If it’s Monday, then my son is hearing the same refrain from me: “If you keep your bedroom clean this week, you get a pack of baseball cards.” On Sunday I check his room, and if it’s clean, he gets his pack of baseball cards. If it’s not clean…then he gets a pack of baseball cards. It might appear unconventional, but my method works perfectly: every week he’s gotten the reward of baseball cards. I’ll take my Parent of the Year award now, please.
Why does this sound ludicrous? Because clearly there is no incentive for the child to actually behave in the desired way. (By the way, the story is made-up. Except for the part about wanting my son to keep his bedroom clean. Any ideas?) Yet this is analogous to the message of modern-day Catholicism: Live like a saint? Then you will be in Heaven with God forever. Live as an adulterous, lying, selfish egotist? Then you will be in Heaven with God forever. In other words: it doesn’t matter how you live, we all end up in Heaven! (Except maybe Hitler. And Stalin. And anyone who draws cartoons of Muhammad – they definitely won’t make it).
Hell is for Losers
Surprisingly, polls have shown that almost 70% of Americans believe in the existence of Hell, but most believe that few, if any, people actually go there. Even those who believe that Hell is inhabited do not believe the place of eternal damnation should be part of the Church’s evangelistic message. They argue for this “ignore Hell” approach on the following grounds:
- Modern Catholics don’t respond to threats of hellfire and brimstone.
- We shouldn’t follow God because we fear punishment, but because we love Him.
Is it true that modern Catholics don’t respond to threats of hellfire and brimstone? There is no way to know, as even the mention of Hell has been expunged from almost every Catholic parish in America. Other than the word “contraceptive,” there is no word more shunned in the parish pulpit. Further, it is in this environment of diligently avoiding any mention of Hell that the Church’s numbers have dropped precipitously. So how can we say that modern Catholics don’t respond to threats of hellfire and brimstone? All we really know for sure is that they don’t respond to promises of Heaven for everyone. Otherwise our parishes would be full today.
So do Catholics avoid proclaiming the reality of Hell because no one takes it seriously anymore, or does no one take Hell seriously anymore because Catholics refuse to proclaim its reality?
What about the objection that we should follow God out of love rather than fear of punishment? Truly, obeying God out of love is superior to obeying Him out of fear. However, the Church has always taught that obeying God out of fear is still sufficient for Heaven, and often leads to loving obedience. Every good parent will tell you that they have to set rules for their young children with punishments attached to them, or else their children will disobey (although if you observe the inhabitants of the local public high school, that common sense strategy seems to have been lost on many modern parents). If you do give punishments for bad behavior, over time children grow to understand the rules and eventually obey their parents out of love. Although it is a modern conceit to consider ourselves too mature to need the threat of punishment, in the practice of the Faith, we are like children. Our faith needs time to grow, and in that time our motivations might change. What first is done out of fear of punishment may eventually evolve into a loving understanding and acceptance of Catholicism’s “rules.”
Good News, Mercy…and Hell?
On the surface, it might seem that talking about Hell is antithetical to evangelization. After all, evangelization means “preaching the Good News” and Hell is the opposite of good news. “Good news! You might be consigned to unquenchable fire for all eternity!” Yet proclaiming the existence of Hell – and the possibility that we could go there for eternity – is an essential element of preaching the “Good News.” Why? Because if there is no bad news to avoid, then people have no motivation to take seriously the Good News.
However, does teaching about Hell go against the message of “mercy” the Church is promoting? On the contrary, admitting that Hell is real and people go there is fundamental to the message of mercy. Webster’s defines mercy as “kindness or help given to people who are in a very bad or desperate situation.” Yet if there is no Hell, who is truly in a “very bad or desperate situation?” No one, for eventually even those in the worst conditions of earthly life – such as the poor, victims of violence, or faithful Catholics in Germany – will spend eternity in happiness in Heaven. The reason God’s mercy is so great is that each and every one of us deserves to spend eternity separated from God in Hell. Yet He opens the doors to Heaven and makes it possible for us to be with Him forever…if we are faithful to Him.
Jesus Should Scare the Hell Out of Us
Jesus understood the importance of including the “bad news” along with the good. Although it is common today to see Jesus as a 1960s hippie philosopher who preaches tolerance, acceptance, and ecumenical dialogue, the Gospels portray a much more complete teacher who included warnings against Hell throughout his preaching.
Three times in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warns that an action will send someone to Hell (Matthew 5:22,29,30). In many parables, the one who doesn’t follow the course of action Jesus is advocating ends up in Hell (see the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46). And remember the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31): the wealthy man who ignores the plight of his fellow man is described as being in torment in Hades, where he begs for just a drop of water, for “I am in anguish in this flame.” In the Gospel of Matthew alone, Jesus mentions the “fire” of Hell ten different times in connection with actions contrary to the Gospel.
Even when Jesus gives “positive” teachings, he includes the negative consequences of denying them. For example, he proclaims, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (John 15:5). However, what is often ignored is what our Lord says immediately following: “If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:6). Also, Christ promises that “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54), but only after he warns, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Not exactly the language you will find in an inter-religious dialogue committee statement.
Additionally, the idea that one must ignore Hell in order to preach the Good News was inconceivable to the early Christians. Consider this passage (Luke 3:16-17):
John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
What does Luke say about this uplifting message of burning in unquenchable fire? “So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people” (Luke 3:18). Unlike the modern gospel — which sounds more like John Lennon’s “Imagine” than the four evangelists — this warning of the danger of rejecting Christ was fundamental to the early Church and remained a core part of the Church’s message until recent times. The possibility of Hell for those who reject Christ has always been linked to the promise of Heaven for those who follow Him.
Today the Church must not only acknowledge the possibility of Hell, but also warn that many beliefs and actions praised today actually put one on the path to eternal separation from God. This does not mean that we have to lead with the message of Hell, but we cannot ignore it, either. Warning about Hell is not a “negative” message any more than warning someone of the dangers of drowning is.
Ultimately, properly proclaiming the Good News and the promise of mercy doesn’t ignore the existence of Hell – it proclaims victory over it by the power of Christ’s resurrection for those who follow Him.
Eric Sammons, a former Evangelical, entered the Catholic Church in 1993. He is the father of seven children and author of seven books, including The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did.