can change shape, but when placed in the oven it retains its shape forever. In this life we can always change, but at the moment of death, our form remains forever - either looking to God or turning away from him.
So all our life we are making a choice that at the moment of death will remain fixed forever. St. Francis of Assisi describes that choice at the conclusion of his Canticle to Brother Sun and Sister Moon. After praising God for his marvelous creatures, Francis speaks about death. He calls her Sister Death:
Praised be You, my Lord for Sister Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Blessed are they She finds doing Your Will.
No second death can do them harm.
As St. Francis says, death finds a person either in the state of mortal sin or the state of grace (doing God's will). Those in a state of grace - like Lazarus - will spend eternity with God in heaven. Those in the state of mortal sin - like the self-sufficient rich man - will spend eternity in hell, separated from God and from the Communion of Saints.
This teaching about heaven and hell, you can find in religions besides Christianity. Orthodox Jews, following the prophet Daniel, believe that some will rise to everlasting life and others to everlasting disgrace. (Dan 12:2) The Quran contains vivid descriptions of the punishments and rewards in the next life. Moslems, Jews and Christians share a belief in the joys of heaven and the pains of hell. Other religions also allude to this doctrine. The Bhagavad Gita, which has guided Hindus and Buddhists for about twenty-five centuries, contains this verse: "There are three gates leading to hell — lust, anger and greed."**
That is a pretty good description of the rich man in the Gospel. You can see his greed in the fact that he ignored a starving man, while himself wearing costly clothes and eating sumptuously. And once a man has satisfied his hunger for food, he easily turns to other sensual appetites. Since greed and lust require more and more, they provoke anger. As the Bhagavad Gita says, Greed, lust and anger lead a person to hell - to that closing in on self that Jesus describes in today's parable.
So we see Jesus' teaching: He desires the salvation of all, but he also warns that hell is real - and that you and I must make a choice where we will spend eternity. Jesus warns what can bring a soul down to hell. He also indicates the path to heaven. We do have Moses and the prophets. Moses gave us the Commandments: You shall not kill, you shall not steal, keep holy the Lord's Day, honor your father and mother. Moses gave the commandments and, when we stray, the prophets call us to repentance.
But we have someone even greater than Moses and the prophets. We have the one who did "rise from the dead." (v.31) Heaven begins now - by a personal relationship with Jesus. Heaven is not so much a prize for doing good.*** Heaven is a relationship with God the Father in Jesus his Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has told us, "No one comes to the Father except through me." We saw that today in St. Paul's letter to Timothy. Like St. Paul, we praise and thank Jesus. And we join Paul in saying, "To him - to Jesus - be honor and eternal power." Amen.
*There is of course a temporary state of purification called purgatory. It should not be looked upon as a "shade of gray" between heaven and hell. Rather the souls in purgatory are saved. Their eternal union with God is secure.
**Bhagavad Gita 16:21. Quoted by John Michael Talbot in The Lessons of St. Francis:
"Our eternal fate is determined by millions of mundane daily decisions we make through the course of our lives. If we've live in sync with God's will and served our brothers and sisters in need, we will inherit heaven. If we've lived lives of selfishness and self-centeredness, hell, whatever mysterious region that may be, is the place for us."***This reminder is especially important for those who have concluded they are lost, that there is no chance for them. They have fallen into despair. (Archbishop Flores once said that despair is the only real sin. A hyperbole, but expressing a great truth.) In my years as a priest, I have been amazed by how many people consider that they have committed the unforgivable sin. It may have been some act of blasphemy or sacrilege. It may have been adultery or pedophilia. Perhaps the most common today is the woman who has procured an abortion. She feels that because she has killed her own child, she is eternally condemned. That there is an uncrossable abyss between her and God. That is lie from the father of lies, the devil. Jesus tells us that while we are in this life, we not only have Moses (the commandments) but also the prophets, that is, we can at any instant, repent and turn to God. And most important, we have Jesus himself who came not to condemn, but to save.
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