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“Ask a Priest: Where’s the Justice If a Fiend Can Repent and Gain Heaven?”
Q: I am going through a bumpy process of getting closer to the Church and God, and there are still some things I struggle with. One of those is how can we reconcile God’s justice with the fact that one can get condemned for eternity for just one isolated mortal sin whereas others can make it to heaven simply because they had time to repent for their heinous lifetime. For example, suppose there is a devout and good Catholic man whose every day is pleasing to God, but the very day he dies in a car accident he also happens to have had sex with his girlfriend because they failed to overcome their desire. Then you have a lifelong murderer-rapist-pedophile who repents, say, while in prison and could possibly even get a plenary indulgence. So the latter goes straight to heaven while the former ends up in hell for literally one lapse. Now I am aware that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways, but this is so fundamentally contrary to our common concept of what it means to be just that, frankly, it makes me think that the justice we attribute to God has nothing to do whatsoever with our human, day-to-day understanding thereof and is thus — from our perspective — devoid of any real or tangible meaning. I would be grateful if you could try to clear things up even a little bit. – Igor
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Perhaps the answer to your basic question could focus on your phrase that “this is so fundamentally contrary to our common concept of what it means to be just” [italics mine].
To put things in perspective, it is good to remember that God, in justice, could have given up on mankind a long time ago. He could have abandoned the world to sin after the fall of Adam and Eve. But God chose to be merciful and to send us a redeemer.
Every time he forgives us our sins, he is going “beyond the call of duty,” so to speak.
Your instinct that the justice we attribute to God doesn’t have much to do with our human understanding of the term does have some validity. Justice and mercy in God are so far above our grasp of justice and mercy that we can’t really understand what these qualities are like in the Almighty. But that’s not because the terms lack any meaning; rather, the qualities we might assign to God are at an infinitely higher level.
Now, to your specific scenarios:
Mortal sin by definition involves a deliberate choice to offend Our Lord in a grievous way. In other words, it involves a conscious — whether implicit or explicit — rejection of God’s friendship.
That means that the loss of a soul isn’t a case of God sending someone to hell as much as it is a person choosing to live outside of God’s friendship and staying firm in that choice up until the moment of death. This is why Jesus warns us to be vigilant, “for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13) when the moment of our death will arrive.
God respects the decision of someone who freely rejects him through grievous sin. Thus he allows a person to feel the consequences should that person die in a state of mortal sin.
Likewise, God’s mercy is boundless to those still in this world. Hence, even a grievous sinner can repent and attain salvation. Here it might be good to meditate a bit on Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the workers in the vineyard.
God’s generosity can be extraordinary. Any “problem” that we have with that is not a sign of a shortcoming on God’s part but on ours. We can become so accustomed to the idea of morality as a system of rules and punishments that we miss the deeper, divine mercy that holds the world together.
You also might find it useful to go through the various Retreat Guides we have published that touch on God’s mercy: Fire of Mercy, Miracles of Mercy, Messenger of Mercy, The Dawn of Mercy, Father of Mercies, and From Sorrow to Joy.
Perhaps you want to give God the benefit of the doubt and see whether the Holy Spirit is inviting you to appreciate ever more his great mercy. That mercy is what gives us hope.
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