Our popular Catholic imagination tends to obsess with what happens after we die. The mystery of transcending our earthly human limitations fascinates us. Heaven—or as Jesus calls it, God’s kingdom—is the perfect world God intended for us. We lost that world when our first parents sinned. Since then, and even despite Jesus’ merciful act of gaining back that kingdom for us, we remain obsessed with the possibility of going to hell. Saint Ignatius was driven not just by a tremendous love for God but also by a fear of eternal damnation. I think many of us operate this way as well. I desire not to soften the reality of sin and evil, but to raise some questions that don’t tend to enter the Catholic imagination enough.
Let’s first start with God’s understanding of justice. Justice, in our human understanding, is a balancing of the scales. Some may picture God as a bookkeeper, keeping mark of your sins, and the eternal consequence is proportional to your sin. Others might imagine heaven guarded by pearly gates where St. Peter interrogates you before admission is granted. “What do you have to say for yourself?” he might ask. Answer wrong or have too many black marks on your dossier and you fall through the trapped door to the eternal fires below.
Justice in God’s understanding is founded in love and mercy. Jesus’ only talk of the final judgment was in Matthew 25 when he introduces the corporal works of mercy. “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me” (25:45). Perhaps Saint Peter’s question would be more along the lines of, How did you care for the most vulnerable in your life? Not about how often you missed Mass or whether you perfectly followed the commandments.
The Christian life certainly includes worship and following God’s law, but those choices are a love-response to God, motivated by our relationship with God – not motivated by a fear of hell.
Condemnation or Salvation?
In December, Commonweal Magazine published an article entitled “Hell, Population Zero”. It examines the development of the traditional view of hell, a place of eternal torment where those who do evil in their life are destined to remain. Saint Augustine saw broken humanity as completely deserving of such damnation. Throughout the centuries the Church has reaffirmed hell as a place of eternal punishment:
The Council of Florence in 1442 maintained that “not only pagans, but also Jews, heretics and schismatics” are precluded from salvation for they “will enter into eternal fire” unless they embrace the Catholic Church before their death. (“Hell, Population Zero“, Commonweal Magazine, December 2, 2015)
The crux of the Commonweal piece is that there is a place in theology that hopes hell to be empty. We speak of God as being “infinitely merciful”, yet we treat God as a deity of the primal religions, where the purpose of humanity’s existence is solely to please a distant god through offerings and sacrifices. While the God of Christianity certainly seeks worship and personal sacrifice, what makes Christianity different from other religions is the invitation to an intimate relationship with the divine. Indeed, this is what Ignatian spirituality seeks to imbue its practitioners with: a desire for an intimate relationship with the Creator through the person of Jesus Christ. And so the question of hell remains. Is it a place of punishment or a consequence of rejecting that intimate relationship?
Our tradition has put so much focus on deathbed conversions that we act as if God’s mercy and desire for our salvation stops at death. Yet, I wonder who, when face to face with God after death, can reject God? Would God offer a final invitation to that intimate relationship even after our earthly life? My students posed the question of whether Judas, the disciple who betrayed Christ, could have made it to heaven. Judas did die in shame of his crime. If given another chance after his death, could he still have rejected God? This is the question the Off-Broadway play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot grappled with by putting Judas on trial.
God is always inviting us to God’s self. According to the first pages of Genesis, we were made to be in communion with God and to rule over the earth with God. If Christ’s act on the cross opened up that lost world for us again, why do we place gates before heaven (even pearly ones)? We speak of heaven as a “reward” as if it’s for a privileged few rather than a state of eternal familyhood with our Parent-Creator. Heaven is what God so deeply desires for all of us that Jesus talks of desperate searching for a lost sheep and coin and the rejoicing of the return of the prodigal son. Heaven—God’s kingdom—is what God intended for us from the beginning. Heaven is not a prize; it’s our home.
Living the Christian life demands fearing not, not quivering in fear of a God who, if we make a wrong move, will open the trapped door to hell. Living a Christian life is not about blindly following a list of rules, but about responding to God’s infinite love and mercy by turning from sin and lifting others out of poverty. St. Ignatius knew that a response of love to God could never fully repay God for all the love poured out on us. He knew our finitude and imperfection.
John 3:17 reminds us that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Infinite mercy means incomprehensible mercy. Infinite mercy does not mean condemnation, but hope in Christ who came to redeem us from sin and death.
Can we, in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, accept God’s infinite mercy offered to all people?
Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.