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Why are We so Afraid to be Afraid of Hell?

October 31, 2013 by  
Filed under Hell & Purgatory, Ralph Martin

Editors' Note: We are grateful to have one of the Church's brightest lights join us at Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction. Ralph, in his book, The Fulfillment of All Desire has provided a treasure of inestimable worth to those who hunger to deepen their relationship with the Lord. Ralph Martin is the president of Renewal Ministries, an organization devoted to Catholic renewal and evangelization which engages in a wide variety of mission work in more than 30 countries. Renewal Ministries is the sponsor of “The Choices We Face a widely viewed weekly Catholic television and radio program distributed throughout the world. He is also the Director of Graduate Theology Programs in Evangelization and an associate professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit. He holds a doctorate in theology from the Angelicum University in Rome. In December of 2011, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Ralph as a Consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, for a five year term. He was also appointed as an expert to assist the Bishops during the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization. He is the author of a number of articles and books the most recent of which are The Urgency of the New Evangelization: Answering the Call (2013), as well as Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization (2012) and The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints (2006). He and his wife Anne reside in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Please welcome Ralph and be sure to “Share” his posts to Facebook or wherever the Lord leads. All we ask is one click a day!

Why are We So Afraid to be Afraid of Hell?

 

As I’ve taught classes and given talks on the “New Evangelization,” I’ve been struck at how both Jesus and the apostles make a regular part of their message not only the positive proclamation of the Good News that Christ has, by his sacrifice, won redemption for the whole world, but also the terrible consequences of neglecting such an offer: namely, hell.

Yet seldom is this foundational part of the New Testament’s message heard in the contemporary Church. Why are we so afraid of speaking about hell?

Some common reactions: “Our religion is a religion of love, not of fear.” “People already have a bad self-image, and this could make them feel worse.” “Fear of hell is an unworthy motive for being a Christian.” “We shouldn’t be trying to frighten people into being good.”

While in a short article I can’t respond to reactions like these, I do want to affirm the necessity of making sure that, in our thinking, preaching and teaching, we stick with what Jesus and the apostles have told us to communicate to people. They must have good reasons.

When only the positive offer of salvation is taught and proclaimed, and we are silent about the consequences of not responding to this amazing offer of mercy, it is very easy to see the call to the New Evangelization as an “optional extra” – nice but not really necessary.

After decades of silence about the consequence of not responding to the mercy of God by a life of faith, repentance and obedience – namely, hell – an alien worldview has colonized the minds of vast numbers of our fellow Catholics that presumes that virtually everyone will be saved, except perhaps a few really notorious mass murderers.

But, of course, murder is only one of a whole number of grave sins that, if unrepented, will exclude people from the Kingdom of God: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

This is not an isolated text; similar lists of sins that will exclude people from heaven are contained in Galatians 5:13, 19-21; Ephesians 5:5-6; Revelation 22:14-15 – and many other places as well.

Jesus is particularly emphatic about the absolute necessity of turning away from serious sin if we are to enter the Kingdom: “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire” (Matthew 18:9).

He clearly tells us to not fear those who can kill the body, but to fear the eternal punishment due to unrepented sin in hell (Luke 12:4-5).

It isn’t just a wide range of unrepented immorality that will exclude people from the Kingdom – but perhaps the gravest sin of all: unbelief:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God (John 3:16-18).

Father Francis Martin, in one of his biblical/theological essays, calls unbelief in the revelation of Jesus “the root sin of the world.”

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath,” John 3:36 states.

There are literally dozens of New Testament passages that speak of the eternal consequences of not repenting, of not believing, of not living a life of obedience as a disciple of Jesus.

It is manifest that Jesus and the apostles thought it important that the negative consequences of failing to respond in thought, word and deed to the message of salvation were clearly communicated to their hearers.

Jesus knew what was in the hearts of human beings and knew that the fear of hell, while not the end point of the Christian life, is a very good beginning if it motivates repentance.

And while “perfect love casts out fear” of punishment and of the Day of Judgment (1 John 4:17-18), the spiritual wisdom of the Church makes clear that we can’t jump to the end of the journey without a good beginning, patiently working through each step of purification and cleansing.

St. Catherine of Siena notes how the initial stage of the journey is characterized by a very useful fear of hell, a “slavish fear,” as she puts it, which later moves on to what she calls “mercenary love” and, finally, on to “perfect love.” You don’t jump to perfect love without a good beginning.

St. John of the Cross presupposes that before people are really ready to undertake the spiritual journey they have been deeply struck by the shortness of life, the narrowness of the road leading to life (Matthew 7:14), the strictness of the judgment, how “the just one is scarcely saved” (1 Peter 4:18), how “perdition is very easy and salvation very difficult” and the need for profound repentance from sin and wholehearted surrender to God (The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 1;1).

St. Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, acknowledges that the most important motivation for serving God is pure love, but he also cites the useful role of “servile fear” in the spiritual journey (as also does St. Francis de Sales):

We should also strongly praise fear of his Divine majesty. For not only is filial fear something pious and very holy, but so also is servile fear. Even if it brings a person nothing better or more useful, it greatly aids him or her to rise from mortal sin, and once such a one has arisen, one easily attains to a greater filial fear (370).

If we are to have a strong Church and a dynamic evangelization, we need to pass on to everyone all that Jesus and the apostles have commanded us to pass on, including the consequences of failing to believe and obey.

We need not be so afraid of people being afraid of hell. It’s an excellent beginning to the spiritual journey – and continues to be of value even as the spiritual life progresses.

Republished with permission of the National Catholic Register.

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Art: The Harrowing of Hell, anonymous, from a fourteenth-century manuscript, PD-US author's life plus 100 years, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Ralph Martin

Ralph Martin is the president of Renewal Ministries, an organization devoted to Catholic renewal and evangelization which engages in a wide variety of mission work in more than 30 countries. Renewal Ministries is the sponsor of "The Choices We Face" a widely viewed weekly Catholic television and radio program distributed throughout the world. He is also the Director of Graduate Theology Programs in Evangelization and an associate professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit. He holds a doctorate in theology from the Angelicum University in Rome. In December of 2011, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Ralph as a Consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, for a five year term. He was also appointed as an expert to assist the Bishops during the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization. He is the author of a number of articles and books the most recent of which are The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints (2006), Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization (2012), and newly released The Urgency of the New Evangelization: Answering the Call (October 2013). He and his wife Anne reside in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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  • Stephen Mc Elligott

    In Ireland people suffered under the hands of the heresy of Jansenism which was a severe moral theology that even St.John Vianney was a victim of in the seminary until he later experienced a conversion and became the best confessor in Europe and eventually a saint. So here priests are afraid to preach about hell presumably because it ehoes this era of suffering which the Irish experienced by the pound the pulpit style of preaching. However even though St.Vianney was a victim of Jansenism, if you read his sermons after his conversion, he still preached about Hell. It’s an important part of our faith in God is to believe in Hell also. At least in Europe one still needs to also find the root some how as to why we don’t hear hell being preached and it’s not because of Vatican two as many fundamentalists who dislike Vatican two would have us believe but because of Jansenism which was famous for its errors in Europe most notably Italy, France and Ireland. This has scared priests into refraining from speaking about hell I do believe. God bless.

    • Interesting thoughts Stephen. Thank you.

      • JARay

        There is a website… (dear friend, I have edited out this content because the site you pointed to is not faithful to the magisterium though they claim to be. You can learn more here: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/reviews/ )

  • Pam H

    Too, unbelievers are unlikely to be convinced by efforts to instill “fear of Hell” in them- why should they believe the other person’s “opinion” that there is a Hell, if they have no basis for putting much trust in that person’s knowing the truth? I have heard this argument many times, and it gives one to think.

    • Pam – this might be so if we limited our understanding of the human person to the that of a materialist worldview. Because we know that we are more than just chemicals and that we are spiritual beings, we know that there is a supra-natural realm with and outside of us. God is constantly working in and through our souls to reach others with all truth. So, when we speak the truths of God, they are not mere arguments and words but have power to call the soul out of darkness and unbelief. So, we never restrain ourselves to proclaim God’s truth only if it makes sense to others or is seen by others as rational or plausible as if we agreed with their view of the world. Said another way, when we proclaim the realities of all of God’s truth with boldness, some will listen and others will not. Regardless, we should proclaim it all with love, clarity, and conviction so that some might believe and turn and come to know the Lord.

      • Stephen Mc Elligott

        When We tell someone there is a hell its not our opinion, it’s not even our truth, its Gods teaching and Gods truth and we are just the hands, mouth and feet of that truth charged to go out and make it known to the world. If someone rejects that truth, then that’s sorrowful indeed but it’s their responsibility at the end of the day and all we must do is pray for them. But if we refuse to preach that truth we will be held accountable at judgment and treated just as much as the one who refused to believe. Not speaking about hell is definitely not a minor issue.

    • LizEst

      Then, too, there is also the appeal to logic, introducing doubt into
      their firmly held ideas: How do you know that hell doesn’t exist? If
      there is no hell, you haven’t lost anything when you die, by believing
      in God and ordering your life according to God. But, if there is a
      hell, you’ve lost everything when you die by behaving as if there were
      no God and ordering your life according to that. I don’t want to be on
      the other side of that equation in the next life looking over at you and
      telling you, “See, I told you so!”

      How do you know? Where is the proof? Just because you can’t prove something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There are many things that can’t be proved. And, there are many things we can prove now that couldn’t be proved years ago. I don’t want to see you in an eternal situation that you cannot ever get out of.

      • Gabrielle Renoir

        I’m not saying you are wrong, Liz, I would never say that, and I believe you are more advanced than I, but in my experience if people are non-believers, logic will not sway them. A meteor could fall from the sky and destroy the earth today, but no matter what logic someone might give me for this happening it isn’t going to worry me because I just don’t believe it will happen. The kind of faith that gets us to heaven would be a loss for those who don’t believe. They have to get up earlier on Sundays, spend an hour or so at church, give up even the smallest of venial sins, etc. and that is not the way most people live their lives today, sadly. For the most part, we are a materialistic society who loves to indulge its whims. I know the world needs to see believers as “faith in action” and personally, I think individuals need some experience – and it need not be a bad one, for me, it was always one of love – that causes them to have a conversion of soul. However people come to Christ, like St. John of the Cross I am always struck by how narrow the way to heaven is. It is far more narrow than I used to think! I have sometimes wondered if it is going to be sparsely populated! I hope not.

        • LizEst

          You’re right, Gabrielle…but it is both/and. There is no one size fits all. So, for some, no matter what you say to them, it doesn’t matter. For others, it is the witness of a life lived in accordance with the Gospel–and no words need be said. For yet others, an appeal to logic works. The Holy Spirit’s gift of counsel helps us discern the best way to approach each situation. Still, God may not allow us to see the benefit that any particular approach has (sometimes this is so we don’t get puffed up with our own self-importance). In any case, over the years, that still small voice of God’s, sometimes enfleshed in our very words to people, can have an impact towards conversion…even if it doesn’t happen until that person’s dying breath. Never give up hope. Rather, we must give up the idea that we have to see how we are affecting someone, in order to believe that they profit from our cooperation and collaboration with the Lord. “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7).

          Yes, the road that leads to salvation is quite narrow. It’s the narrow gate of the cross. But, heaven is not going to be sparsely populated. At the same time, it is not going to be as populated as it could be, if all were to cooperate with the many graces the Lord gives us to get there. In fact, as difficult as the journey can be, God helps us every step of the way. He is yoked to us and with us always, doing the heavy lifting. There are lots of folks already in paradise, praying for our sanctification and for us to join them there in the praise and glory of God. Today we celebrate all those Saints, those canonized and those not. And, we read in Revelation 9:7, “I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands…”

          God bless you, Gabrielle. Happy Solemnity of All Saints today!

          • Gabrielle Renoir

            Thank you for the conversation, Liz. I appreciate it very much.

            I had a friend for years who does believe there is a God but who chooses to turn away from him instead of embracing him. Though he believes in God, he’s told me he does not believe in an afterlife. He won’t listen to anything about God beyond that. It’s not that he’s an atheist, he simply wants to cut God out of his life because he wants to feel free to sin. At the direction of my spiritual director, I had to end that friendship because I found it terribly uncomfortable. With such divergent views, it could not be a “real” friendship anyway. It did not harm my faith or my soul, but I found the man’s bitterness unsettling. I do not know if he will ever change, and as you pointed out, it’s not for me to know. It was just difficult for me to understand someone who believes in God yet chooses to turn away.

          • LizEst

            Yes, that’s a tough one Gabrielle. I’ve heard it said that sometimes, when someone turns away from God, it is because they have experienced great evil in their lives. It may be that many years from now, he will return to the Lord. God loves him so much. God is going to give him all the grace he needs to turn back. It’s possible you may have provided him something that will be helpful to him many years down the road.

            I know someone who had a relative who became a hardened atheist. This was a particularly bad situation because this guy was a professor and used his position to push atheism on his young students at the university. He repented on his deathbed not long before he died. Miraculous conversions do happen.

  • Suzi dutro

    In my family I am surrounded by non Catholics. Basically as they put it they are just not interested in “religion”. I have been asked to not force it on them. they treat my faith as if it were a hobby. It is a frightful thought that they will not make it to Heaven . They do not deny Jesus in as far as He exists but chose not to follow. I pray for them all daily. At the moment of death in Gods great mercy are they offered a chance of confession, a last moment of choosing God? It is a constant worry to me

    • Scripture indicates that we die and then come to judgement. There is no teaching I am aware of regarding any mitigating state or moment. Even so, we can safely assume that during their entire lives God has knocked over and over with the offer of his love and grace.

  • RobinJeanne

    This is a great article. I believe highly in
    sharing the Love of god but also about the consequences of disobedience, sin,
    and people grimmis and try to discourage me from saying things about hell….
    Ralph brings up some great points on how often Jesus and the Apostle spoke of
    hell… Are we better informed then they(Jesus and Apostles) on how to preach the Good News?
    I think not!

  • Suzi dutro

    What a joy and honor for Ralph Martin to join this site. the fulfillment of all desire is a must read for all those seeking to deepen their relationship with God. It is one of my top ten books.

  • LizEst

    Great post Ralph! Thank you…and welcome! We look forward to more of your insights and wisdom. God bless you!

  • MaryofSharon

    What a delight to have Ralph Martin join RCSpiritual Direction! He has been a bright light in the Church for many decades. If only all of us would put our lives at the disposal of the Lord as generously as he has!

    I realize that in my own spirituality a sober recognition of the consequences of turning my back on our Good God can keep me oriented when affections are low, but I wonder about how appropriate or effective it is to speak of hell to one who is far from God and lost in objectively grave sin. Pope Francis repeatedly speaks of the foundational experience of the encounter with the merciful gaze of Jesus which then leads one to desire the moral life out of love for Him who has loved you.

    I’d be interested in others’ thoughts on this. Does one speak to those in objectively grave sin with a warning about hell? Or does one strive to first win them to the goodness of Christ and trust that by falling in love with Him, a desire to conform their lives to his will follow, at which point the commands of our loving Lord will have a context.

    • Great question. Love builds a bridge over which truth can pass. If there is already a bridge, we need to then determine the need and openness of each person. My sister was open to the discussion about hell because though she had no religious leanings, she believed in hell. I told her and it led to her conversion. Others who are further out probably need less difficult truths depending on the situation and their receptivity. Even so, we shouldn’t be afraid to speak the truth clearly (though seasoned with charity) whenever the opportunity arises.

  • Jeanette

    Shared this on Facebook…hoping to reach some non-Christian friends…

    • Thanks – you are ALWAYS a blessing.

  • Ellen

    What an honor and blessing it is to see that Ralph Martin has joined us here to help us on our journey. I look forward to many more insightful words of wisdom Thank you so much!

  • patricia

    What a grace to have Ralph Martin be among us in his writings and person helping us towards holiness. I live the book fullfillment of all desire. I am so blessed to have read it and learning so much about God the soul and union with God virtues sins and different movements of the Holy Spirit. I am so blessed to have Ralph Martin with us as well in class intro to spiritual theology with Dr. Lilles at the Avila Institute. May God reward you in all you do for him and for souls.

  • HartPonder

    Hell JOHN PAUL II
    {Dear friend – thanks for your participation but we try to keep our combox engagement very personal. You might want to summarize what Blessed John Paul said instead of posting a long document. Our FAQ guidelines for posting will also help you get a sense for our community} Please don’t hesitate to post again.

  • jcsmitty

    Recently, a popular priest was publicly criticized for expressing the hope that no one is in hell. While I found the personal attack on this priest disturbing, I am also disturbed that the wrong message may have been sent.

    I recall the story of Clare Boothe Luce and her initial reluctance to embrace the Catholic Church because it teaches about the existence of hell. She found it hard to believe that a good God would send anyone there for all eternity. It is alleged that the Servant of God, Bishop Fulton Sheen, told Luce that, while she had to accept church teaching on this article of faith to be admitted to the church, she could still hope that no one actually was or would go there.

    Perhaps Ralph Martin could comment on this. I suspect that such a hope is totally naïve, but wonder if it is also making people less afraid of “being afraid of hell.”

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