Perhaps it is because I am bald, but I cringe at the theological hair splitting that often goes on in the Church. It is not just “professional” theologians that are guilty of this, but priests and ordinary lay folks as well. Don’t get me wrong— I think making distinctions, defining your terms and the like are very important to coming to understand the truth. But it is when the split hair itself becomes the answer that I feel the shiver in my spine. There are two questions that immediately come to mind. I will save the second for another time, but in today’s post I would like to look at the first—“how can a loving God send people to hell?”
To ask it is almost to reflexively answer it—“God does not send anyone to hell. People choose hell.” In most cases that is sufficient for the prosecution to rest. But the better prepared interlocutor will demand a cross-examination. In the parable of the sheep and the goats it certainly seems as if the wicked are being sent by God to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41). Even though it may not fit with the image of God we are trying to portray, the fact of the matter is that there are simply too many references to divine judgment to avoid the conclusion that God sends some people to hell. There must be a more tactful answer.
Now, I have made the reader cringe. God becomes not Father but harsh Judge, the exact image you are trying to overcome with your hair splitting answer. The reflexive answer to the question really only serves to perpetuate two common misconceptions about heaven; misconceptions that are often stumbling blocks to our desire for Heaven.
Heaven May Not Be What You Think It Is
The first delusion embedded in both the question and the answer is that Heaven is a reward for being good and hell a punishment for being bad. But that is not true. Heaven is the (super)natural consequence of being holy. Sure, everyone in Heaven is good, but only because they are holy. No amount of goodness can make us holy, even though holiness makes us good. The author to the Letter to the Hebrews says “without holiness no one will see God” (Heb 12:14).
One of the reasons why someone like Aristotle could only get so far in his thinking about God was that he could not conceive of a way for the gods and men to be friends. Friendship can only occur between equals and since there was a great chasm between the two, while men might placate the gods, they could never enjoy their friendship. What Aristotle didn’t consider is that the real God was Love and desired nothing more than to be friends with each man. To make that happen, He would first become equals with us so that we might become equals with Him.
God makes us equals with Himself by filling us with the Divine life, what St. Peter calls becoming “partakers of the Divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4). Catholics call it sanctifying grace or the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Whatever you call it, it is the only thing which makes friendship with God possible. We really must be “like God,” but only on His terms and not our own.
The problem with the answer is that it only feeds the “faith vs works” controversy. Holiness is bigger than either faith or works. It is accepting the invitation of friendship with God and then having that friendship grow. This is why the authors of the New Testament repeatedly stress the necessity of Baptism and all the great missionary saints like St. Peter Claver saw it as their mission to enflame a desire for baptism in the natives (or in the case of St. Peter Claver, slaves) and then baptize them. Baptism is the only sure way we know of to become friends with God.
Heaven, then properly understood, is the culmination of a lifetime friendship with God. This leads us to the second delusion veiled in the question and answer and that is the tendency to see Heaven as the place where you finally get everything you ever wanted. But Heaven is the place where you get the One Thing you really wanted—God. Heaven is only heaven because God is there. It is not a collection of the best things of earth. There may be many other things there, but it is only God that matters. All of the other things that are there are there simply to increase the enjoyment of Him.
Hell is hell because God is not there. It may have many other things, but once God is removed their emptiness becomes apparent. That is why the pain of loss, that is rejection of the free invitation to friendship, is considered to be the greatest pain of hell. There is a diabolical corollary to the divine maxim “seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you”—“seek ye first all these things and the Kingdom of God will be forfeit unto you.”
Medieval art often presented Heaven with cherubs playing harps on clouds. For those operating under our two embedded assumptions this image of Heaven is not awe-full, but awfully boring. While it remains just an artistic representation, these images contain a truth that Heaven is about being with God and nothing else. For those who are interested in that sort of thing then the experience will be far beyond what we could possibly image (c.f. 1 Cor 2:9). But for the worldly man it would seem boring. He would soon get weary of heaven because he would continue to hear only about one subject which he has no real interest in hearing about.
Increasing the Desire for Heaven
This is one of the reasons Catholics have a decided advantage thanks to the Mass. Mass really is training for Heaven. It is Heaven with a Sacramental veil over it. If you love the Mass then you will love heaven. If you don’t love the Mass, then get to work on growing in love with it. Pray for this singular grace and persevere in that prayer. As Blessed John Henry Newman says, “‘Enter into the joy of thy Lord’ will sit with us the same way ‘Let us pray’ does now.”
Although the conclusion might not seem obvious at first based on what we have said, it is most certain that God “sends” people to hell because hell is not really the worst thing that can happen to someone. The worst thing that can happen to a man who is not holy is to go to heaven. Newman said, “Heaven would be hell to an irreligious man.” Heaven is a place of happiness only for someone who is holy. Otherwise it would be a place of eternal torment. God is “a consuming fire” that burns hotter than the fires of hell. Only those who have been clothed with grace can withstand and enjoy the heat of His Presence. The thicker the cloak, the closer one gets. That is why God does not cease to be merciful even to those in hell. Returning to Newman once more: “even supposing a man of unholy life were allowed to enter heaven, he would not be happy there; so that it would be no mercy to permit him to enter.”