The following homily was given by Father Timothy Reid for the 1st Sunday of Advent. Fr. Reid is pastor of St. Ann Catholic Church and a priest of the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina. It is presented here with his permission.
As we enter into the very beautiful and theologically rich season of Advent, we are reminded of how our Lord will come again and the final judgment that will occur then. Two Sundays ago I spoke about the particular judgment we all will face when we die. At that moment we will either have entrance into the blessedness of heaven, whether through a purification or immediately, or we will experience immediate and everlasting damnation. That’s it. Those are the only options.
That same Sunday I spoke about Purgatory, which is a temporary state of purification that takes place after death for those who die in a state of grace (i.e., without mortal sin), but who still have not been completely purified of their sins. (cf. CCC 1030)
Yet what about hell? As Catholics we know that hell exists and that it’s a real possibility for all of us when we die, but have we ever really considered it as a real possibility for ourselves? As we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus will separate the sheep and goats.
In our western society today (in contrast to centuries past) we are very quick to console ourselves with the false notion that all of our loved ones pass immediately into Heaven upon their death. We see this in the things we say at funerals, such as: “Well, he’s in a better place now,” or “his suffering is over now.” We see it as well when funeral Masses are renamed “Masses of the Resurrection.”
My brothers and sisters: such words and actions are all very presumptive. Hell is real, and souls really do go there – perhaps even our loved ones.
The Church teaches that hell is a state of definitive and eternal self-exclusion from God and the blessed souls in Heaven. Eternal union with God requires that we die in God’s friendship – that we truly love God. But if we love God, we keep His commandments.
Jesus tells us in St. John’s Gospel: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). St. John echoes this in his 1st epistle: “For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 Jn 5:3).
Simply put, we cannot say that we truly love God if we sin gravely against Him, our neighbors, or ourselves. If we die in mortal sin without repenting – without accepting God’s mercy – this means that we will separate ourselves from Him forever.
Sacred Scripture provides multiple references to hell, and the Church has always affirmed the existence of hell, with the most “damning” evidence (if you will) coming from Jesus Himself.
Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost (cf. Mt 5:22)” (CCC 1034).
“Jesus solemnly proclaims that he ‘will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,’ (cf. Mt. 13:41-42), and that He will pronounce the condemnation: ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!’” (cf. Mt 25:41) (CCC 1034).
Furthermore, Jesus makes it clear that, not only is there no universal salvation, but that it’s much easier to go to hell than it is to get to Heaven! He says in Matthew’s Gospel: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt 7:13-14). Coming from our Lord Himself, we should weigh these words very carefully!
Holy Mother Church teaches that, after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer eternal punishments. We don’t know exactly what hell is like, but we do know that there is everlasting fire. This fire is not like fire here on earth, but is a fire that afflicts the body and the soul. There will be a pain that can be sensed, i.e., similar to pain we experience when hurt. But the chief punishment of hell is the pain of loss: the eternal separation from God, in Whom alone man possesses life and finds the happiness for which he was created. It is an awful loneliness, total separation from God, utter despair (cf. CCC 1035).
Knowing that hell is a real possibility means we must consider carefully how we use the gift of free will. In any moral decision, we must always keep in mind not just the temporal consequences of our decisions, but the eternal consequences as well. So, in a sense, knowing that there really is a hell (and that going there is a real possibility for us all) should be a call to conversion (cf. CCC 1036).
Keep in mind that God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell. He’s created us all to go to Heaven. In fact, God doesn’t damn anyone to hell. All who go to hell go there because they’ve chosen it by their own free will. God created man with the capacity to choose – He’s given us free will – so that we might choose to love Him, for there can be no real love without true freedom.
While free will was given to us so that we might choose what is right and just, beginning with our first parents in the Garden of Eden, man has often chosen to misuse the gift of freedom to pursue his own will rather than God’s. Every time that we turn away from God’s will, we damage our relationship with Him to greater or lesser degrees, depending on the severity of our sins. At times man’s pursuit of his own will can be so opposed to God’s will that it completely drives the love of God from man’s soul.
Our moral choices have consequences, and we have the capacity to say no to God in such a radical way that cuts us off completely from God’s sanctifying grace. This is what we call mortal sin: the free, knowing, and willful commission of a grave sin.
Going to hell is reserved for those who not only commit a mortal sin, but who persist in it until death, without remorse – without asking for God’s forgiveness. So it is that the Church very beautifully prays for all of us to be saved from damnation in the Canon of the Mass:
Order our days in your peace, and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.
Many saints have been given visions of hell, for example St. John Bosco, St. Teresa of Avila, and in our own time, Blessed Francisco and Jacinta from Fatima. What we learn from each of their visions is that the punishments meted out to souls in hell directly correspond to their sins. We see this, too, in Dante’s famous Inferno, where he walks through the 9 circles of hell, describing the punishments meted out there and the corresponding sins that merited those punishments.
Yet, as sure as there is a hell and that we all have the possibility of going there, it is also sure that God’s mercy is always available to any sinner who desires it. In fact, God cannot resist any sinner who desires His mercy. All we need do is repent and ask for it.
Brothers and sisters, at the end of time God will be glorified by every soul He has created. The souls in hell will give glory to His justice while the souls in Heaven will give glory to His mercy. With the help of Our Lady and all the saints, may we be among those who know His mercy for all eternity.
Picture above from Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” (1536-1541).