Hell is never a nasty surprise waiting for a basically happy person. Hell can only be the full flowering of a pride and selfishness that have, through a long time, twisted a heart so thoroughly that it considers happiness as unhappiness and has an arrogant disdain for happy people. If you are essentially warm of heart this side of eternity, you need not fear that a nasty surprise awaits you on the other side because somewhere along the line, unknowingly, you missed the boat and your life went terribly wrong.
Unfortunately for many us, the preaching and catechesis of our youth sometimes schooled us in the idea that you could tragically miss the boat without knowing it and that there was no return. You could live your life sincerely, in essential honesty, relate fairly to others, try your best given your weaknesses, have some bounce and happiness in life, and then die and find that some sin you’ve committed or mistake you’d made, perhaps even unknowingly, could doom you to hell and there was no further chance for repentance. The second of your death was your last chance to change things, no second chances after death, no matter how badly you might like then to repent. As a tree falls so shall it lie! We were schooled to fear dying and the afterlife.
But, whatever the practical effectiveness of such a concept, because it really could make one hesitate in the face of temptation because of the fear of hell, it is essentially wrong and should not be taught in the name of Christianity. Why? Because it belies the God and the deep truths Jesus revealed. Jesus did teach that there was a hell and that it was a possibility for everyone. But the hell that Jesus spoke of is not a place or a state where someone is begging for one last chance, just one more minute of life to make an act of contrition, and God is refusing. The God whom Jesus both incarnates and reveals is a God who is forever open to repentance, forever open to contrition, and forever waiting our return from our prodigal wanderings.
With God we never exhaust our chances. Can you imagine God looking at a repentant man or woman and saying: “Sorry! For you, it’s too late! You had your chance! Don’t come asking for another chance now!” That could not be the father of Jesus.
And yet the Gospels can give us that impression. We have, for example, the famous parable of the rich man who ignores the poor man at his doorstep, dies, and ends up in hell, while the poor man, Lazarus, whom he had ignored, is now in heaven, comforted in the bosom of Abraham. From his torment in hell, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him with some water, but Abraham replies that there is an unbridgeable gap between heaven and hell and no one can cross from one side to the other. That text, along with Jesus’ warnings about that the doors of the wedding banquet will at a point be irrevocably closed, has led to the common misconception that there is a point of no return, that once in hell, it is too late to repent.
But that’s not what this text, nor Jesus’ warning on the urgency of repentance, teaches. The “unbridgeable gap” here refers, among other things, to a gap that remains forever unbridged here in this world between the rich and the poor. And it remains unbridged because of our intransigence, our failure to change heart, our lack of contrition, not because God runs out of patience and says: “Enough! No more chances!” It remains unbridged because, habitually, we become so set in our ways that we are incapable of change and genuine repentance.
Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus actually draws upon a more ancient Jewish story that illustrates this intransigence. In the parallel Jewish parable, God does hear the rich man’s plea from hell for a second chance and grants it to him. The rich man, now full of new resolutions, returns to life, goes immediately to the market, loads his cart with food and, as he is driving home, meets Lazarus on the road. Lazarus asks for a loaf of bread. The rich man jumps off his cart to give it to him, but, has he pulls a huge loaf of bread from his cart, his old self starts to reassert itself. He begins to think: “This man doesn’t need a whole loaf! Why not just give him a part! And why should he have a fresh loaf, I’ll give him some of the stale bread!” Immediately he finds himself back in hell! He still cannot bridge the gap.
Kathleen Dowling Singh submits that in making a series of mental contractions we create our own fear of death. That’s true too for the afterlife: by making a series of unfortunate theological contractions, we create our own fear of hell.
Unless you are already a full saint or a mystic, you will always live in some fear of death and the afterlife. That’s simply part of being human. But we can, and must, move beyond our fear of God.
As a child, I lived with a lot of fear. I had a very active imagination and too frequently imagined murderers under my bed, poisonous snakes slithering up my leg, deadly germs in my food, playground bullies looking for a victim, a hundred ways in which I could meet an accidental death, and threats of every kind lurking in the dark. As a child I was often afraid: afraid of the dark, afraid of death, afraid of the afterlife, and afraid of God.
As I matured, so too did my imagination; it no longer pictured snakes hiding everywhere or murderers under my bed. I began to feel strong, in control, imagining the unknown, with its dark corners, more as opportunity for growth than as threat to life. But it was one thing to block out fear of snakes, murderers, and the dark. Not so easily did I overcome my fear of death, fear of the afterlife, and fear of God. These fears are the last demons to be exorcised, and that exorcism is never final, never completely done with. Jesus himself trembled in fear before death, before the unknown that faces us in death. But he didn’t tremble in fear before God; the opposite, in fact. As he faced death and the unknown, he was able give himself over to God, in childlike trust, like a child clinging to a loving parent, and that gave him the strength and courage to undergo an anonymous, lonely, and misunderstood death with dignity, grace, and forgiveness.
We need never be afraid of God. God can be trusted. But trust in God does include a healthy fear of God because one particular fear is part of the anatomy of love itself. Scripture says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But that fear, healthy fear, must be understood as a reverence, a loving awe, a love that fears disappointing. Healthy fear is love’s fear, a fear of betraying, of not being faithful to what love asks of us in return for its gratuity. We aren’t afraid of someone we trust, fearing that he or she will suddenly turn arbitrary, unfair, cruel, incomprehensible, vicious, unloving. Rather we are afraid about our own being worthy of the trust that’s given us, not least from God.
But we must trust that God understands our humanity: God doesn’t demand that we give God our conscious attention all of the time. God accepts the natural wanderings of our hearts. God accepts our tiredness and fatigue. God accepts our need for distraction and escape. God accepts that we usually find it easier to immerse ourselves in entertainment than to pray. And God even accepts our resistances to him and our need to assert, with pride, our own independence. Like a loving mother embracing a child that’s kicking and screaming but needs to be picked up and held, God can handle our anger, self-pity, and resistance. God understands our humanity, but we struggle to understand what it means to be human before God.
For many years I feared I was too immersed in the things of this world to consider myself a spiritual person, always fearing that God wanted more from me. I felt I should be spending more time in prayer, but, too often, I’d end up too tired to pray, more interested in watching a sports event on television or more interested in sitting around with family, colleagues, or friends, talking about everything except spiritual things.
For years I feared God wanted me to be more explicitly spiritual. God probably did! But, as I’ve aged, I’ve come to realize that being with God in prayer and being with God in heart is like being with a trusted friend. In an easeful friendship, friends don’t spend most of their time talking about their mutual friendship. Rather, they talk about everything: local gossip, the weather, their work, their children, their headaches, their heartaches, their tiredness, what they saw on television the night before, their favourite sports teams, what’s happening in politics, and the jokes they’ve heard recently — though they occasionally lament that they should ideally be talking more about deeper things. Should they?
John of the Cross teaches that, in any longer-term friendship, eventually the important things begin to happen under the surface, and surface conversation becomes secondary. Togetherness, ease with each other, comfort, and the sense of being at home, is what we give each other then.
That’s also true for our relationship with God. God made us to be human and God wants us, with all of our wandering weaknesses, to be in his presence, with ease, with comfort, and with the feeling that we are at home. Our fear of God can be reverence or timidity; the former is healthy, the latter is neurotic.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.