Today's Gospel (Luke 16: 19-31) brings up a topic that you don't hear very often--hell. Nowadays it's common to hear: "I don't believe in hell. How could a good and infinitely loving God send anyone to hell?" Yet Jesus tells a parable about a mysterious place in "the netherworld" where there is fire and torment. What are we to make of this?
The parables of Jesus were meant to be shocking. They were designed to make the listener think and then act. The parable of the rich man and the poor man named Lazarus would have been very shocking to the people of Jesus' time. The common understanding then was that wealth was a sign of God's favor and poverty was a sign that God was not happy with you. Yet in the Beatitudes Jesus said "Blessed are the poor" and he preached about how difficult it was for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven--as difficult as a camel going through the eye of a needle. When the apostles heard this they were shocked and asked, "then who can be saved?" They had the common understanding that wealth was a sign of God's favor.
Jesus addressed today's parable to the Pharisees, a group that scrupulously followed the Law but did not have mercy in their hearts. Jesus challenges them and us to be merciful to one another as God is.
But if God is all-merciful, how can there be a hell? The truth is God does not send anyone to hell. People choose it for themselves. Hell exists because God is all-loving and will never force his love or will on his children. Love must be free and God has given each of us the freedom to accept or to reject his love. Rejecting God leads to alienation from God and from all his children.
Here's how the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1033 puts it: The "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell.'" Notice: it's "self-exclusion" not an exclusion on God's part.
Pope John Paul II further explained this in a General Audience on July 28, 1999. He said: "God is the infinitely good and merciful Father. But man, called to respond to him freely, can unfortunately choose to reject his love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself forever from joyful communion with him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or Hell. It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life. ... 'Eternal damnation,' therefore, is not attributed to God's initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created."
In other words, God does not send anyone to hell. People choose it.
Did the rich man in the Gospel choose hell? The "premises" of his earthly life--his attitudes, values, and choices--had consequences that led naturally to this end. We are on earth to learn to breathe the atmosphere of heaven, a state of love and mercy, of care and sharing, of justice and peace. The rich man had not learned his lessons.
Here is a contemporary example. A few years ago the following appeared in a newspaper column:
DEAR ABBEY: I am a middle-aged woman who is Baptist by faith. I believe that when I die I will go to heaven. My problem is, if going to heaven means being reunited with my parents and other family members, then I don't want to go! The idea of spending eternity with them is more than I can stand, but I don't want to go to hell, either. Any thoughts? --ETERNAL CONFUSED IN MISSISSIPPI
DEAR ETERNALLY CONFUSED: Yes. When you reach the pearly gates, talk this over with St. Peter. Perhaps he would be willing to place you in a different wing than the one your parents and other family members are staying in. And in the meantime, discuss this with your minister.
No. It doesn't work like this. There are no separate wings in heaven for our enemies. There is no room in heaven for resentment, hatred, and greed, or any of the other ways in which we treat one another as less than human, less than a child of God, a brother or sister. "Eternally Confused" is not learning her lessons. She is not preparing for heaven but, by holding on to those resentments, is setting in motion "premises" that will lead to eternal separation from God and the communion of saints.
The rich man in the Gospel didn't learn to breathe the atmosphere of heaven. Though Lazarus was right outside his door as he "dined sumptuously each day," he did not see him. For the rich man Lazarus was not a person but a non-entity. What mattered more to the rich man was his own pleasure, his own possessions and wealth, himself. That he had not learned the lesson he needed to learn before he died is shown in how he treats Lazarus in the afterlife. He asks Abraham to have Lazarus dip his finger in cool water and bring it to him to relieve his torment. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. He does not treat Lazarus like a child of God, a brother, an equal. He treats Lazarus like a slave, ordering him around to serve him and his family circle.
The message is clear. St. Catherine of Siena once said "All the way to heaven is heaven." We could add, all the way to hell is hell. Our earthly lives are preparation for eternal life with God or without God.