There Open the Gates of Hell (Homily)
March 26, 2006
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Second Chronicles 36:14-23; Psalm 137; Ephesians 2:4-10;
There’s this odd scene at the beginning of Dante’s Inferno, this poem from the Middle Ages about hell. All these people are pushing and shoving along the shores of the river Acheron, trying to get to the other side. They’re eager to get to the other side--they want to get into hell--and though that seems really counterintuitive at first, it’s what the Church teaches, too, and what the readings today are about.
God doesn’t put anyone in hell. We put ourselves there.
Or as the Catechism puts it, “God predestines no one to go to hell. For this, a willful turning away from God is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.” We don’t get eternally condemned because of some sort of slip up or loophole. We can relax about that. The pressure is on us in another way. What we have to think about are our own choices, our own subtle and persistent rejection of the light.
It’s true that in the Old Testament reading for today God is described as angry and vengeful, but of course, in cases like this, we have to remember that in scripture the inspiration of God is reflected through human culture and limitation, in this case, the war-like and primitive culture of the ancient Jews. Psalm 137, the Psalm for today, ends with the psalmist asking God to bash out the brains of the babies of the enemies of Israel (though the lectionary wisely leaves that out). It’s not just the Koran that can be read in a way that justifies violence. So of course, we discount for that.
It’s God’s initial goodness that really stands out in Chronicles, that he entered into covenant with the people and blessed them in the beginning. And it’s his persistent tenderness, how He keeps reaching out to the people, over and over again, even as they reject him. Their punishment isn’t the result of any meanness in God. It’s the inevitable result of their decision to turn away from the covenant and live as they want to. This is how all the prophets understood the Babylonian Exile, not as the result of an attack by a foreign enemy but as just punishment for their own crimes, crimes freely committed.
I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault.
Ephesians celebrates not the anger of God but his infinite, immeasurable mercy. Again, this is the first premise. This is our natural condition, the one we always violate, and even then, we are saved, or can be. We don’t have to worry about being perfect and never doing anything wrong. Grace is a free gift constantly being given. It is never too late. The only way we end up in hell is by turning our back on this gift, by choosing the darkness, over and over again, which is what Jesus is saying, too, in this famous passage from John. He hasn’t come to condemn the world but to save it. He is the expression of the love of the Father.
And notice. Condemnation is our own choice. “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Somehow, for some inexplicable reason, because of the mystery of free will, we have the capacity to prefer the darkness. Somehow, we have the capacity to hate the light.
But that’s just it. The light doesn’t hate us. The light has come into the world and we have closed our eyes to it.
In a letter to a friend--I think I’ve quoted this before--the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor explains it this way, that Hell “is what God’s love becomes to those who reject it.” We don’t have to reject it. God made us to love Him, and it takes two to love, and it takes liberty. It takes the right to reject. Therefore, she reasons--and she is reasoning here with the mind of the Church--“if there were no hell, we would be like the animals. No hell, no dignity.”
I can’t think of anything stupider than smoking. The evidence is in and there’s no question that it’s bad. And yet people choose to do it, lots of people. I can’t think of anything stupider than drug addiction, I can’t think of anything sadder than internet pornography, I can’t think of anything more destructive than adultery, and yet people choose to do these things every day. People in this room, right now. We know it’s wrong and we do it anyway, and the hell this creates--that we’ve created, for ourselves--isn’t just in the afterlife but here and now. The Israelites didn’t believe in an afterlife, in a heaven or a hell in that sense, but they understood hell well enough anyway, because they were in it, in their Exile. We are, too. Drug addicts aren’t happy. People having affairs aren’t happy. At least I’ve never known that to be true. They’re in hell, and there’ll keep being in hell as long as they keep choosing to do what they’re doing. When the afterlife arrives, there’ll recognize it. It will be perfectly familiar.
Of course, we understand the psychology of addiction now, far better than Dante or the human authors of scripture. We know that alcoholism, for instance, is a disease, and that mere willpower isn’t enough. You can’t just pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But you can start by admitting that. The great genius of the 12 step programs is that they recognize our need to take that first step. We can choose to seek help, and there is help available. We can turn away from our addictions.
And whenever we do, God is there. Whenever we make the slightest movement. There is grace pouring down around us every second. All we have to do is turn our heads, open our eyes.
There was once a young samurai who killed many people. He was a great hero. But he started worrying after a while that the Gods might be angry and that he might end up in hell, so he went to visit the Zen master.
Bowing deeply, he said: “Master, please tell me about heaven and hell.”
The Master just laughed. He laughed and laughed. “You idiot,” he said. “You’re too stupid to understand anything I might say to you.”
The samurai felt his anger rising. He would have killed anyone else who talked him this way. But the Master wasn’t finished. “It’s clear to me that not one of your family is wise enough to even stand in my presence,” and with that the young warrior grabbed his sword, leapt to his feet, and raised his arms to strike.
The Master just sat there. He calmly looked into the young man’s eyes, then pointed to the upraised sword. He said, “there open the gates of hell.”
The samurai stopped. A light dawned, and the tears came, and he dropped to his knees in gratitude. “Master, master,” he cried,” thank you, thank you. You have saved me!”
The Master smiled. He looked at him again and said, “there open the gates of heaven.”
Let’s live in the truth. Let’s come into the light.