Make Hell Hot Again.
A title like that is hard to ignore.
In an intriguing essay written for the Catholic journal, First Things, Marc Barnes described the theological dilemma. How does one reconcile an all-loving God presiding over Heaven and its angelic bliss while there simultaneously exists a Hell filled with an eternally suffering, spiritually disenfranchised mass of sinners? I will commend you to read the piece in its entirety, but when Marc began to talk about our role in actively helping God in his salvific plan, he captured my attention.
A man’s prayers, fastings, and sufferings are effective participations in the cross of Christ. They are the manner in which God has chosen to enact his desire to save all of mankind. One may take this “effective participation” in terms of merit and intercession, as when one prays that a person will not go to hell, but one may also take it in a more practical manner. If I get up from writing this article, cross the hall, and begin speaking with a colleague about Jesus, this action of mine may help him reach heaven. Through that conversation and others, he may develop the courage required to love God rather than reject him. I am, through the practice of charity, “doing the work of Christ,” that is, participating in the salvific plan of God. The question of whether or not souls will suffer eternal torment rebounds upon the questioner, whose free actions join in the divine plan to save all souls from eternal torment. The argument can be summed up as follows:
Q: How can a just God allow souls to suffer hell?
A: I don’t know, how can you?
Now, I won’t step into the theology of Hell as Marc does, but I will weigh in on God’s charge for us in what can sometimes seem a Godforsaken world. Too often, it is easy for us to walk away from our faith because we can’t reconcile a loving God with worldly suffering. Too frequently, we stumble over the problem of pain and find it difficult to regain our footing. We lament, “I prayed and it didn’t happen. I believed and was let down. I sought answers, but still feel confused.”
The devastation of hurricanes and earthquakes, birth defects and mass murders, cancers and abject poverty will continue to be a daunting mystery wrapped up in Original Sin and the subsequent distortion of Paradise. In trying to grapple with these painful, ever-present tragedies, we will frustratingly find ourselves peering into a mirror, darkly, while we long for the day we see Truth fully and face-to-face (1 Cor 13:12).
But our job is not simply to rend our garments, gnash our teeth and fall prostrate and helpless over our inability to prevent or comprehend these tragedies. We are not to neglect our abilities, bury our resources or squander our time while we shake our fist at God’s seemingly callous operation of the universe. We are not to presume that the world is Godforsaken, just because at times it feels that way. No. Our calling is to help. We are to work through the tragedies. We are to have faith through the dark mysteries. We are to shoulder one another’s burdens. We are to ask What I can do for you?, not What’s in it for me? And we are never to forget that we are entrusted by God with our time, talents and treasures to do so.
How often do we miss the sharp message Christ leveled at his disciples during the feeding of the five thousand? As the overwhelmed and seemingly hapless disciples cited the late hour and lack of food, they pressed Jesus to send the hungry masses home. But the Christ would have none of it. Before praying and multiplying the loaves and fishes, Jesus looked squarely at the disciples and said,
“Give them some food yourselves.”
In tandem with revealing the power of prayer, Christ challenged the disciples to own the power of their actions. You want to wring your hands and lament a tough situation? You want to sweep the problem out of the way (and your responsibility along with it)? You feel you have no control and nothing to offer? C’mon, guys. Think. Have faith. I gave you clever brains and strong backs. What can YOU do?
In the end, the lopsided proportionality of our efforts vs. God’s is quite humbling and instructive. Though the miracle was almost entirely the product of God’s infinite Grace, a small fraction rested (as Christ wanted and empowered) in what the disciples meekly brought to the table. St. Peter and his men learned two lessons that day: First, we must rely on God. And second, we must do our part.
We are called to be a part of the divine solution, not to celebrate the worldly problem. We must remember our forgotten God-given role in what can feel like a Godforsaken world. We must pray and act. And if we are outraged or despondent or simply befuddled and tempted to ask, “How can God allow this?”, perhaps it is time to ask ourselves (as Marc Barnes said), “How can we?”
There’s a story told about a bombed-out church in post-WWII Germany where a ravaged crucifix revealed a Christ without arms. As reconstruction ensued, the priest actively decided that the shattered crucifix would stay. The only alteration would be a small sign affixed to it,
“Now, you are his arms.”
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