Sermon on Hell
By Father Kyle
When I was in middle school, my class participated in a regional poster contest that was headed by a health advertisement campaign which sought to discourage people from smoking. This was the first time any of us had done something like this, and so you can imagine how blown away and excited I was to hear that I won first place. For an award, I received a $200 gift certificate to our Cranberry Mall, which actually still had a lot of stores back then, including an Electronics Boutique. I used my gift certificate to purchase my first Xbox game console, which was the first Xbox game console among many other more advanced models that would surpass it over the years. In addition to the mall gift certificate, my poster was also put up on a large billboard on a highway not far from where I lived, so that many people driving by could see what I had created.
The poster itself was rather simple – I drew and colored a cigarette inside of a cancel symbol, and then I drew two dice, each with skull and crossbones showing on it. Next to this, I wrote, “Think twice before you roll the dice. You’ll always lose. Don’t smoke.” I guess the catchy phrase was what stood out to the judges, whoever they were. It emphasized the all-too-familiar denial mentality that says, “Yes, but that will never happen to me,” when people consider doing something that is harmful or dangerous to their bodies, like smoking. In this way, they gamble with their lives for the sake of the pleasure accompanied by such unhealthy practices, which often form addictions. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Web Archive, tobacco use causes seven million deaths per year worldwide, and cigarette smoking, in particular, is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths each year in the United States alone! That is a lot of people who gambled, lost, and paid for it with their lives.
Today, with All Saints Day and All Souls Day less than a week away (All Saints Day is a holy day of obligation this year, by the way), I will preach on the last of the “last things,” which is hell. Needless to say, it is a topic that no one likes to think about, and it is a reality that many people in our world, in our country, and even in the Church today reject altogether, partly because they treasure absolute autonomy more than anything else, wanting to live their lives however they so desire without moral consequence, and partly because they fear the very real possibility of suffering eternal damnation. As a result, many of my brother priests throughout the world, especially in our country, rarely ever even mention it in their homilies and sermons, much less make it the theme of any of them, further leading many people to believe that it doesn’t exist and so not to worry about it. Regarding the other three last things, on which I have already preached, so many Christians today wrongly believe that everyone goes to heaven when he or she dies, no matter how sinful he or she might have been in this life. This is akin to the denial mentality I mentioned, with regard to tobacco use. Clearly, smoking is never good for you; it is dangerous and often life-threatening, and yet there are many people who do it anyway. The same can be said of sin on a universal level, and when people persist in mortal sin and sinful lifestyles, without any remorse or repentance, they will experience not only physical death, but also the death of the soul. When tolerated or embraced, sin will rob you of true life here on earth and deprive you of it forever in hell.
So, what is hell? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, hell is the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed….” (CCC 1033) Furthermore, the Catechism states, “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death, the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’” (CCC 1035) The reality of hell can be denied, just as the harmful effects of smoking can be denied, but to the person’s peril. His or her personal opinion does not change the fact that both exist. It is a very real possibility for someone to die from smoking, from the large array of health defects and diseases that it often brings with it, and it is equally a very real possibility for a person, for every person, to go to hell because we are all sinners in need of God’s grace and mercy. He has created us with free will, and we can freely choose to reject His grace and mercy and separate ourselves from Him, as many people do, from both outside the Church and inside the Church. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14) Although the Church cannot authoritatively declare that any particular individual is in hell (as it has the authority to do with regard to eternal salvation for the saints in heaven), our Lord Himself tells us clearly and solemnly that hell is just as real as heaven, and there are tragically many people suffering eternal torment there.
This is a sobering and unsettling realization for us human beings and especially for us Christians, and we must also remember, as the Catechism tells us, that “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” (CCC 1035) If we remain aloof from God by living solely for ourselves and our own sinful desires, if we put the practice of our Catholic faith on the backburner of our lives, we are essentially preparing ourselves for hell here and now. The devil is that insidious black-jack dealer that keeps enticing us to gamble more and more with our lives and our souls, as he hopes and works tirelessly to direct us away from the spiritual life, a life of prayer and charity. “You still have many years before you punch your ticket. You don’t need to worry about all that religious stuff, at least not for a long while. Keep eating, drinking, and being merry. You still have many chips to lose,” he says. We must not listen to him. We must not listen to the voice of our secular, hedonistic culture. We must listen to Jesus, who warns us every day about the dangers that threaten us and the possibility of losing ourselves, even to gain the whole world. Let us think twice before we roll the dice on the short time we have in this life, so that we can commit to preparing ourselves for the life of heaven by living in the communion of saints in the present moment.