Does hell exist?

Readings: AA 13. 14-52; Ps. 100; Rev. 7-17; Jn. 10.27-30

Does hell exist? The Scriptures say so. The Catholic Church teaches so. But the gospel today says: "My sheep hear my voice. I give them eternal life. They shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand. No one can take them out of my Father's hand." How do we resolve this apparent conflict?

Does hell exist? In the Scriptures, Jesus explains for his disciples the parable of the seeds and the weeds. "The weeds are the followers of the evil one. Just as the weeds are collected and burned, the Son of Man will dispatch the angels to collect from his kingdom all who draw others to apostasy, and all evildoers. The angels will hurl them into the fiery furnace where they will wail and grind their teeth." (Mt. 13. 39, 41) Later in that same gospel, Jesus teaches about the Last Judgment. "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, he will separate people into two groups, as a shepherd separates sheep from the goats." (Mt. 25.31) Jesus asks the question, "When I was hungry, did you give me to eat; when I was thirsty, did you give me to drink; when I was sick or in prison, did you visit me? To some he will say, inherit the kingdom I have prepared for you. To others, he will say: "Out of my sight, you condemned, into that everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels." (Mt. 13.41)

The Church teaches in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God is called 'hell'."

Also we say in the Creed, "He descended into hell". The English word Hell has a couple of meanings. On the one hand, hell when translating the Hebrew word sheol or the Greek word Hades means a temporary abode of those who have died. Jesus, therefore, having died descended into hell. All who have died, righteous or damned, have descended into this temporary abode of the dead. Jesus descended into hell but rose again on the third day, and took with him those righteous people who had been waiting for salvation. On the other hand, hell when translating Gehenna means a permanent place or state of being of the damned.

Why are some people in hell? In today's gospel, Jesus says about his sheep, "They shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand. No one can take them out of the Father's hand." The Scriptures describe and the Church explains that while God rejects no one, some people nevertheless reject God. God predestines no one to hell, but some people exclude themselves. Some people choose hell. Some people prefer hell. Personally, may I observe, that sins of the passions according to St. Thomas Aquinas are the most easily forgiven, while sins of the mind are with the greatest difficulty forgiven. E.g., people who find themselves victims of excessive or improper eating, drinking, drugs, sex outside of marriage, gambling beyond one's needs, anger beyond control have succumbed to their passions. On the other hand, pre-meditated evil actions are the worst sins, especially when one person manipulates another person. Personally, I imagine that if anybody is in hell among them will be the kingpins of the drug world who have become wealthy on the needs of other people; political leaders who intentionally have fomented wars rather than having worked effectively for peace; the scions of the business world who intentionally mis-used the pensions of their employees, the producers of pornography who have attracted one-third of all hits on the internet. In summary, if anybody is in hell, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that it is those who intentionally manipulated other people and did not repent.

Why would someone be in hell? By way of preface, venial or mortal sin means being self-seeking rather than self-giving, choosing self over God, pride over humility, greed instead of generosity, gluttony over moderation, lust over love, sloth over work, excessive anger instead of appropriate anger.

Mortal sin means deadly sin. Mortal sin separates us from God. Even after sinning, we still have a chance to ask forgiveness, and to repent, and to re-new our relationship with God. If someone separates him/herself from God in a permanent way, that is why someone goes to hell. Hell is self-exclusion from God in a permanent state.

Today's gospel, John 10, is the Good Shepherd chapter. This chapter begins with Jesus saying, "I am the good shepherd; I am the sheepgate; I lay down my life for my sheep." Today's gospel begins: "My sheep know my voice; I know them and they follow me. They shall never perish." I called a parishioner who is a sheep farmer. I inquired if sheep ever go astray. The sheep farmer replied, "Generally, sheep are a herd animal. They rarely stray. Some breeds of sheep, however, are more inclined to stray; they go their own way. And some sheep become lost accidentally because they might catch a hoof in a rock crevice or their horns in a thicket, or a lamb might continue sleeping when the herd moves on."

To my fellow sheep in church, may I suggest that we pay attention to the Good Shepherd. Listen for his voice. Don't go astray by being too strongly self-willed, or placing yourself in dangerous places or occasions of sin. Jesus promises that no one can take the sheep out of his or his Father's hand, but individually we can exclude ourselves. Hell does exist. The Scriptures and the Church teach that. God's mercy and salvation through Jesus exist too. You are in God's hands. Choose to stay in God's hands in order to stay out of hell.

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