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DEAR FATHER | Hell is real, but so is God’s mercy

Is it possible God is so merciful no one winds up in hell?

One of my favorite passages from Scripture is found in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, is what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 1:9). This passage reminds us that Jesus points the way to the Father and we need to trust that Heaven will be a wonderful experience for those who love God.

We also know that Jesus spoke several times of the reality of hell: “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the Kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes be thrown into Gehenna, where ‘the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’” (Mark 9: 47-48). Clearly, Jesus believed that there was a perpetual hell, and it would be foolish to presume that it was a rhetorical flourish on His part. Jesus’ whole mission was to save humanity through the proclamation of the Gospel and the shedding of His blood at Calvary.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also speaks to the reality of hell: “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death, the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (CCC 1035). Hell is one of our beliefs, and to deny its existence also denies the need for salvation in Christ.

While hell is not empty, we should never presume that a particular individual winds up there. God alone knows what repentance a soul undergoes at the moment of death. If hell is real, so is God’s mercy, and God is merciful to every person who turns to Him in genuine sorrow for sin. Even those who aren’t Christian but would have been had they properly understood the reality of Christ are saved if they reject evil and truly desire goodness. As John 3:17 assures us, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” In other words, it is God’s ardent desire to save each soul, and through Christ, He will show mercy to anyone given the slightest opening in that person’s heart.

Many spiritual writers (e.g. St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis de Sales and Thomas Kempis) wrote meditations on hell to inspire the individual to a healthy fear of sin. While we need not obsess about hell, we do ourselves a grave injustice to reject the notion of hell or the power of sin to destroy us. The best way to avoid hell is to trust fully in the teachings of Jesus and to follow them. This means that we love our neighbor, do good for others (especially the poor), forgive freely and refrain from judging. It also means that we love God above all else and seek only to fulfill His will in our lives. If we do that, St. Paul’s vision of the life to come will be true for us: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, is what God has prepared for those who love Him.”

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