Sunday, December 16, 2018

only the fun people go to hell?

Almighty, eternal, and merciful God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: we pray that as we meditate upon your Word you will lead us deeper into all truth that we may better know and do your will and grow in holiness day by day. Amen
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. During this season it is traditional to preach on the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. Today is also Guadate Sunday, the Sunday of rejoicing, when the penitential aspect of the season is lightened somewhat. It is therefore very appropriate that we look at that most joyful of topics, the place we were created to spend all eternity: heaven.

Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, the author of such classic novels as 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' and 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn', once remarked that he would chose heaven for the climate and hell for the company. Mr Clemens was, as you will be aware if you have ever read any of his works, a man of great wit. But his humour in this case betrays a profound theological ignorance. This is not surprising; he was, while not an atheist, someone who was highly critical of organised religion and who found the concept of divine revelation implausible. Perhaps this is what led him into his error.

The first place where he goes wrong is with the idea that heaven is full of boring people. Consider all the interesting characters that we know who are in heaven: Jesus Christ himself, and his mother the Blessed Virgin Mary, for example; St Peter and St Mary Magdalene, King David and his great-grandmother Ruth who stood among the alien corn; Moses and his sister Miriam who hid him in his basket among the rushes; St Patrick and St Brigid, those great saints of our own land; and St Francis of Assisi and his co-worker St Clare.

These are not dull people! And the Bible and the various lives of the saints that have been written down through the ages have thousand of more examples of those who are numbered among the company of heaven, all great heroes of the faith not one of whom can be considered boring or someone that would not make for a lively companion for a conversation that might last an hour a century or some other part of eternity.

And the second place he goes wrong, and more seriously I would suggest, is that his joke presumes that he knows who it is who goes to hell. Those he considers fun people, are in the light of his joke, surely damned. And this is not the case; for as Christ himself told us, who are we to judge? This is why the Church will teach how it is that a person may sin and as a result lose out on the eternal happiness of heaven; but never who. No matter how bad a person has been in the eyes of the world, the Church has never dared to say that that person is in hell.

Hell is real, or else Christ would not have told us of it; and people do go there, or else he would not have warned us against it. But as to who those people might be, we cannot say. It is not beyond hope that the person who seems in the eyes of the world to have lived a life of absolute depravity and reached the end of their life unrepentant of all their sins, caring not how their wickedness may have hurt others or offended God, may have in fact secretly had a change of heart, even if only at the last minute; that in their dying moments, with their last breath or last thought they cried out to God: 'Lord, have mercy on me, for I am a sinner' and been forgiven. 

I would not, of course, recommend leaving things to the last minute like that; nor would I recommend gambling with your eternal soul by leading a life of wickedness thinking that you will have time to repent at the last moment! I am merely saying that it is not impossible that such may happen; and therefore it is not possible for us to say who fails to achieve heaven. It is for God to judge and he is merciful.

And God wants his children to go to heaven. That is why he created us. Mark Twain might have found it funny to joke about how only the good but dull will end in the sunny climes of heaven; and those who like to have what the world calls a 'good time' will go to where things are a great deal warmer and far less pleasant; but for God it was no laughing matter. He took it so seriously that he sent his only Son into the world that all might be saved. Therefore, let us all, on this Guadate Sunday, rejoice in the hope we have of heaven through our Saviour, Jesus Christ!

To the Almighty and Eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to him be all honour and glory, now and unto the ages of ages: Amen.

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