In the Gospel at Mass today (26th Sunday, Ordinary Time, Cycle B) from the 9th chapter of Mark, Jesus mentions "Gehenna" three times. What's this "Gehenna?" It's an actual place. Before the Israelites arrived in the Promised Land, other peoples had used this valley outside of Jerusalem as a place to offer child sacrifices to their idols. The Jews considered it such an unholy and unclean place that it was good for only one thing--burning garbage.
Jesus used "Gehenna" 11 times in the Gospels as an image for hell.
Hell is not something you hear about much. It does show up as an expression of anger or hatred. We use it to condemn our enemies or someone who has done a particularly heinous crime: "I hope they rot in hell!"
For many it's hard to reconcile hell with a good, all-powerful, and infinitely loving God. How could God send anyone to hell?
God doesn't. People choose it.
The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" says that the "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'" (#1033).
And Pope St. John Paul II said that hell "is not a punishment imposed externally by God" because "God is the infinitely good and merciful Father" who "can only desire the salvation of the beings He created" (General Audience, July 28, 1999). God can only will or want our good. But God cannot force that ultimate good of heaven upon us. Love must be free. God cannot force people into heaven. They must freely choose to go. And if they choose not to go, then there must be another option for them.
There are some things that are simply incompatible with heaven. There is no room for the jealousy that we see Joshua exhibiting in our first reading (Numbers 11: 25-29). Nor is there room for the injustice and greed that James talks about in the second reading (James 5: 1-6). There is no room for sin in heaven.
Professor and author Peter Kreeft, who teaches at Boston College, has a shocking remark about this. In his book "Heaven: The Heart's Deepest Longing," he says that "God does not forgive sins." Then he goes on to explain that God "forgives sinners and destroys sins" (186). That makes sense. God loves sinners and hates sin. God sees how much sin damages our relationship with him and with one another. It hurts and damages our very selves and leads to all kinds of misery. So God wants to free people of their sins and throw them into the garbage dump of the cosmos--hell.
I grew up fearing God, that God would send me to hell. I thought that if I were running to church for Saturday afternoon confession in order to get rid of a moral sin and got hit by a car I would hit the greasy shoot to hell.
I have a different idea now. It seems more and more clear that death is a process rather than a moment. We see this from near death experiences in which people have, for all practical purposes, died; their brain waves have stopped as well as their hearts. And they somehow return to tell stories of an experience of a life beyond this life.
I believe that no matter who we are and what we believe we all meet Jesus face to face as we die. And he asks us one question: "Do you want to be with me forever?" We might hesitate, feeling shame and unworthiness for our sins. But Jesus presses on, asking us again, "Yes, I know, but do you want to be with me forever?" Or we might ask if we can be with him on our terms, holding on to something that has no place in heaven. Jesus will tell us we can't bring that in; we have to let go.
This is so important to Jesus that in today's Gospel he tells us that if we're holding on to something sinful, it would be better to cut off our hand so that it and the sin we cling to do not prevent us from entering his Kingdom. Or if we hold on to sin with our eyes, we should pluck them out because that sin does not belong in heaven. It's garbage that needs to be thrown away.
We might wonder: how could anyone say "no" to Jesus' invitation? I think of how people can hold on to bitter resentments. I can imagine people answering "yes" but then, as they cross the threshold of heaven they see someone who has hurt them terribly or an enemy. "What's he doing here?" Jesus answers: "He admitted he had done wrong and asked for my forgiveness and I forgave him." And the response could be: "Well, you may have forgiven him for what he did to me but I will never forgive him. I would rather rot in hell than to spend one minute much less eternity with him."
We are here on earth for one thing: to learn how to live in heaven. In heaven there is no selfishness, no lustful using other people for one's pleasure. There is no greed and injustice, no envy or deceit. There is no racism and hatred. There is no unforgiveness.
We have to let go of those things here. We need to throw out the garbage, lest we end up clinging to it in the cosmic garbage dump that Jesus called Gehenna. We don't want anything to stand in the way of answering immediately and whole-heartedly "YES!" when Jesus asks us "Do you want to be with me forever."