In 2009 the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a survey which reported that only 59% of Americans believe in hell, compared with 74% who believe in heaven. This naturally leads us to pose the question: When was the last time you heard a strong, unfiltered and unambiguous homily on sin and hell? We know that God’s infinite mercy has been made abundantly clear to the faithful over the last fifty years, but how about His justice and the consequences of our sin?
Our Catholic faith teaches us that one of three things will occur immediately following death. We learn in the Basic Catholic Catechism by Fr. William Most of the possible outcomes awaiting us following particular judgment:
Those whose love for God has been perfected in this life are taken straight to heaven, where they enjoy endless happiness in the face to face vision of God.
Those who die in God’s love but still love Him imperfectly must be purified in the intermediate state of purgatory.
Those, however, who reject God’s love by mortal sin and die without repenting are condemned to the everlasting torments of hell.
What is Mortal Sin?
Teaching the Catholic faithful on the need to remain in a state of grace and to avoid mortal sin is an inherently merciful act. However, this requires more than simply asking people to go to Confession. We must also educate the faithful on what it is that they need to confess.
In defining sin the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us:
Sin is an offense against God…Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it.
Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become “like gods,” knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus “love of oneself even to contempt of God.”
In this proud self-exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation. (CCC 1850)
We have to accept the sad reality that many will reject the Truth. The obligation to evangelize requires charity and honesty, but ultimately it demands that we share the Truth with others. How the message is received is out of our control. With humility we must hand that aspect of evangelization over to God in prayer.
When speaking of sin and hell with others it is important to treat adults like adults. In all areas of life we are required to make important decisions that carry with them consequences. Catholics are frequently presented with tough choices too, many of which put us in direct opposition to the current culture or even with our own fallen nature.
Ultimately, all of us will choose to either go to heaven or to go to hell. While our Lord will judge us following our death, we will have already chosen our fate through our actions. Saint Alphonsus Liguori , a Doctor of the Church, wrote:
The greater part of men choose to be damned rather than to love Almighty God.
The consistent and infallible teaching of the Catholic Church is quite clear when it comes to death and hell. Eternal damnation awaits those who do not repent but instead die in a state of mortal sin.
I have seen many practicing Catholics become angry when presented with this truth of the faith. They have been given an incomplete picture of God over the years, one which only stresses His attributes of love and mercy while completely ignoring His justice and our free will.
The Sin of Presumption
I would argue that one of the greatest afflictions facing many within the Church today is the sin of presumption. According to the old Catholic Encyclopedia (1917), the sin of presumption can be defined as the “condition of a soul that, because of a badly regulated reliance on God’s mercy and power, hopes for salvation without doing anything to deserve it, or for pardon of his sins without repenting of them.”
The sin of presumption is common among those who obstinately cling to habitual sins and then claim that they will simply rely upon God’s mercy when they die. We often hear that God will have to accept them “as is”, understanding that they “did the best they could.” This is the mantra of those who use contraception, reject the necessity of sacramental confession, frequently miss Mass, or some other habitual sin.
In the gospels we read that the devil took this same approach with our Lord when he tempted Him in the desert. He took Jesus to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple and told Jesus to throw himself down, tempting God to save Him. To this Jesus responded by saying, “Again it is written, Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Let us all behave like adults. God has given us the wonderful gift and responsibility of our free will. Together with our holy priests, may we all seek to catechize the faithful and work to form consciences. To this end we must make sure that we do not run from discussing the consequences of sin and the reality of hell.