Friday, January 10, 2014

Hell is Real

painting depicting hell in the
Church of Debra Berhan Selassie
Gondar Ethiopia
 The Cathars were members of a medieval heretical movement that fell into the same errors as the Gnostics.  The name “Cathar” comes from the Greek ƙάθάρί or “the pure ones.”  Like the Gnostics before them and the English Puritans after them they believed that because of their religious perfectionism they were the true faithful, set apart from the rank and file of sinful humankind.  The Gnostics, the Cathars, and the Puritans all believed that most people, sinful as they are, stand outside the love of God and are damned.  This sort of heresy has plagued the Church from the very beginning.  Many of the early Christian sects that separated from “the Great Church” (the term used to designate the Christian Church before the great divide between the Churches of the East and the Catholic Church of the West) were marked by this conviction that the Church of Christ consisted of those who were sinless.  The Montanists, the Meletians, the Priscillians, the Donatists were among early Christian sects that taught to some extent such puritanism.  Some of the groups that espoused this puritanism were Christian, others were not.  The Manicheans were a non-Christian Gnostic sect to which Saint Augustine briefly adhered before his conversion to Christianity and that fell into this same error.  The Cathar movement which took root especially in southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries claimed to be Christian but severely distorted biblical teaching to adjust to their Gnostic convictions and were actually very similar to the Manicheans.  The Puritan movement in late 16th century England remained Christian and orthodox but drew on Calvin’s understanding of Saint Augustine to teach that the “true Church” of Christ was a community of the elect who, by God’s grace, were preserved from the damnation to which most had been eternally condemned by God.  The mark of the “elect” in each of these systems was personal righteousness, separation from sinners, and a rigid “orthodoxy” as the particular movement defined such orthodoxy. 
This morning I was fortunate to hear a homily by a very impressive young Augustinian friar whose youth belies his spiritual perspicacity.  He drew our attention to the approaching finality of the Christmas season and called us to remember that Jesus was born “on the margins” of his society and that he spent his life with those who lived on the margins.   Jesus came not for those in the establishment but for those who had been pushed to the edges—to the lepers, to the prostitutes, to those who “didn’t belong.”  In other words, he did not come for the ƙάθάρί but for those very ones on whom the spiritually elite look down.
Recently Michael Voris has been pushing the reality of Hell and his certainty that it is filled with people who are not like him.  The usual chorus of Super-Catholic Gnostics has taken up this cry.  I believe in hell.  Saint Thérèse of Lisieux—one of my favorite saints—seemed confident that the Mercy of God would always prevail.   I appreciate her optimism, but I believe we need Hell to preserve the freedom of our human will.  I know that God loves me and will love me eternally and I think the Love of God would eventually wear me down and I would finally surrender to his love, but then I am a pretty weak man when it comes to being loved.  Just say you like me and I give in to whatever you want--love me and I become your pet dachshund. Nevertheless, I claim my freedom to resist—eternally resist if I so choose—yielding to the Love of God. If I want to remain eternally estranged from God, I have that freedom: God gave it to me.   God will love me whatever my eternal destiny--Saint Thomas assures us that God loves even those in hell.  Saved or damned our destiny is to be eternally loved by God.  For some that is a blesing; for others a soul-wracking curse.   I suspect that those who will find themselves in Hell will be those who like the older brother of the Prodigal Son will refuse to come into the banquet because the wrong sort of the people are there.  They will want their heaven to be a reception at Buckingham Palace and be appalled to find that God's heaven  is more "dive chic."   But then i think most people who will find themselves in God's eternal company are those who have spent plenty of time in seedy bars and will be right at home.   

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