Infinite Mercy, Even After Death?

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.

Justice
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. Read More