I almost lost my faith the other night.
After all I have written of the Faith, you might think that I am joking. But I am not.
It is not such a hard thing to do, to lose one’s faith. In fact, it is frighteningly easy.
Let me tell you how this came about.
I was paging through a new book I had come across on the ancient Faith (Catholic) and was perusing the section on hell.
Now, I have never had a particularly strong interest in hell, unlike some people. I had come to terms with what it meant in my mind years ago and did not ruminate over it. I have not feared hell because I am convinced and committed to the love and mercy of God. Right?
Well, this is what I read:
“And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image…” (Revelation 14: 11)
“Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.” (Jesus, quoted in Matthew 7: 13-14)
“The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire’. The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God…” (Catechism of the Catholic Church)
Just the Sunday before, I had heard an excellent homily on the passage of Scripture where Jesus asks His closest friends, “But who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9: 20) The priest had referred to C. S. Lewis’ assertion that Christ, in saying that He was God (one with the Father), was either lying, insane or telling us the truth.
Christ is either God or He isn’t – and the answer to this question has great implications for us. If He is God, then He is much more than just a nice guy, a wise teacher or even a prophet.
How I respond to the question has great implications for me because if I respond that Christ is God, I must indeed believe what He said. There can be no picking and choosing, accepting the teachings I like and bypassing the ones that make me uncomfortable.
So it was with this message as the backdrop that I read the teachings on hell.
Suddenly I was struck with an awareness that I wasn’t at all sure that I could accept them. Could I believe in eternal punishment, eternal torment, for any human being, no matter how sinful they might be at the time of their death?
Could I believe that my Lord, the love of my heart, would do that to someone – quite possibly someone I loved? I cannot believe that I would be more loving, more merciful, than God… how could I reconcile the words of Jesus with my knowing of Him?
Interestingly, the understandings I had had of hell previously seemed to have left my mind without my awareness. It was as though I had forgotten them.
And I was face-to-face with the possibility that maybe – just maybe – God wasn’t as loving as I thought.
I entertained several possibilities.
Perhaps there are beings, human or otherwise, who truly belong in hell. Although the concept of eternal punishment seems irrational and horrid to me, I am not God and I cannot know whether this might be so. I tried to imagine the worst despots in history – but I never knew them as people. It is easy to condemn those we do not know.
This did not settle my heart.
Perhaps our understanding of Scripture isn’t quite right, I told myself. Who really understands the book of Revelations anyway, with its mystical imagery? Perhaps hell is eternal but the sinner’s experience of it isn’t. After all, we cannot conceive of eternity. I could understand God giving a very stern rebuke.
But I knew I was twisting things, picking and choosing. I didn’t want there to be true hell.
A deep sadness filled me and tears came to my eyes. What was I to do?
I did the only thing a child of God can do in such a situation: I asked God to help me.
And then I picked up my Bible and paged through each of the Gospels, looking for passages where Jesus talked about hell. Choked with tears, I scanned each page, hoping not to find anything, desperately pleading, “You wouldn’t torture anyone for all eternity, my Love, would You? Please tell me You wouldn’t…”
What I saw was page after page of Jesus healing the sick, forgiving sins, casting out devils, teaching the people with compassion. And then voluntarily giving up His body and blood, first in loving Eucharist, then in death and resurrection.
But I did find one passage that was very specific.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’
And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
(Matthew 25: 31-46)
But, strangely, it was this passage that kept me in the Faith, though it left me in a state of sadness for some time.
For I realized in the reading that it was not God who created hell.
It was me.
It was me – it is me – because hell is separation from the love of God. Anytime I sin, I create hell, cracking open the surface of this beautiful, perfectly made universe just a little bit more to deepen the chasm of separateness, of suffering.
And it not just my own potential suffering in hell that is prepared by sin but I set into motion the suffering of others. I do not have to murder or steal for this to be the case.
I deepen the chasm in the many ways the Lord Jesus tells us – by not feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick or imprisoned. And in countless other little actions along the way that make my life about keeping me happy and comfortable while others suffer.
Yes, hell is a very sad thing. So sad, that God Himself came among us to teach us about evil and how to choose good. He so longed to keep us out of hell that He gave Himself up, allowing evil to kill Him so that He could overcome it with love.
And we are invited to join Him in the dying and rising.
It is not easy, however.
I think perhaps I have not wanted there to be hell because I haven’t wanted to acknowledge that there is true evil.
I have no problem understanding and accepting human weakness, regrettable decisions made on transient lusts, selfishness and pride. They are bad but comprehensible to me and something one of genuine heart can repent of.
But true evil is another thing.
What of the evil force that wanted to steal my soul from God the other night?
Yes, in retrospect, I do believe there was one. Not because I am special but we are all warned “Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5: 8)
This is evil for evil’s sake. Although we cannot know who or what among us belongs to that force, there are those who have chosen to work for the other side, to work against the love of God.
They have chosen the separation that I, in my weakness, stumble into.
So I and the people I love don’t have to worry about hell, right? Just those awful people and creatures who have chosen evil. After all, we just stumble in our weakness.
Yes and no. God is merciful and His mercy knows no end. We are safe remaining in the shadow of His wings.
But the danger is still very real and present. Our adversary is very clever and convincing us that we don’t have to worry is often the first step. Little by little, our stumblings can begin to appear normal to us, no real cause for concern because they are not so serious and so many people engage in far worse things…
And then he moves in for the kill… whether we become bored with God, scandalized by individuals within the Church or disturbed by a difficult teaching, suddenly the chasm has become much wider.
What started out as a simple weakness that we repented of has become a way of life. Things other than our Faith become increasingly important to us. And eventually, there is little or no indication of which side we are on.
When asked, we might answer vaguely that we still have our beliefs. But on the battlefield, we are nowhere to be seen. We have lost our faith.
Thus, our only hope is to “Be sober and vigilant” (1 Peter 5: 8), ever at prayer, asking our loving God to protect and guide us through even the smallest experiences of separation from Him.
For apart from Him we can do nothing. But in Him, all things – even eternal union with Him – are not only possible but promised.
To Him be all glory forever.