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Sr. Helena Burns: The good (and bad) news about hell

  • August 11, 2021

I love hell. Let me qualify that. Hell is a great motivator, perhaps the greatest motivator. But shouldn’t love be our greatest motivation? Certainly, but hell is a great backup when we’re feeling less than virtuous.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about aiming high, going for the gold, and I agree with Norman Vincent Peale who said: “Shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

The problem with hell today is that hardly anyone believes they could possibly go there. Why this contemporary shift in perspective? Because we no longer comprehend what Heaven is.

First, people today tend to think of Heaven as my happy place. “Heaven is where I’ll see my loved ones again, reunite with my doggo, I’ll get to do all the things I love, and I’ll be exceedingly happy.” Um, forgetting someone? “Oh yeah,” folks think, “God can be there, too, if He wants to!” (Insert face palm emoji here.)

We have it all backwards. Heaven is primarily God’s home. Heaven is not so much a place as a Person. Heaven is being with God. If we don’t like God on this Earth, don’t like His ways, don’t want to spend time with Him in this life, we’re not going to want to spend eternity with Him in Heaven. And He will never force us to do that. Now the teaching that “God never sends anyone to hell, we go there because we choose it,” begins to make sense, doesn’t it?

Second, people today tend to think that Heaven is automatic. (Insert “scream” emoji here.) “We’re all basically good people, right? No one really wants to go to hell. God is good and merciful — He loves everyone and forgives every kind of sin. Therefore, everyone goes to Heaven when they die!” Yes, God created us good, but He also gave us free will to choose to continue to be and do good … or not. We are made in the “image” of God, but the “likeness” part is up to us. We must become more and more like God in this life. We must choose God, we must choose love, and God tells us what comprises love: “If you love me, keep my commands.” The Bible tells us that if we love our neighbour, it’s a way to measure our love of God — but we can and must also love God directly!

Heaven and hell begin now. If we have God in our heart, we have Heaven in our heart. If we live our lives with God and for God, we’re on the heavenly road. If we don’t ….

So what’s the good news about hell? (Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone else in the Bible.) The good news is that we can start today to repent, to change, to do better, to have God in our heart, to love God. Sometimes we worry if we love God enough to go to Heaven. The answer is, in a way, we already do, we just need to make it more explicit.

How’s that? We go to God through our desires, the desires God has already put inside us. Sin is when our desires get twisted up and we either desire the bad as a good, or we desire to acquire the good in a bad way.

The point is, our deepest “factory set” desires are for truly good things: “I want to love and be loved,” “I want to know if there’s a God and what He’s like,” “I want my life to have meaning,” “I want to live forever,” “I want to excel at what I do,” “I want peace of mind,” “I want to be understood,” etc. And we all desire the beautiful, true, valiant, delicious, stunning, amazing, intriguing, noble, consoling gifts in God’s world, do we not? And sometimes we even experience or possess someone or something wonderful, do we not? But God doesn’t just want us to love His gifts, He wants us to love Him — the Giver of the gifts — above all.

Will all our desires be fulfilled in this life? No, but some will, at least partially. In Heaven, desires we didn’t even know we had will be fulfilled beyond our wildest imaginings.

Does the fact of hell mean that God is unfair? Not at all. We’re being offered an outrageous, incredibly disproportionate deal here: a few short years of suffering, and then … bliss forever. Take it!

(Sr. Helena, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA.  Twitter: @srhelenaburns)

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