The tremendous power of our freedom is not something to take lightly. It’s also not something that should make us afraid.
Most importantly, Jesus warned about hell in the Gospels.
Ultimately, faith has to be motivated by love, not fear — but Jesus thought it would be helpful to offer several examples of damnation, and I have personally found it helpful to keep them in mind.
After all, as St. John Paul II said, “hell is the ultimate safeguard of man’s conscience.”
The Catechism Pope John Paul promulgated in 1992 explains the existence of hell by describing mortal sin, which “causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices forever, with no turning back.”
But what choices do the Gospels warn lead to hell?
First and most importantly, the decision not to serve the needy leads to hell.
In Matthew 25, Jesus presents his great parable of the last judgment in which the king separates mankind into two groups.
He welcomes those on his right to his kingdom saying, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
Then, to those on his left who did none of these things, he says, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
His reason? “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” And “what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.”
God so closely associates himself with men and women made in his image and likeness that when we fail to serve our neighbors, we fail to serve him.
Jesus also warns those who do not spread the faith that they risk damnation.
But it is important to recognize that it is not just the material wellbeing of our neighbors we are responsible for, but their spiritual wellbeing, too.
Just before the Final Judgment in Matthew 25, Jesus tells the Parable of the Talents.
In it, a man going on a journey entrusts his possessions to his servants, giving five talents to one, two to another and just one to a third. When he returns, the first two servants have doubled their money, and are rewarded. But the other servant returns his one talent — he had buried it to keep it safe.
The master complains that he at least should have put it in the bank, and commands “throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
This story has helped shape my own life, driving home that “doing nothing” is not an option for a Christian. We must do something for God with what we have been given — at least volunteering at our parish, banking our talents with the Church.
Jesus also says those who don’t live a life of prayer backed by good works could also be headed toward ruin.
In a third Matthew 25 parable about hell, Jesus tells about the Wise and Foolish Virgins who are waiting for the Bridegroom to invite them into his wedding banquet — a metaphor for heaven.
The wise virgins have come prepared with enough oil to last the night, and the Bridegroom welcomes them in. The foolish virgins have not, and when they knock, they hear the terrible words, “I do not know you.”
The oil is their prayer and good works. The Bridegroom only knows people who talk to him and do his will. Claiming to be part of his company is not enough. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven,” he says in the Sermon on the Mount, “but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
In each case, Jesus says we can be damned by our sins of omission — by those things we fail to do. But he also warns about what we do.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lists sins that lead to hell:
- Hatred. Those who call their brother “fool” will be “liable to the hell of fire.”
- Lust and greed. Those who sin with their eyes risk hell.
- Theft and violence. Those who sin with their hands risk their whole body ending up in hell.
This all makes perfect sense — if not serving our brothers and sisters leads to hell, then certainly harming them (and ourselves) will, too.
So hell is the “bad news” of the Gospel. But don’t forget the good news.
Jesus summed up the Gospel this way: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Mercy is the beginning, end, and heart of his message:
- He announced that he “desires mercy, not sacrifice,” and came “to call not the righteous but sinners”; he loves the humble prayer of sinners.
- He scandalized religious leaders by forgiving the paralytic and the woman caught in adultery and by eating with tax collectors and sinners.
- He taught us that God is like the forgiving Father of the Prodigal Son.
- He died on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them,” then he rose from the dead to give the apostles the power to forgiver sins on his behalf.
So, keep in mind the road that leads to perdition, but don’t be afraid. God will do everything he can to keep you off of it, if you let him.