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How to Be One Hell of a Catholic Evangelist


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:

  1. Modern Catholics don’t respond to threats of hellfire and brimstone.
  2. 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.


26 thoughts on “How to Be One Hell of a Catholic Evangelist”

  1. “those in the worst conditions of earthly life – such as the poor, victims of violence, or faithful Catholics in Germany . . .”

    Hah. I see what you did there.

  2. Well said.

    I would also add that without hell or mentioning hell, there is no good reason to give for being good Catholics (or converting to become Catholic).

    Sure, one can say that God loves you very much and he would like to see you become Catholic right now. But it doesn’t seem to be the case that God cares too much about it if he is going to let you spend eternity with him anyway. Someone might say, but you get to know God and share in his Divine life, as far as your humanity allows it, right here on earth. But hey, what is that extra bit here on earth when the person is going to spend eternity with God anyway?

    So I think in this way, every argument one can provide for “converting to the Catholic faith or remaining good Catholics” without bringing hell into the picture, can probably be shown to be logically flawed or that it ultimately falls short at giving good reason to necessitate conversion (so only suggest it as optional etc.).

    This is probably why almost every Saint in the Church (before Vatican II) and Jesus himself, always brought up “hell”. If Jesus in his infinite wisdom thought it best to mention hell, I think anyone who thinks it wiser not to bring it up is not being very wise.

    • I’m afraid I would love God even if I were going to hell, so that is not my reason for being a Catholic. I feel called, whether or not I am chosen.

      But I would be interesting in hearing if talking about hell really converts.

      • I think you misunderstand me.

        My point is that if it were not true that the wicked will be sent to hell by God, then it would be a lie to say that you engaging in wicked works is that big of a deal. In other words, it would be true to say that your evil acts, your adherence to a pagan religion, can all be said to be trivial matters in the eyes of God. So even if you were to refrain from evil acts due to love of God, we must conclude that what you have done is not really of any value. Since if you had done the opposite, God wouldn’t have been offended at all enough to display a reaction that is distinguishable.

        So what I am pointing out is that the mention of hell is required in order to highlight the gravity of sin (that God does care in a non-trivial way). Otherwise one can say that they are loving God a good deal while still engaging in evil acts.

        As for whether mention of hell will win converts, as this article points out, there is no real need to convert if one does not already know the gravity of ones sinful life i.e. it is so offensive to God that one will be cut off for eternity from God.

        • I don’t deny hell or the gravity of sin, nor indeed their possible (and possibly effective) use in conversion. I doubt your logic, as I understand or misunderstand it. If refraining from evil acts because of love of God is not really of value, of what value is the love of God of the saints in heaven, who need no conversion and are in no danger of hell?

          • I think I see your objection now.

            When on earth, we do not see in the same sense we see in heaven (beholding the beatific vision right before our eyes), whether or not God minds me doing an evil act or not. On earth, we only have reason and our faith through which we know what we must do or refrain from doing. Those on earth have other competing attractions to worry about as well.

            So while on earth, let us say that one is told to refrain from sinful acts or to repent, merely because God finds it displeasing (so without mentioning hell). The point I making is that with just that element of knowledge from faith, it does not follow that the person must repent or refrain from sin.


            Because that person is free to conclude from the limited information that the displeasure caused by my sinful acts is probably not so important to God in the grand-scale of things. Thinking that way can also be the most attractive and natural, in light of the fact that the person probably feels very much attracted to commit the evil act.

            The only thing that can wake them up from this deluded view is the knowledge regarding hell as the punishment for evil acts.

          • [It is the job of the Church] to shake up our present population. To do that you’d have to preach nothing but hellfire. In my lifetime, I have never heard one such sermon from a Catholic pulpit. — Marshall McLuhan

            My hunch is that hellfire will not work unless there’s a countervailing vision of heaven. The first message of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the twelve is not about hell but: “The Kingdom of Heaven is here.” I of course don’t mean what is usually preached about heaven, which is as the New Mass to the Old Mass, but a vision that people in “Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the country about Jordan” will want to go to hear about. And then they will also hear about hell, so that they have a true and complete picture of the alternatives.

            It seems to me that many people are so deeply, perhaps unconsciously, unhappy that don’t want to—refuse to—hear bad news. They should and must hear the bad news to be saved, but to hear it they may have to hear first the Good News. I think it was Piers Paul Read who said that the Church has lost the story. Find it again and proclaim it.

            Or so I, who have no experience as an evangelist, think.

          • I do not disagree with you that people need to hear about heaven and other things as well. But what I am pointing out is that without the mention of hell, all those other things seem to fall short of compelling a person to repent and lead a good life. i think that this applies from both perspectives
            of being motivated by love of God or fear of God.

            I say it applies to being motivated by love of God, because without mentioning the existence of hell as a punishment, one cannot make the person grasp the gravity of ones sins and degree to which one offends God.

            I say it applies to being motivated by fear of God, because without the existence of hell, one may not have anything to fear for offending God.

            In regards to the unconscious dislike toward the negative, I think it is something in our society that must be corrected than allowed to continue. In the same way society has been conditioned for expecting praises around every corner by asking people to refrain from negativity, I think it can be turned around by practicing the opposite to a reasonable degree when required.

          • I hope you will not think me frivolous when I say that many parents are motivated by love of their children and fear of their children, and many lovers are motivated by love and fear of the loved one, all without consideration of heaven and hell. (I don’t include children’s love and fear of parents, because I want to exclude the ideas of reward and punishment.)

            It was my daughter who many years ago told me that parents are afraid of their children, and I had to acknowledge that what she said was true.

            Now children and lovers are present and God is “hidden,” so “many” have loves and fears of the first kind, and “few” of the second kind, but historically there have been religious revivals and there will likely be future ones. What their particular inspirations will be no one can predict. The Spirit breatheth where he will, and who knows, you may be born of the Spirit.

          • I do not think you frivolous in regards to what you say!

            But I do think that you are missing some of the subtleties of your own observations.

            For an example, the reason why you fear your daughter is because you are aware of

            1) what hurts her feelings etc.

            2) the magnitude to which your actions hurt her feelings as you have measured from her reactions (crying, sad face etc.)

            I would point out that in some cases you may have done some acts anticipating her to be not too upset (perhaps getting her a different toy for Christmas than what she asked etc.) only to find out how wrong you were. You will learn from that experience and refine your attitudes.

            Now analogously, we humans need to know

            1) what offends God (sinful acts)
            2) the magnitude of our offenses in the eyes of God (punishment of eternal separation i.e. hell)

            Without knowing those things, when we are presented with other very much attractive options (temptations), we are bound to assume that our acts are minuscule in the eyes of God.

          • Thank you. I’ve learned much about the subtleties of the relations between a father and a daughter from the “Noriko” trilogy of Yasujiro Ozu. Perhaps because Ozu’s characters are the familiar ones of my youth (though in Hawaii, not in Japan), his films reveal to me my own feelings much more, and more directly, than most other texts or works of art would, and since I have never seen a reference to Ozu in One Peter Five, I assume that my own fears and tremblings as well as love of God may differ somewhat from those of many another reader of this journal.

          • So you believe that without knowing

            1) what hurts your daughters feelings etc.
            2) the magnitude to which your actions hurt your daughters’ feelings as you have measured from her reactions (crying, sad face etc.) or postulated from past reactions

            you can still “fear” or “love” your daughter? If you agree that the above is necessary, then don’t you have to admit to the importance of knowing about the existence of hell in regards to fearing and loving God?

          • I really think it’s summed up well by this older formulation of the Act of Contrition:

            “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee,
            and I detest all my sins,
            because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell;
            but most of all because they offend Thee, my God,
            Who are all good and deserving of all my love.
            I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace,
            to confess my sins,to do penance, and to amend my life.


            We detest our sins because we fear hell – a lesser motivation than love – but also because we love God, which should be the motivation we are all moving toward.

            It really is analogous to the difference between perfect contrition (for love of God) and imperfect contrition (for fear of hell). The former will get you to heaven much faster than the latter, but either will suffice in a pinch.

      • It is not possible to love God and go to Hell. To love is to obey God’s will. People who obey God will eventually go to Heaven.

      • Since Hell really exists, would it be love and truthful if the Church did not talk about it? The Church can’t really teach a false religion simply to attract new members as non-Catholics do. She is bound by Christ to teach all that He has taught and if one cannot accept the whole Truth, one can certainly reject it, at their own peril.

  3. Very good Eric. So true. I don’t think passing out “get out of jail free cards” to everyone is very smart. But they do it all the time. Why? Because they must figure there would be a loss of membership and no gain by preaching about the possibility of hell. In other words for selfish reasons. God will not be pleased by those who give away his Son’s hard earned grace by giving folks the impression they can sin with impunity.

    The only reason most folks obey the law is for fear of punishment. So take that away and we have the Catholic Church of today: weak, feminine, homosexual, Protestant, ineffective, lacking respect.
    Fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom. To love God is to obey him. Whether we happen to feel that love is irrelevant. We must conform our will to the will of God. If not, we got to hell. That sounds pretty motivational to me.

  4. This problem has many causes. One of them is that after V2 the church has made a habit of overestimating people’s spiritual state. Not just in the sense that you mention here, as in, “Everyone goes to Heaven basically”, but in denying that we go through many stages in the spiritual life. We crawl before we walk and we walk before we run. Love of God in Himself is the last stage. Fear of God is the first. That’s where the preaching of Hell fits. Unfortunately, the church treats people as if they are already spiritual runners, when they are rather more like one sprawled on the ground in sickness.

  5. Idea for keeping bedroom clean.
    When I was a child and then teen my Dad had a rule, your bedroom must be clean before you to out on Friday night.
    During the week he would walk by our bedrooms and shut the door. On Friday, he checked each of our rooms including closets, under the beds, and drawers (where my brother once hid a jelly sandwich).
    Whoever did not have his room clean simply could not go out on Friday night or the weekend until the room passed his inspection – end of subject. My Dad kept his word – a good and fair father.

  6. Jesus said “MANY” will not be saved. “FEW” will be saved. Mt 7:13-14
    & Lk 13:23-28.
    If you love your neighbor as yourself, you will want him/her to be numbered among the “few”.
    Everything taught by Jesus is “good news”, because it is critical for our own well being and eternal salvation.

    We need to reflect on the “Four Last Things” – Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell as stated in Sacred Scripture and the Doctrine of the Faith (CCC).

    CCC: ” 1035 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, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. ”

    CCC: ” 1847 God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.
    To receive his mercy, we must admit our faults.
    If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
    If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

    CCC: ” 1490 The movement of return to God, called conversion and repentance, entails sorrow for and abhorrence of sins committed,
    and the firm purpose of sinning no more in the future.
    Conversion touches the past and the future and is nourished by hope in God’s mercy. “

    • The Conciliar church catechism reflects the reality of sin, Purgatory,Hell and damnation but how many hear any of it in the pulpits? And why were these “negative” verses in Scripture eliminated from the Gospel readings in the Novus Ordo church? How many go to Confession? And if they do go to Confession, how many hear from the priest they need to perform some kind of meaningful penance for their confessed sins? (When I went to a Novus Ordo church and went to confession, the priest simply told me to read a verse from Scripture as my penance no matter the sin.)

      • Nothing is eliminated from the Gospel readings that I know of in the OF Mass.
        However far too many Priests must have attended lousy Seminaries.
        Many Seminaries do not use the CCC as a required text. Priests can not teach what they do not know.
        Too many Priests do not preach about sin, hell, judgment, etc. from the pulpit.

  7. I bind unto myself today
    The strong Name of the Trinity,
    By invocation of the same,
    The Three in One and One in Three.

    I bind this day to me for ever.
    By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
    His baptism in the Jordan river;
    His death on Cross for my salvation;
    His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
    His riding up the heavenly way;
    His coming at the day of doom;*
    I bind unto myself today.

    I bind unto myself the power
    Of the great love of the cherubim;
    The sweet ‘well done’ in judgment hour,
    The service of the seraphim,
    Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
    The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls,
    All good deeds done unto the Lord,
    And purity of virgin souls.

    I bind unto myself today
    The virtues of the starlit heaven,
    The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
    The whiteness of the moon at even,
    The flashing of the lightning free,
    The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
    The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
    Around the old eternal rocks.

    I bind unto myself today
    The power of God to hold and lead,
    His eye to watch, His might to stay,
    His ear to hearken to my need.
    The wisdom of my God to teach,
    His hand to guide, His shield to ward,
    The word of God to give me speech,
    His heavenly host to be my guard.

    Against the demon snares of sin,
    The vice that gives temptation force,
    The natural lusts that war within,
    The hostile men that mar my course;
    Or few or many, far or nigh,
    In every place and in all hours,
    Against their fierce hostility,
    I bind to me these holy powers.

    Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
    Against false words of heresy,
    Against the knowledge that defiles,
    Against the heart’s idolatry,
    Against the wizard’s evil craft,
    Against the death wound and the burning,
    The choking wave and the poisoned shaft,
    Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

    Christ be with me, Christ within me,
    Christ behind me, Christ before me,
    Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
    Christ to comfort and restore me.
    Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
    Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
    Christ in hearts of all that love me,
    Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

    I bind unto myself the Name,
    The strong Name of the Trinity;
    By invocation of the same.
    The Three in One, and One in Three,
    Of Whom all nature hath creation,
    Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
    Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
    Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

    -St. Patrick Breastplate Prayer


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