Sin, by its very nature, is a direct attack upon or a violation of some good. For example, lying offends the good of truth; gluttony transgresses the good of proper eating. Now, do some evil acts contravene a good to such a degree that they merit everlasting damnation? According to the Catholic tradition, these acts are termed mortal sins. Let us look at some examples.
Fornication and adultery grievously violate the good of marriage and sexuality. While couples, in these sexual acts, may desire to express their love for one another, what they are actually doing is attacking the good of marriage and the sexual acts that pertain exclusively to marriage.
By holding that fornication and adultery are mortal sins, Christian morality perceives that marriage, and the sexual acts performed within marriage, possess so great a dignity and goodness, that to violate the inherent beauty of marriage by engaging in fornication and adultery is to merit damnation. The damnation related to fornication and adultery, thus, is a recognition that accentuates the unassailable sacredness, the inviolable goodness, and the indissoluble bond between a man and a woman in marriage. To diminish the judgment against fornication and adultery, to suppose that they are “no big deal,” is to demean the absolute God-given goodness of marriage itself.
Again, grievous violations against the inherent dignity and value of the human person are also mortal sins that merit everlasting damnation – e.g., murder, slavery, human trafficking, and extreme hatred and prejudice. To kill the innocent, to perform or have an abortion, to sell others for sexual exploitation, to attack and assail others because of their race or religion, to euthanize the elderly, or the physically or mentally handicapped, all of these acts, as do similar acts, seriously abuse the sacrosanct goodness and dignity that resides within each human being.
Once more, to hold that such evil acts are not deserving of Hell is to say that the dignity and worth of each person is not of supreme value. The nature of the punishment must always be in proportion to the offense committed and the good violated. In the above examples, the good of the person is so desecrated that, without repentance, Hell is the only appropriate punishment.
Although mortal sins are deserving of Hell, what cannot be forgotten is the Father’s mercy made manifest in Jesus Christ. To repent of such deadly sins and to ask for forgiveness, along with the doing of penance for the offense, brings the sinner back to life through the Holy Spirit. This is the good news of salvation – no sin is unforgivable. Right up until the moment of death, everyone can avoid Hell and come to enjoy eternal life with God.
Here, some may, nonetheless, propose that repentance after death may be possible. Those who die in grievous sin may be punished for a time, maybe for a very long time, but, eventually, they will be purified and forgiven, and so enter into heavenly bliss. To advocate such a position, however, makes life here on this earth a farce.
If all go to Heaven, nothing done in this life would have any eternal significance – either for good or for evil. The good that one enacts does not merit, in Jesus Christ, eternal life, and the evil that one enacts has no lasting condemnatory consequences. The urgency of this life is lost. Striving to live a virtuous life becomes meaningless. Valor, courage, gallantry, and nobility lose their inherent integrity.
There are no situations wherein one can manifest one’s mettle and steadfastness – caring for a sick friend or an elderly spouse, or forthrightly standing up for what is true and good against the forces of evil. There would be no resolve to preach the Gospel, or even to practice one’s own faith. There would be no “High Noon” moments where one must choose to be courageous or shrink away in cowardice – in the end neither would really matter.
Martyrs are not made in a world where Hell is not a live option, for one would never feel challenged to love God and neighbor to the fullest degree, the freely giving up of one’s life. Without the possibility of Hell, life loses its zest, its vibrancy, its earnestness, for nothing one does here would have any everlasting worth. Life merely becomes a charade – a pretending of making important choices, of executing significant decisions, of actually accomplishing something important.
A good and loving God, however, would never have created such a futile world nor would he have approved of such a wasted life. God created us to expand his goodness and imitate his love, and to do so is to his and our eternal glory. Not to do so is to our everlasting condemnation.
Ultimately, if there’s no Hell, Jesus’ glorious coming at the end of time would be a ho-hum event. We would already know the outcome. Truth, goodness, and justice would not, finally, win the day over lies, wickedness, and corruption, for, in the end, neither uprightness nor evil would be of any everlasting importance. Goats would not be separated from the sheep and thrown “into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41), for even the earthly unrepentant goats would now graze in the sheep’s heavenly pasture.
Such a scenario would not be in keeping with the goodness of the Father, nor with the truth of his Son, Jesus, nor with the love of the Holy Spirit. What will actually transpire when Jesus comes again in glory is that the Saints will shine like the stars. They will rejoice in each other’s steadfast goodness and virtue, and together they will give praise and glory to God, he who is truly a God of love and goodness, a God who has rescued them from sin and sin’s condemnation – Hell.
Moses tells the Israelites, just prior to their entering the Promised Land, “Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom.” If the people keep God’s commandments, they will live; if they do not, they will perish. Moses exhorts them: “Choose life” (Deut. 30:15-20).
Lent is a time for choosing life – a time of further cultivating virtue and growing in holiness. Choosing life here on earth has eternal consequences – the gaining of eternal life in Heaven. Not to choose life here on earth also has everlasting consequences – that of perishing forever in Hell.
As Christians, we know that it is only by abiding in Christ, he who is the light of life, that we can truly choose life – the life of the Holy Spirit through whom we become children of our heavenly Father.
*Image: Vanitas by Neilson Carlin, Copyright 2005 [NeilsonCarlin.com]