Posted by: L. E. Barnes | December 13, 2010

Monday Message

Fr. Robert Barron clarifies some issues regarding hell:

Recently, an atheist friend of mine and I got into a discussion (via Facebook posts) that stemmed from his anger over a person who said–whether to his face or behind his back I wasn’t exactly sure–that he and his wife were going to hell. Since I don’t know the person who (allegedly) said that to or about my friend, I can’t judge him. I don’t know what is in his heart, nor do I know what his attitude or intentions were. But my friend became very upset and even went so far as to assert that saying a person was going to hell constituted an “act of hostility.”

Of course, I have to disagree that claiming someone is going to hell is a hostile thing to do. At worst, it can be called mean-spirited, but even then it depends on the speaker’s attitude or intentions. For instance, I’ve known of people who, when hearing or reading arguments critical of their religious faith (whether Christianity or otherwise), will respond to the person saying those things by snickering and snidely remarking, “Ha! Well, you’re going to hell!”–as if they’re even relishing the idea of that person going to hell. Such an attitude is not only extremely mean-spirited, it’s extremely juvenile. However, if done in a spirit of love and humility, warning someone about hell is no more an “act of hostility” than warning a driver that if he doesn’t change directions he’s going to end up driving off the edge of a cliff.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hell as a “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” (CCC 1033) In a program on the History Channel about hell, an Orthodox priest being interviewed remarked that the Orthodox churches view hell as being ultimately self-imposed. In other words, it comes down to our free will, as Fr. Barron points out in the video clip. God isn’t going to force you to spend eternity with Him; your love for God and desire to be with Him must come freely. How could Heaven be enjoyed if you’re made to be there against your will?

A preacher once came to the university where I did my graduate English studies and shouted at passersby, “You are damned! You are condemned!” Well, not only was he guilty of redundancy (because damned and condemned mean the same thing), but he was guilty of being presumptuous to the extreme. First, he didn’t even know the people he was haranguing, so he didn’t know what their spiritual state was. (For all he knew, he could have been yelling at people who were highly devout Christians, after all!) And second, as Fr. Barron indicated toward the end of his talk, the Church holds that it’s not really for us to say that a particular person either is in or will wind up in hell. Or as Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft notes, the New Testament does not provide us with comparative population statistics of heaven and hell. Also, the Church explicitly accepts that non-Christians may be saved. This is not to deny that eternal separation from God is still a very real danger, and we as Christians have an obligation to spread the gospel message. However, remember that those who choose not to be embrace Christianity will be judged by God, not us.

Finally, in spreading the faith, remember to do so in love. The Catechism reminds us that “the missionary task implies a respectful dialogue with those who do not yet accept the Gospel.” Besides, aggressive evangelistic methods–such as yelling at people that they’re going to hell–are normally counterproductive. We would do well instead to keep in mind the saying that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

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Responses

  1. Glad you posted this. We can say that certain actions can lead someone to an eternal separation from God, but we, as father says, cannot say that any one individual is definitively in hell. We know for sure the bad angels and Lucifer are there and will never get out, but God in His justice is the only one qualified to judge another person.

    My response to someone who professes to be an atheist is to pray for him, that some day he will see God working in his life and leave it at that because I don’t think I’m qualified to argue atheist issues. Others can do it better. In any case, we should not run around telling other people they are ipso facto going to hell. It only makes some people more determined to continue sinning. And if we’re not careful, our own pride will take us to hell whereas our atheists may convert and enjoy heaven without us.

    • I totally agree. There are lots of apologists who can defend Christianity much better than I could ever do, so trying to argue it would probably be a waste of time. And besides, some atheists would never be swayed by any argument, no matter how logical or well supported. Instead, only a work of grace will draw them to the Lord.


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