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“Ask a Priest: What If the Thought of Hell Is Shaking My Faith?”
Q: I went to church this January for the first time since I was a very little kid. My faith had waned until I left home for college and caught up on the Gospels and began exploring Christianity more deeply. I am a very analytical person, and I found it difficult at first to reconcile biblical teachings with my logical perspective on the world. I have accepted the existence of our loving God and the divinity of Jesus. That being said, the doctrine of eternal damnation is causing much internal strife within me and is damaging my faith and love of God. I have explored doctrines such as annihilation, but ended up agreeing that the Catholic perspective was far more rooted in biblical teaching. Without getting into too much detail, the thought of unbelieving yet virtuous people, even some I know and love, going to hell has caused me great emotional distress and has caused me to dissociate from my friends and family. If you could provide any advice on how you have reconciled the doctrine of hell in your life, it would be much appreciated. I want to love God, and this seems like the only obstacle that has hindered me thus far. – G.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: It’s good to hear that you have come back closer to the practice of the faith.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever had to “reconcile” the doctrine of hell with my life. It always struck me as making a lot of sense. The chance of helping souls avoid hell is one reason why the priesthood is so important.
The possibility of souls being lost explains, in part, why Jesus suffered and died on a cross for our redemption — sin is very serious business.
The reality of hell (and heaven) also instills meaning into life. If we all end up in heaven anyway, what’s the point of struggling against sin and temptation in this life? Why even bother getting out of bed in the morning?
If our moral choices ultimately don’t matter, then it makes little difference whether we go through life as a Hitler or as a Mother Teresa.
But does that sound true? Isn’t there something deep inside of us that says, “Yes, there is good and there is evil in the world, and my conscience tells me to pursue one and avoid the other”?
As for non-believers: God alone knows the heart and mind of each person. Someone who doesn’t learn about Christ but who sincerely tries to follow his conscience and live a good life can reach salvation.
If your friends and family are not believers, then that should be a motivation for you to evangelize them and to pray for them. Dissociating from them might not be the best response.
It’s one thing to keep a healthy distance from people who might tempt us to lose our faith. On the other hand, living the Catholic faith implies being willing to share the faith, especially with non-believers. And many folks out there are clueless about the meaning of life.
An analogy might help.
Imagine that there was a plague raging, and a pharmaceutical company gave you a stockpile of medicine that could cure the disease.
But instead of sharing the medicine with the sick, you hid it in your room. Would that be a proper response? Would you question the good will of the pharmaceutical company because you hid the medicine in your room as people around you died?
It’s a bit like that with Catholicism. Jesus told us, “Go … and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). He equipped us with the sacraments and solid teaching. And he didn’t tell us to stay away from non-believers.
Perhaps Our Lord is asking you to reach out to your friends and family. You know of a medicine that can help them. And you know where the medicine came from.
For more reading you might consider my colleague Father Bartunek’s Go! 30 Meditations on How to Best Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.
You might want to take some of this to prayer … and see which souls Jesus is calling you to reach out to.
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