Homily for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.
There are many things I love about Fall. I love the changing colors; I love the crisp, cool air; I love apple pie, apple tart, and applesauce. What I do not love is the days getting shorter. At this time of year, as the light begins to fade, the Church invokes the protection of St. Michael the Archangel, whose feast day is this Wednesday. As the physical darkness increases, we’re reminded of the spiritual darkness that surrounds us and is in our hearts.
The growing darkness is also an opportunity to reflect on the end of our lives. Each calendar year is like our entire lives in miniature. There’s a beginning, middle, and end of the year, just like there is a beginning, middle, and end of our lives. The light grows, then begins to fade; we grow, then begin to fade. The light will eventually fade from our eyes, we will die, and we will face judgment. Either heaven or hell will be our ultimate destiny. But even if we’re ultimately destined for heaven, most of us will have to spend some time in purgatory, to heal what needs to be healed and perfect what needs to be perfected.
Our gospel today invites us, in particular, to reflect on the reality of hell. To speak about hell, Jesus uses the name of an actual place in the Jerusalem: The Valley of Hinnom, or “Gehenna.” If you were to travel to Jerusalem today, the Valley of Hinnom would be lush and full of trees. In fact, when I visited the Holy Land in seminary and drove by Gehenna, I said to myself, “Wow, hell looks pretty nice these days.” But in Jesus’ day, the Valley of Hinnom was the local dump. The residents of Jerusalem brought their garbage and sewage there. It was a horrible place, where fires always burned, and the stench was overwhelming. There could have hardly been any better place—or worse place—for Jesus to use an image for hell.
From Jesus’ teaching on hell, including what He says about hell in our gospel today, the Church has always taught and continues to teach three things about hell: (1), that hell exists; (2), that the souls of those who die in the state of unrepented mortal sin go immediately to hell; and (3), that the punishment of the souls in hell lasts for all eternity. These three aspects of hell are well summarized by Jesus in our gospel of today when He speaks of “unquenchable fire.” Unquenchable fire is fire that lasts forever. And this is no gentle fire that warms and soothes; it is fire that scorches and burns.
With these rather uplifting facts about hell in mind, I’d like to give you five reasons why I’m glad that hell exists.
First, I’m glad that hell exists because it means that Jesus is actually our savior. If heaven is the destiny of every person who dies, then there is nothing to be saved from. If only heaven exists, then what Jesus did on the cross is meaningless. Scripture is clear: Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins and from the punishment that our sins deserve: eternal separation from God in hell. We heard in our opening prayer today, “O God, who manifest your almighty power above all by pardoning and showing mercy…” If there is nothing to pardon, if there is no mercy to be shown, then who we see on the cross is a weak and pathetic failure, not a mighty savior. Because hell exists, it means that Jesus is our savior, because there is something to be saved from, and He is the one who did it.
Second, I’m glad that hell exists because it means that our choices ultimately matter. If we were guaranteed to go to heaven, no matter what choices we made on this earth, our choices would not ultimately matter. We have been given the gift, the beautiful but awful gift of free will. We have the power, if we want, to separate ourselves from God not only for all time, but for all eternity. We can freely choose to reject God forever. And at any moment we can make this choice. Until we die, the needle of our compass can swing freely. We can choose to follow “true north,” or we can go our own way. We can say “thy will be done” or “my will be done.” Because hell exists, and at any moment we can choose to head in its direction, all our choices matter. No choice is unimportant or insignificant. Every choice has eternal consequences, for good or for ill.
Third, I’m glad hell exists because it means that heaven is a gift. Although it may sound harsh to our soft, modern ears, it is nonetheless true that I—Fr. Nick—deserve to go to hell because of my sins. The wages of sin is death, and not just physical death, but eternal death. God doesn’t owe me heaven. Apart from Him, I belong in hell. That means heaven is a gift. If I went to heaven by default because hell didn’t exist, it would not be a gift.
Fourth, I’m glad hell exists because it means that justice will eventually prevail. Justice is to give to each person what is their due. In this life, perfect justice is impossible. No one dies having perfectly received justice for all the injustices done to them, and no one dies having perfectly restored justice for all the injustices they themselves have done. Purgatory and hell are the means by which justice prevails. This is a source of great hope. It also prevents us from pursuing a kind of justice which ends up causing more injustices. If we try to take the place of God and seek justice in this life for every wrong ever done in the history of mankind, we will not attain perfect justice, but only further injustice. Because purgatory and hell exist, we know that even if we do not attain perfect justice in this life, it will be attained in the next.
Fifth, I’m glad that hell exists because it means the final defeat of evil. The final defeat of evil, evil’s last humiliation, is that evil can never be as bad as it wants to be. The devil wants to be the opposite of God, but he can’t be. God is the source of all existence. If the devil was to be the opposite of God, then, he would have to cease to exist. The fact that the devil exists, then, means that as evil as the devil is, he is not evil itself. He still bears some resemblance to God, just by the fact that he exists. As evil as he tries to be, the devil cannot be evil without also existing, and therefore without having at least some goodness in him. Goodness can exist on its own, but evil cannot exist without goodness. Goodness is creative; evil is parasitic. The fact that hell exists, then, means that good is always greater than evil, and that good will triumph in the end.
All that being said, I am of course not glad that hell exists in the sense that I take pleasure in its existing. The existence of hell is not something to celebrate, but something to take seriously. And it’s something we should take seriously on a personal level. We tend to think of hell, if we think of it at all, as reserved for the great dictators and mass murderers of world history. Or we think of it as reserved for the people in our world today whom we hate and think ought to be punished. But Jesus in our gospel today challenges us to take the reality of hell personally. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire.” In a world in which we take a thousand things personally that we shouldn’t, let’s take one thing personally that we often don’t, but should: hell. Amen.