I have a little brochure on my bulletin board (along with my "too bad it's raining" toon) titled "Hell Exists and We Might Go There." Below the title there's an illustration of Our Lady of Fatima "showing the three shepherd children the vision of hell." I have to admit, it makes me chuckle, every time I see it. Hell exists. We might go there. Don't go saying you never were told.
I know there's a sort of existential fight going on in the Church about how we should think about hell. As long as I can remember, I've heard opposing views on the damned place: hell exists, but it is empty. Hell exists, and it might be empty, for all we know. Hell is full of people!!! I've often heard it said that the reason the Church (and the world) is falling apart is that no one's afraid of going to hell anymore.
This week at a parish activity, one of our participants said that she is so thankful that we're still alive and can pray for our salvation- that we can pray for those in purgatory- that we still have a chance of heaven, unlike the poor people who suffer in hell, and the other poor people who suffer in purgatory. She mourned that so many people walk around every day not knowing that they should be praying to avoid hell... wasting time that could be spent trying to reverse their fortunes. She also said that it's just too bad for those people who didn't do something while they were alive, because those in purgatory can't help themselves, and those who are in hell, well, it's over for them. That door has been closed.
I felt the other members of our group stiffen at her words, her passion. This was a group of older people, pre-Vatican II people, raised on vivid images of hell. But each one who responded to our first commenter urged her to remember that Jesus spoke of mercy along with justice. (I feel quite sure she was unconvinced though...)
Maybe I've written about this here before, but it's been a defining image in my faith life and understanding of God, so I'll tell it again: at a prayer group with high school girls, the topic of and salvation came up. One of the girls said that her grandmother used to throw big birthday parties for the kids, where they'd arrive and be handed a piece of string, and they'd have to follow that string to the end, where a gift was attached. The string would lead them through every room of the house, up and down stairs, into corners and closets and out again.
Okay, but here's the clincher. She said that night that, she thought, if one of the kids at the party failed to find her gift by the end of the event, Grandma would say "SORRY KID! TIME'S UP!" She said her grandmother wanted each child to find that gift. She said she thought that God wants us to have salvation so much that God will find a way to give it to us, even if we run out of time, even if we mess up and tie our string up in knots.
I had to agree with her. What kind of God would set a time limit on salvation? This, then, is the faith-and-good-works problem: do we earn salvation, receive it by grace, or do we have to cooperate in some way, once the grace is given, to keep it? It's an eternal question, and the Catholic Church has an answer- can you guess what it is?
I read recently that free will makes no sense if there's no hell. I forget where I was reading it, but basically, the author said that if God saved everyone for no good reason, that would make his grace "cheap." I know that's a common understanding. But I think... that kind of thinking is like saying that marriage doesn't make sense if there's no divorce (or... matricide?). I know it's not a perfect analogy- (for instance, I'm talking about a good marriage here, one built on love) but I also know that I work hard in my marriage not because I'm afraid of being divorced, but because I love my husband. I think it's possible that love could be a good enough reason for salvation, and that it would not cheapen grace. This is a harder concept to teach than hell and damnation, but I think it's what Jesus stood for.
I guess I'm gambling my salvation on this, but it's a bet I'm comfortable wagering.