30 July 2009

Hell is good for you!

17th Week OT (Th): Ex 40.16-21, 34-8; Matt 13.47-53
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

Setting aside for the moment a few ugly episodes and outrageous characters from the Order's history, it is safe to say that Dominicans have a well-deserved reputation for preferring to teach folks into heaven rather than scaring them away from Hell. We would rather persuade than cajole, influence rather than frighten. Generally speaking, it is better to touch a rational soul with the Light of Christ than it is to scare the snot out of a sinner with ghastly visions of Hell. But sometimes the rational soul of a sinner might need to be shown a scene or two of eternal life without God—just a brief glimpse into exactly what never-ending torment looks like. Doesn't a soul twisted in folly, unable to choose the Good and come to God, doesn't a soul so injured deserve the mercy of wisdom's most immediate remedy? Jesus, the Master Philosopher, knows that even a mind deeply dedicated to right reason but steeped in sin may need a hot-shock, a whack upside the head in order to see through foolish to wisdom. The “fiery furnace” he refers to so often in Matthew's gospel is just that jolt of reality we sometimes need. It's not pretty, but it sure is helpful.

As helpful as images of Hell may be, we tend to shy away from preaching about eternal damnation these days. Too 1950's. Too fundamentalist. Very “pre-Vatican Two”—whatever that means. But if we are going to preach the gospel, there is simply no way to avoid the subject given the lectionary readings! These last two weeks alone Jesus has separated the goats from the sheep; pulled the weeds from among the flowers; culled the good fish from the bad; and his angels have set the midden-heap of pruned branches ablaze. The wicked and the righteous are well and truly labeled, properly queued up, and ready to receive their eternal itineraries. So, let's not mince words; let's study the truth as Jesus presents it to us: make a choice—goat or sheep, flower or weed, good fish or bad, fertile soil or barren dirt. All you need to do is make the right choice. The consequences of making the wrong choice are—shall we say—extremely unpleasant! In the best sense, the choices before us really are just this stark and the consequences of our choices just this easy to discern. Few of us, however, experience the choices in such stark terms.

So why is Jesus presenting the choices in such glaring black and white terms? Why the threat of eternal punishment in the fiery furnace for making the wrong choice? Jesus is a Master Philosopher and a Master Psychologist. Think about how Jesus preaches and teaches. He uses parables, scriptural allusions, conversation, examples, even miracles. Sometimes he interrogates and cajoles. Rarely does he argue like a Greek philosopher or a Pharisee. The people in the crowds respond to him b/c he sparks to life their intuitions about what is true and good and beautiful about being well-loved creatures. He knows that his very presence jump-starts that nagging desire for God that we are born with and strive to satisfy in this life. And he knows that without God's help we will consistently fail to reach high enough when reaching for our happiness. Settling for imitation happiness, faux-joy—this might impress the neighbors, but it takes the real-deal to enter the kingdom. And if Jesus has to scare the snot out of us to get us to pay attention to our eternal choices, then get the hankie ready—here comes the scare!

If you were frightened into the faith, you might not be particularly proud of the fact. It would be more embarrassing, however, to remain faithful out of fear, to remain a believer because the fiery furnace looms large in the imagination. The threat of the furnace is meant to scald a foolish soul into seeing the light of reason, to awake a sleepy desire for God. Clearly, Hell is a very real option for anyone who chooses to live without God for eternity. But Hell is not the be-all and end-all of the gospel. Once the furnace-option has been rejected and we have joined the flowers, the sheep, the good fish, and the fertile soil, Hell might linger as a whiff of smoke to remind us of our wise choice, but the daily life of a Christian is not dominated by the fear of an already and always defeated enemy. We chose to receive the extravagant graces poured out from the cross and the empty tomb. Though the heat of the furnace may have turned us from its punishing flames, setting us on the right course, we stay the course for Christ b/c nothing else, no one else can bring us home. For us, no one else is home.


  1. Sometimes God even works circumstances in our own lives to show you what it feels like to be unable to sense His presence in our existence.

    Just THAT alone is enough to "scare sense" into any normal person.



  2. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the fool who doesn't believe in God does not fear Him, but when he begins to believe he fears! But as perfect love casts out fear and the fear of the Lord is pure and endures forever, so the sinner who abandons sin in exchange for the love of God, he stops being like the adulterous wife who fears the return of her husband, and exchanges that fear for the fear of the chaste wife who fears her husband will not return.

    with gratitude to St. Augustine

  3. Philip, just to mention that we think alike. Preaching the full gospel, one is untrue if he or she omits the often present warnings that Jesus makes about hell. Is it possible that everyone is saved anyway? As unlikely as it may seem, I think we have to admit the possibility and out of charity pray that it is the case. You take much care in preparing your daily reflection. May God bless you for the effort as it blesses others. carmen mele