How We Give Hell a Chance

It’s high time to rethink Heaven and Hell. A lot of people believe everyone will go to Heaven. But maybe that’s because they underestimate the appeal of Hell. There seem to be too many angels with harps floating around on clouds in our view of Heaven. And too much fire and brimstone in our view of Hell. God is “pro-choice.” He allows us to freely choose Heaven or Hell. Why not think of Heaven and Hell as places we choose according to the respective merits of each?

Let’s give Hell a chance.

Think of all the choices we have in this life, then think of living with those choices for eternity. We have only a hint of what Heaven is like. Saint Paul teaches, “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor. 2:9). And how do we love God?  “If you love me, keep my commandments,” says the Lord. (John 14:15) Is Heaven worth the effort of following the difficult teachings of Christ when we have so many dreams and plans and ambitions of our own?

We’re accustomed to thinking of Hell in negative terms, as the fiery furnace Jesus describes as the “fires of Gehenna.” Gehenna was initially where some of the kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire to appease the demon Moloch. What goes around comes around. Could it be that the unrepentant kings of Judah would spend an eternity suffering in the manner they chose for their children?

So we tell ourselves: Relax. For us, Hell may not be that fiery furnace, unless we sacrificed our children to demons. This is the 21st Century. For those who choose Hell today, maybe “the fires of Gehenna” is just metaphor, like the teaching, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out.” Is Hell really as bad as we think?

Rocky’s road: Larry Blyden and Sebastian Cabot in “A Nice Place to Visit” (1960)

We say: Think positive. Hell is more than a place; Hell is what we choose! Think of all the pleasures of the world and then think of possessing them for eternity. Like chocolate. Maybe Hell is made up of the worldly pleasures we freely choose, our personal “absolutes,” what we want, and when we want it. Is that so wrong? Come to think about it, Satan is good at customer relations. He’s there to please.

Of course, there’s no going back. Repentance spoils everything because it would reveal we doubt the value of our attachments to things and pleasures. So there can be no recalibrating of our lives to coincide with the difficult law of God. His ways, after all, do not quite square with modern sensibilities (or ancient Roman and Greek sensibilities for that matter). Follow your dreams. Keep God out of them and be assured, you will live your dreams – for eternity.

In an episode of The Twilight Zone, “A Nice Place to Visit,” Rod Serling and author Charles Beaumont had a similar idea. After robbing a pawnshop, Henry “Rocky” Valentine is shot by a police officer as he flees. He wakes up to find himself seemingly unharmed. A genial old man greets him. He explains that he has been instructed to guide Rocky and give him whatever he desires. The two travel to a luxurious apartment. Everything is free. Rocky concludes that he’s dead, and believes he’s in Heaven (and the gentlemen is his guardian angel).

Rocky visits a casino, winning every bet he makes as beautiful girls gather around him. But no one except Rocky and his “angel” is real. By and by, Rocky becomes thoroughly bored with having his every earthly desire instantly satisfied. No friends, no generosity, no love. Just absolute instant gratification. He calls the gentleman and tells him he is tired of Heaven and wants to go to “the other place” to join his friends. The gentleman’s response is the grand finale:  “Heaven? Whatever gave you the idea you were in Heaven, Mr. Valentine? This is the other place!”

But – you say – we’re nice people. Tolerant. Accepting of others. Never judgmental. So much so that we’re indifferent to the plight of unborn babies, pro-choice Catholic politicians, the poor. And much else. Why get involved?

Be advised. The road to Heaven may not be pleasant in this life. By God’s design, after the Fall, the path has become the way of the Cross of Jesus. It’s sometimes difficult to keep His commandments. It’s difficult to be kind, faithful, pure, honest, courageous, humble, generous and mutually forgiving. It’s difficult to “love until it hurts” (as Mother Teresa advises). We must agree to be in God’s hands, not our own; and we must be willing to risk losing the things of the world and ourselves in the service of others for the love of God. These are the choices that form us in the law of Christ’s love.

Heaven is not an eternity of earthly pleasures, but an eternity of glorious joy and spiritual pleasure, spiritual ecstasy of the Beatific Vision, overflowing into the flesh of our glorified bodies. An intriguing option.

Certainties are elusive this side of eternity. But we can count on this:  “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him” (Sirach 15:16). We become what we choose, and we will be what we choose. For eternity.

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.