“Ask a Priest: What If Heaven and Hell Seem Far-Fetched?”

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Q: I’ve been baptized for quite a while, and before that, my family and I were atheists. I know that there is a God and that Jesus died for us. I do pray and reach out to God when I’m happy or depressed or whatever emotion I’m feeling, to get help. Always on YouTube I would come across videos about how someone died, then saw God and came back to life or someone went to hell and came back, etc. Heaven is the place where I’m aiming to go, but it just all kind of seems like a fantasy. Just like the flames in hell — I can’t even imagine them to be realistic. Maybe it’s all the memes I see on social media or something, but since my mind is so small it can’t really imagine that kind of greatness that Jesus actually came down on this earth to save us. It’s just so materialistic and such a long time ago that I just can’t actually picture him coming down here and doing all that. And there’s this this man who went to hell and shared it on YouTube and claimed that he saw prison bars and flames and reptile-like creatures. But if hell and heaven is something beyond what humans can feel and imagine, how are those even existent in places like that? I’m seriously not doubting God’s power or love in any way — I’m just wanting to clear this fogginess. Thank you for helping me understand more. – K.S.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is good to learn that you believe in God and in Jesus and that you make prayer a part of your life.

You find it hard to imagine that Jesus would come down to earth for our sake. That is precisely why the love of God is so amazing. Each one of us is made in his image and likeness. Each of us is a son or daughter of a loving Father in heaven.

That God is so great is evident by the beauty of the world around us — the mountains, the sun, the moon, the stars, the oceans, and, not least, each of us. We are remarkable creatures with intelligence and will and the capacity to love. All this came from God.

God made us for a reason: to give glory to him and to be happy with him, ideally, forever in heaven.

Now, those who reject God and who die unrepentant simply experience the consequences of their decision: eternal separation from God. This is what we call hell.

God didn’t create hell to punish people, per se. Rather, hell is what people choose for themselves.

Jesus himself describes what hell is like: “Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’” (Mark 9:47-48). Even the image of fire and worms doesn’t quite capture the horrors of hell; Jesus is simply using language to transmit some idea of what awaits a lost soul.

The important thing is that Jesus himself warned of hell. So it is something to be taken seriously and not wished away.

As for Jesus walking among us so long ago: it’s not impossible to imagine the events of the Gospel happening 2,000 years ago. Think of the Great Pyramid of Giza, in Egypt, which predates the Gospels by 2,500 years. Or go to Rome and see the ruins of structures that were standing before the coming of Christ. Things of the past are closer to us than we think.

We Christians look forward to seeing Jesus again, in his glory, which is why we have hopes of reaching heaven someday. The eternal happiness is what we were made for, after all.

All of us are attracted to truth, beauty, goodness, love. If we seek the highest forms of these things, then it makes sense that they are “out there.” This is a way of thinking of heaven. It’s everything we could dream about.

If all that seems too good to be true, then that gives you an idea of how good God is. (For more reading about heaven, see Peter Kreeft’s webpage at http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/35-faqs_eternity.htm.)

And a word of caution: Don’t take those YouTube videos too seriously.

For some more trustworthy videos, you might want to take a “Spiritual Smoothie” a couple of times a week. One in particular might help: Is God Trustworthy?. You also might like our do-it-yourself Retreat Guides (with online videos). Here is one, for example, in which the second meditation is all about heaven and hell: Fire of Mercy: A Retreat Guide on All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day.

It would be good to continue to make time for prayer each day. Try to read a bit of the Gospel daily, in order to know more about Jesus. By staying close to him, you will discover your own identity.

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