Four Last Things: Part Two — Hell

Pope Francis prays in front of the original Jesus of Divine Mercy image as he visits the Divine Mercy Shrine in Lagiewniki, a suburb of Krakow, Poland, July 30. (CNS, courtesy of L’Osservatore Romano)

Last month, we began to consider one of the Christian doctrines that many find deeply troubling, namely hell. Since God created human beings with the gift of free will, even though He desires everyone to be happy with Him forever in heaven, He forces no one to accept His love. Out of respect for our freedom, He allows us to choose eternal separation from Him. That is hell. Today we continue addressing this troubling topic, beginning with some deeply personal questions even faithful Christians often ask.

What if a loved one doesn’t make it?

One question that may be raised is this, “How can I be happy in heaven if a loved one doesn’t make it?” Questions like this are hard to answer this side of heaven; any answer never exhausts the mystery. There is a theological principle that “God plus the world is not greater than God alone” since God is Being Itself rather than simply one being among many. Likewise, we could say that “God plus our loved ones” is not greater than God alone. In other words, when we are entirely united to God in heaven, we will have everything we need for perfect happiness. That is why the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” says that “Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC 1024).

EN ESPAÑOL: Las puertas del infierno están cerradas por dentro, Segunda Sección

El Reverendísimo Thomas J. Olmsted es le obispo de la Diócesis de Phoenix. Fue instalado como el cuatro obispo de Phoenix el 20 de diciembre de 2003, y es el líder espiritual de los 1,1 millones católicos en la diócesis.

However, it is also true that when we are united completely with God in heaven, we will love as He loves and desire as He desires. In His great love, God, as we said before, “wills everyone to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4). It is possible to say, then, that the heart of God — manifest in Jesus Christ — “aches” because so many of His people have chosen to separate themselves from Him. As Pope Benedict XVI puts it in “Behold the Pierced One,” commenting on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, “… God is a sufferer because He is a lover.” It is possible to say that, in some mysterious way, those in heaven share in the suffering of God because they share so perfectly in God’s love, and yet this suffering does not diminish the perfect happiness of heaven that flows from complete communion with God.

Trust in the Mercy of God

This is the third in a series on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, heaven or hell.

Given the stark reality of hell, we may also wonder how we can have any peace on this earth, considering that our own imperfections might hinder another person’s walk with God and ultimately his or her salvation. When faced with this concern, Jesus invites us to place all our trust in Him. Recall how, in His appearances to the disciples after His Resurrection, often He said, “Peace be with you” (cf. Jn 20:21). Jesus wants us to be filled with His peace even when we are consciously aware of our own many failures. St. Peter, who had stumbled so often in his walk with the Lord, even denying Jesus three times, later wrote with great confidence, “Cast all of your worries upon Him because He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7). While we are certainly called to seek Christian perfection by loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbor as our self (cf. Mk 12:30-31), thereby assisting our neighbor on the road to salvation, we also trust in the wideness of God’s mercy when we fall short of this mission. We can have great confidence in Jesus, our Lord and Savior, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Just as the father in the parable welcomed his prodigal son with open arms, even though his son had sinned gravely, so God our Father is always ready to welcome us back into His embrace, provided we return to Him.