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Jesus or Hell Is No Choice

Friday is my day off, so I can drive early in the morning from Boston to Cape Cod without getting caught in the notorious weekend traffic. I can then watch the miles of bumper to bumper as I return north later in the day.

On my way to coastal kayaking, probably the perfect activity for social distancing, I drove under one overpass on the Mid-Cape Highway. Someone attached an unauthorized sign to the fence that said: “Jesus or Hell”. I really hate that stuff.

Just north of Massachusetts is the Granite State of New Hampshire. If you are not familiar with the famous state motto, let me educate you. It is: “Live free or die!”

I always imagine some cowboy hat with a long beard, steely eyes, pursed lips and a heavy New England accent pointing a shot gun as I cross the border saying: “ ’Round here, boy, we live free or die! You goin’ to live free?” I certainly do not need a threat to desire to live free. Those words on that overpass are the same genre. What in fact is the difference between “Are you goin’ to live free, boy?” and “Jesus or Hell”?

I certainly do not need a threat to desire to live free.

Catholic theology tells us that Jesus gives us free will so that we can choose to love Him and experience His love for us. However, we cannot choose Him under threat. In fact, a shotgun wedding is invalid but is it not the same principle when you say either you choose Jesus or you are going to Hell? Isn’t that shotgun salvation?

Where does it come from? It isn’t what we believe.

Although Catholic theology does believe in Hell, it also teaches that going to Hell is a free choice. One does not accidentally end up there, nor does he or she choose to go there or not at the end of a shotgun. Those who are obstinate in their rejection of God’s grace end up in Hell. To be obstinate includes despair of salvation — to feel one is so bad, he or she cannot be saved. This is what damned Judas according to Church teaching. (cf Catechism of the Council of Trent Part IV, Chapter XIV Question IV)

Jesus did not respond to two people in the Gospels, both remained obstinate to the end. One was King Herod and the other was the bad thief on the cross. They are good examples of this principle of who goes to Hell. However, both were intensely narcissistic, selfish and King Herod was one of the world’s most vicious and blood thirsty dictators.

Catholic teaching says God’s grace leads us to choose Heaven. His grace increases as the worst of all sinners nears death to call him or her to conversion. Those most resistant to it are the most hard hearted. Catholic practice also includes a sacrament given as one nears death to further manifest God’s grace. One of the prayers in the rite says God readily takes into account every stirring of good will. These are Catholic principles. In other words, Jesus does all He can that each can be saved. Granted we have to co-operate with this grace, but the idea that God wants to cast you into Hell like New England based preacher Jonathan Edwards threatened almost two centuries ago in Northampton Massachusetts is just not Catholic teaching. Edwards preached about Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God a long sermon that many studied in high school. None of it is Catholic.

We Catholics have a calling to preach the Gospel, but that means not only to teach people about Christ and His call to redemption, it is also to preach against this anti-Gospel that leads people to shotgun salvation.

St. Paul, in Romans 8, teaches that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Christ’s love is there for everyone and we have to teach this. St. John in his first letter teaches that it is not that we love God, but that He loves us first.

Pope Benedict XVI in Spe Salvi teaches that everyone needs the unconditional love we have from God and in Sacramentum Caritas he teaches everyone also needs to be guided to salvation which God does through His channels of grace. This is a far cry from shot gun salvation.

It is just no good news to people to teach them to follow Christ or go to Hell.

When I do a funeral Mass, one Gospel reading I often use revolves around Jesus’ encounter with Martha as He approaches the scene. Martha is angry because the good friend of Lazarus did not come until four days after he died. She scolds Him for delaying His arrival. We know little about Martha, her sister Mary or her brother Lazarus. What sparse amplication we have in background is that the religious leaders of the day saw them as sinners — typical of the friends of Jesus. If you wanted to maintain your good reputation at the time of Jesus’ ministry, you did not claim you were on good terms with Him. After all, He counted among his inner circle not only uncultured fishermen but what today we would call a terrorist (Simon the Zealot) and a traitorous tax collector (Matthew).

How many times do you think Jesus introduced Himself to His potential friends by saying “Believe in me or go to Hell.” I would guess none. He did say, instead, that those who believe in Him have eternal life.

Saints taught that to make the fear of Hell the prime motivation for seeking Christ is little better than not seeking Him at all.

Saints taught that to make the fear of Hell the prime motivation for seeking Christ is little better than not seeking Him at all. The truth is that the commandment is to love God and neighbor and we cannot love God if we do not know Him. We cannot know Him if we do not pray to Him and develop a relationship with Him.

This is the important teaching to promulgate to others. If the worst of all sinners does nothing more than to begin to pray to Christ that he or she may know Him, he or she is far closer to Christ than the person who believes out of fear of Hell. The powerful act of prayer, as benign it may seem, is a greater act than seeking a doctorate in theology at any Catholic institution.

Catholics also believe in purgatory, a place of final purification so one can stand in God’s presence. Many hate the notion of such a belief but others, such as myself, teach it shows that God’s ways are to do all He can to draw us to Heaven. The only obstacle is ourselves.

I really hated that sign over the Mid-Cape Highway and hope some Massachusetts Department of Public Works employee removed it. I know that this is not the Christ who calls us to know Him. This is the Christ of shotgun salvation and creates nothing but fear. Jesus taught perfect love cast out all fear. Maybe that would have been a better sign.

Photo Credit Jack B on Unsplash (Click on picture for credit website)


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