Sign Up for our Free Daily Email Updates / Catholic Spiritual Direction

A Hellish Backup Plan

June 30, 2014 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Hell & Purgatory

A Hellish Backup Plan


Do you have a backup plan to avoid hell? Some believe they do. They believe that someday they will get around to the all-important task of developing their spiritual lives, but that if they don’t, they are willing and ready to endure the backup plan – purgatory. This sounds plausible on its face, but what if we miss the mark? Aiming for purgatory and missing can be a hellish mistake.

Can it be true?  Is there a fiery safety net waiting to purge us of the sloth into which we may have slouched?  I don’t know about you, but even if this were a real possibility, it doesn’t sound too appealing to me.  Can you imagine standing before God, having chosen not to pursue the holiness he calls us to?  I wonder who would meet us in our final judgment. Would it be Jesus in his bloody crucified body?  If it were, how confident would we be with our mediocrity in the face of all the suffering and love poured out on our behalf?  Would we just shrug our shoulders, say, “sorry” and assume we could raise our pathetic hand and point to door number two (the purgatory door of course).

Would a just God allow such a choice?  Let's look at it another way.  If deliberately choosing to follow Christ down a clear and narrow path of holiness is not our choice in this life, will it suddenly be our choice in death?

If Christ says, “take up your cross and follow me” and we shrug our shoulders and wander off, what choice have we really made – already?

So, is it this black and white?  Here’s what Christ said to the Church at Laodicea, in Revelation chapter 3:

“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent.”

And what was Christ's reply to a man who encountered him during his earthly ministry and indicated he had something very important to do before he could follow Christ to the cross?

“Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But he (Jesus) said to him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ (St. Luke chapter 9)

So, since the beginning, Christ called us to follow him.  From the beginning, there were many who seemed to be willing but ultimately, had more important things to do.  To these, Christ speaks in St. Matthew chapter 7:

“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few….Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire… Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.' Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.”

The key to understanding these passages is that all that are condemned here are depicted by Christ as “faithful,” “good,” “religious” people who are already “seeking” or “following” Christ!  They all claim to know God, they claim Jesus as their “Lord.”  Some have performed miracles in his name!  What is the issue?!

It is simple really.  The condemned are not pursuing him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. They are holding on to corners of their soul where the cleansing of God is not welcome.  They have left a marker on the narrow path thinking they can return at any time – maybe at the last moment?

In the Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis said of this kind of thinking, “If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven; if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”

So what of the backup plan?  As we have seen in a simple review of a few passages, scripture is also clear — the trajectory of your life prior to your judgment will be the trajectory of your soul at your judgmentGod will merely ratify the decision you have already made. “It is given unto man once to die, then comes judgment.” (Hebrews)

In another passage in the Great Divorce, Lewis reiterates, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no Hell.  No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.  Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”

There is no safety net here, not even a fiery one.

So, do you still think you have a backup plan to avoid hell?  I have a better idea.  Let’s follow Christ with reckless abandon.  Let’s repent and be zealous for him.  Let’s live life, “and that more abundantly” in Him.  Then, when we come face to face, instead of “depart from me,” he will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your master.” (St. Matthew 25)

If you want to establish a clear plan to heaven, I have provided a roadmap in my book Navigating the Interior Life. Click here to learn more.


Art for this post on a hellish backup plan: Detail of The Last Judgment at the Arena Chapel (Cappella Scrovegni), Giotto di Bondone, 1306, PD-US author's life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, the High Calling Seminary Preparation Program, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer, speaker and pilgrimage director who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

please consider supporting our mission with a donation!