By FRANCIS REMKIEWICZ
Heard about hell lately? My guess is that the answer to that these days is a resounding no. I preach from time to time at our own worship service and in three years I have never touched on the subject. These days it is a rare sermon that uses hell as a central theme. We preach on God’s love, Jesus and salvation, mercy, forgiveness, etc. After all, why preach on something ugly when one isn’t required. Quite frankly it gets half the congregation upset and the other half don’t like it.
I was raised a Roman Catholic. I even attended a Catholic seminary in Oakland, California. While in seminary every third or fourth Sunday a visiting priest would rotate in to say the mass. The mass was always accompanied by a sermon (now referred to as a homily) and boy, did we get a healthy dose of hell. We were all going straight to hell. Imagine 90 -plus seminarians and all of us were going to hell. At this point, I often thought, what about the other guy? If all of us would-be priests were all going to hell what chance has everyone else?
The very last time I heard this priest preach I was sitting in a pew with my wife at our home church. For clarification I removed myself from the Seminary when I was 16. Girls don’t you know. At 17 I joined the Marine Corps, spent 14 months in Vietnam, came home and married. It was at this time we split the duty with us going one week to the Episcopal Church and the other week attending the Roman church. Now understand my wife’s entire family were raised Methodist. So “Old Blood and Guts” (in my seminary days that is how we referred to this priest) climbs into the pulpit in my church and informs the congregation that all Protestants were going to hell! Apparently, this priest never got the telegram from the Second Vatican Council and was still living the dream that only Roman Catholics were going to heaven. Well, my wife has never set foot in a Roman Catholic church since that day.
Let’s face it, in today’s “modern” worship most everyone focuses on God’s love and the redeeming quality of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as Counselor and Comforter. It is very uncomfortable to listen to sermons on hell and very uncomfortable to preach on hell. I can hardly think of anyone who has their life goal set on going to hell. We rest daily in our comfort zone not wanting to hear about bad things and bad places. Despite that, we can rest assured there is most definitely a hell. God usually does not lie.
Western thinking developed in large part from the Greeks. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to name a few major influences. A foundational concept of Western thought is the duality of nature. In western spiritual thinking (Augustine and Aquinas come quickly to mind) such ideas come in opposites. It is the concept that everything in nature is balanced. If there is a God (pure love) then there must be a Satan (pure hate). If there is good in the world, then there must be evil. If there is heaven, then there must be hell. Western thought almost always arrives at opposing concepts, usually a positive side and a negative side. In our way of thinking we really cannot avoid this duality. I mentioned earlier I enlisted in the Marine Corps. In both boot camp and in many a song, Marines talk about not only facing down the Devil, but heading into Hell and cleaning Hell up as well. Now, I love the Corps and I love all those songs, but my concept of heaven and hell is a little different than the Marine Corps’. For example, I am pretty sure God is not a Marine. But I also do not believe hell is a place even the toughest of Marines wants to go. Nor is it a place of some sort of continuing physical pain or torture, at least not in the sense we know it.
Jesus directs us with two commandments. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and soul. And the second is love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus even goes further and states, “On these two commandments hang all the laws and the prophets”. If God is pure love, and I believe God is pure love, and if God then created all the world out of pure love, and God created humankind out of pure love, and I believe that as well, then it is both logical and spiritual that God’s highest requirement for all of us is “to love”. Love God, love your neighbor. In my own western logic then hell is a state of a complete lack of love. Have you ever imagined that someone close to you does not love you? That feeling is devastating. That is hell on earth. Now imagine a place where there is no love at all, ever. Not one soul loves, cares for, looks after or even really thinks about someone else. That to me is hell. And when you tell someone to go to hell, you are wishing for them no love at all. In fact, you are telling them that you wish them to be in a permanent state that is completely devoid of love. And, by the way, violates both of the great commandments. I shudder to think what that does to our soul.
Francis (Frank) Remkiewicz is an area resident and contributes a monthly column focused primarily on faith and religion. He can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed are those of the author.