Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
Fear Hell
by Rev. Jerry Pokorsky
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.

At that time, John said to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us."  Jesus replied, "Do not prevent him.  There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me.  For whoever is not against us is for us.  Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.

"Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.  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.  And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off.  It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.  And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.  Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'"

The church teaches that those who die in the state of mortal sin are punished in hell.  They are deprived of the vision of God and suffer dreadful torments.  The pains of hell will last for all eternity.  “And the smoke of their torments goes up for ever and ever; and they rest neither day nor night” (Rv 14:11).  The fear of hell should urge us to lead a good life because nothing on earth is worth even one moment in hell.

There is no shortage of references to the reality of hell in the Gospel.  In this Sunday’s Gospel Christ calls hell and “unquenchable fire” suggesting the pains of  hell have the sensation of burning, the greatest pain that man can conceive.  Christ warns, “It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna” (Mt 18:8).  Instead of God and the angels and saints, sinners in hell have devils and loathsome criminals for eternal companions.  Hell contains nothing good.  “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31).  But to a thoroughly modern and secular culture, hell is merely a medieval superstition.

Or is it?

Although pop culture traditional has delighted in relatively harmless horror stories and films (from Alfred Hitchcock films to Edgar Allen Poe short stories), in recent decades there has been an ever-increasing demand for the macabre, especially in film (and now video games).  Curiously the trend coincides with a secular – even atheistic – emergence.  As religion is displaced with secular superstitions, especially among cultural elites (examples left to readers), the younger generation fills the void, with a fascination with the ghastly and the occult.

Perhaps this should not be surprising.  Most horror themes are variations of the vampire motif: The horrible creature lurking in swamps or in attics or under beds is at once eternally dead, yet alive and very dangerous to the living (mostly to adolescents).  Cultural observers and film critics report on the recent drastic descent in filmmaking toward stories of absolute horror with no redemption – a very good definition of hell.  Apparently the void left by disbelief in hell is filled with cultural versions of hell that, ironically, fit neatly into scriptural citations.  The difference is, of course, after the adrenalin wears off, the adolescent dodges eternal condemnation and returns to the safety of the tedious routines of life.

But the “tedious routines” of life are precisely where salvation and condemnation truly are determined.  Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor was a master of this theme.  In her short story “Judgment Day,” an elderly Southerner is spending his final days with his daughter far away from his Georgia homeland.  According to O’Connor’s inimitable style, the story unfolds in a most depressing way, but upon reflection – with a Catholic faith never mentioned in the story but necessarily presumed – reveals her marvelous insight and optimism.

In a series of flashbacks she portrays the man as a racist who, over time and with the interplay of everyday human relationships, not only resists a youthful impulse to kill because of fear of God’s judgment, but learns to be genuinely happy with his friends, white as well as black.  Uprooted by failing health to live with his daughter in her New York City flat, he aches to return to be with his old friends.  He makes futile plans to escape the loneliness of the city where people, protecting their privacy (and vices) do not even exchange glances.  Instead, he takes a benign interest in establishing, according to his lifelong pattern, a friendship with a neighbor.  The neighbor, probably trafficking prostitutes, see the normal personal interest of the old man as a risk, and he kills him.  The story ends with the daughter restless, attaining peace only after she exhumes the body of her father and buries him in his “heavenly” Southern homeland amidst his friends and kin.

The trajectory of Flannery O’Connor’s thought seems to suggest love is not instantaneous, nor does it come without effort.  Love is the fruit of grace unleashed in the give-and-take of human relationships.  Undoubtedly as a Catholic she would trace that grace to one’s relationship with Christ Himself.  Hence, the consuming fires of hell are those of eternally unsatisfying selfishness, without healthy human relationships and without love.

Hell is horrifying because hell, in the final analysis is boring.  In hell you can have as much beer as you want, as much booze as you want, as much cocaine as you want, as many gay and/or straight sexual experiences as you want, as many tattoos as you want, as much money in dollars, euros, yen or gold bullion as you want.  In hell you can have whatever you want, whenever you want it, in whatever quantity you want it – provided it is without love.

Indeed, nothing on earth is worth even one moment in hell.

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