The Fear of the Lord: A Catholic Perspective on Hell

This guest post is from my good friend Fr. Christopher Decker, who serves two parishes in Louisiana in addition to being one of the creative engines behind the popular Catholic Underground. Fr. Decker and I slogged through Clinical Pastoral Education together many moons ago, and I would not have made it without his friendship, wit and deep faith.  I asked him to jot down some thoughts from the Catholic perspective about Hell & Purgatory to dovetail on my recent sermon on Hell last week.   

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Of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the one that often turns up an eyebrow is “The Fear of The Lord”. What is it? Doesn’t the Lord Himself say to the apostles who are startled at his appearance upon the stormy seas, “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid.”? It would seem that this gift contradicts Jesus who wishes to be known and to make known a God who desires a new depth of relationship with His people.

Perhaps that’s why today it is often translated rather generically as “wonder and awe” of The Lord.

While it seems that fear and wonder are opposed to each other, it is actually the Christian virtue of hope that gives us a desire not to offend God, that we may know him more and more throughout our lives and into eternity. This so-called fear is the same we might have for our parents. We are not called to be afraid of our parents (though some probably are!) but rather the love we have for them encourages us to live our lives free of offense, that their love and concern may be perfectly imaged in us, their children.

This is the Fear of The Lord: A Love for God actively reflected in our desire to live in a way that does not offend Him. Of course, allowing this gift to work in us increases the virtue of hope that God will continue to give us the grace to live this way!

But Father! What has this to do with Hell? Well, I’ll tell you!

Coupled with a respectful and healthy fear of the Lord is the desire we ought to have to remain free from sin. When our hearts are contrite and our consciences clear, there is no doubt of our destination. “Today, you will be with me in paradise...” proclaims Jesus from the cross to the repentant thief. The other thief had no desire to be seen in a favorable light by his God. He was perhaps only afraid of the money he had stolen (which was often affixed in some way to the body of the thief to show the crime committed) dropping to the ground and spilling. It is for his soul salvation is uncertain.

When a human being has no care for living a Godly life, does not desire to accept the reality or the manner in which our God continues to invite us into a relationship with Himself, and ultimately turns his or her back on God, usually by persisting in an unrepentant lifestyle, which often includes serious sin, that person places themselves in eternal danger. 

Catholics believe in being “born again” of water and the Holy Spirit in Baptism. We understand that this cleanses the soul of original sin, thus claiming the person for Christ and flinging open the doors to heaven which were closed as a result of that first sin of Adam and Eve.

But, the salvation that Jesus wins for us on the day of our Baptism must continually be renewed. We believe that it is certainly possible to assume the attitude of the unrepentant thief, or that of Judas Iscariot. Though Christ reaches out continually to us (for Catholics especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation whereby the Holy Spirit forgives both serious and slight sins through the ministry of the Church.) it is possible to turn away from this. Even in the particular judgement that each of us must undergo after death, it is possible to reject the salvation won for us – because our free will remains!

In this instance, should the soul die in the state of serious sin (often called “mortal sin”) or should the soul reject salvation at the time of judgement, we believe that Hell is the state of being where it is consigned.

Personally, I find it hard for a soul to be offered paradise and to refuse it, but it is possible that there are souls so convinced of themselves as little messiahs, rejecting God so completely in life, that when offered Heaven they would rather try to create their own without the Creator.

Hell is the state to which these souls are condemned. There are torments of which the Lord Jesus likens to “fiery Gehenna,” a hot-burning garbage dump where ancient pagans sacrificed their children in unquenchable fire. Those who thought themselves gods will know the torments of those burned alive in the name of a false god. Perhaps the true torment though are not the unending flames that leap up to destroy “both body and soul” but rather the knowledge that God exists and the soul has chosen to be apart from Him for eternity. This is the ultimate torment, because the soul is hard-wired for communion with God.

But what of the soul that dies repentant with stains upon the it from sins that may have not been serious? Nothing impure can stand before the presence of God. Is there simply no hope for the striving soul who dies accepting Jesus’ salvation, yet still struggling with living in a manner that fully accepts this great gift? Is it Heaven or Hell?

Within Catholic Theology, there has always been the notion of a state of being called “purgatory”. While this word does not explicitly occur in Sacred Scripture, its existence is alluded to in several places. An interesting mention is when Jesus refers to the sinner who “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come (Matthew 12:32)” There is a suggestion here that one can be freed after death of the consequences of one’s sins. St. Paul mentions that when we are judged, our work will be put to the test. And if a righteous man’s work should fail the test Paul says that " he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire" (1 Cor 3:15). There is no salvation once the soul is in Hell, and there is no suffering (“fire”) in Heaven. The Catholic doctrine of purgatory is just this: a place of purgation – final cleansing – so that a good soul who may not be fully clean might be purified as silver in a furnace to meet God. 

I find this a great comfort. It’s not a get into heaven double-coupon, but rather a reminder that God wills not the death of a sinner, but stops at nothing to give us every opportunity to return to Him, both in this life and even after our death! 

There is an old axiom told in the form of a joke: 

“What do a soul in heaven, a soul in purgatory, and a soul in hell all have in common?”

The answer:

“They all know God exists.”

To the soul in heaven, God is fully present to the Church triumphant. To the soul in purgatory, God is greatly anticipated as the purifying fire readies it for heaven. To the soul in Hell, the existence and love of God are known, but are unable to be attained.

This is perhaps why the Church in Her wisdom presents us with the beautiful seasons of Lent and Easter. It is a constant, life-long, reminder that God loves us. His Son willingly suffered and died for us that the chains of sin and death might be broken. And we have the opportunity while in this life to turn back to God, to seek forgiveness for our failings, and to ask for the gift of Holy Fear – that we might love Him above all things and please Him in offering as a sacrifice of praise daily lives that are dedicated to His service.

Happy Easter!


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