If God So Loves the World, Why Is There a Hell? Reflections for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

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The Last Judgment by Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Last Judgment by Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

(The readings for 4th Sunday in Lent, cycle A, the man born blind, may also be used in place of these readings since they are the readings used in the Scrutinies, but the column is written for Cycle B)

If God so loves the World, why is there a Hell?

.As the camera pans the crowd at a football game, you see a few fans holding up the sign.  It simply says “John 3:16.”

For years, evangelical Protestants have extolled this little bible verse as the heart of the Gospel.  In their minds, if you only have a moment to tell people something about the Christian faith, this is the Scripture to quote: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that whosoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life.”

Pope Paul VI, in his landmark letter on evangelization, confirmed that this verse, from Sunday’s gospel, is indeed is the central theme of the entire bible.

So then comes the million dollar question–how could a loving God ever send anyone to hell?

The answer is very simple.  He doesn’t.

Oh, hell certainly exists, alright.  We see its crowded waiting room here on earth and can, if we observe closely, get some insight as to why its occupants are sitting there.

War certainly comes close to being hell on earth, especially when you happen to be on the losing side.  Armed conflict is always nasty.  But in the ancient world, despite the low level of technology, war was often total.  When a city resisted a conquering army, it was made an example to neighboring towns.  Jerusalem, for example, was razed to the ground by the Babylonians.  The pride and joy of Israel, Solomon’s temple, was reduced to a heap of rubble, civilians as well as soldiers put to the sword, and a few lucky ones led into exile.

Did God bring this hellish fate upon them?  Not in the least.  He actually sent messengers to tell them how to prevent such tragedy.  Jeremiah warned Jerusalem to repent and offer no resistance to the invaders.  Their response?  They imprisoned him.  Through stubborn and foolish arrogance, they brought their fate crashing down upon their own heads, much to God’s dismay.

Eternal punishment comes in exactly the same way.  None are in hell except those who choose to be.  “The judgment is this–the light came into the world, but men loved the darkness instead of the light (John 3:19).  Why would anyone walk away from the light?  Perhaps because they don’t like what they see as they emerge from the shadows.  Maybe because they don’t want anyone else to see them are they really are.  They’d rather keep up the charade that they are good people and can fend for themselves, thank you very much.  That they’ve always done what’s right and deserve to be appreciated, even applauded, by God and everyone else.

At the moment of death, the choice for light or darkness becomes final and irrevocable.  But before that time, God is waiting for us to turn to him.  He is rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4).  He shines his light on our sins and brokenness not to humiliate us, but to irradiate the vermin that infects us and to clear up our blotchy complexion.  All we need is the courage to face the truth about ourselves and rejoice in his merciful love which accepts us no matter what we’ve done or who we are.  All we need is to be willing to say “sorry” and “thanks.”  For we can do nothing to earn his favor–it comes to us as a pure, undeserved gift, as Ephesians tells us in Sunday’s second reading.

But God can’t give us his mercy if we don’t ask for it.  And if we insist of “pulling our own weight,” and getting from God what’s coming to us, he’ll do as we request.  Jesus offers us a share in what He deserves from our heavenly Father.  I think I’d opt for that rather than what I deserve!

Lent is a time to remember that we live by the mercy of God, and to renew our determination that the grace that he has so generously lavished upon us will not be received in vain.

Copyright 2015 Marcellino D’Ambrosio, Ph.D. 
Art: The Last Judgment by Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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About Author

Marcellino D'Ambrosio earned his Ph.D. in theology from the Catholic University of America under the guidance the renowned Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles. His series on the Early Church Fathers is broadcast weekly on the Eternal Word Television Network. His book The Guide to the Passion, on Mel Gibson's film, hit #6 on the New York Times best-sellers list with over a million copies sold. Dr. D'Ambrosio is a world renowned commentator on Catholic issues appearing on Fox News “Geraldo Rivera At Large” and the O'Reilly Factor to discuss the legacy of John Paul II. After nine years at Loyola College and the University of Dallas, Dr. D'Ambrosio left academia to direct www.CrossroadsInitiative.com, one of the world's leading Catholic websites, and to oversee Wellness Business Ventures, a company promoting physical, mental, and financial freedom. He, his wife Susan, and their five children reside near Dallas, TX.

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