In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, blessings, and peace, as we celebrate today the Fourth Sunday in Advent. The custom in the Season of Advent is to preach on those four eschatological topics most likely to reorient man’s attention away from the here and the now and towards the eternal consequences of his own life. In seeing that the stakes are so high, men hopefully come to know in their minds and, more importantly, in their hearts the very necessity of salvation. As this necessity comes into greater focus, the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus becomes so much more poignant. The Nativity of Our Lord as a Baby in a manger may be staged with small crèche figurines and set to the slow and soothing melody of “Silent Night,” but the eschatological focus of Advent intends for that Christmas Joy to knock us out of our spiritual stupor and to inspire an added urgency in our approach to Christ Jesus. As we have considered already three of the four topics that set the stage for the Coming of Our Lord – namely, Death, Judgment, and Heaven – we now focus our attention on Hell. Over the centuries, nothing else frankly but the possibility of eternal damnation has inspired more people to come to grips with their sins, especially when their mortality seems to draw nearer to them than the endless summers of youth. Even if only to save their own skins, millions of souls have embraced Christ Jesus, or at least some image in their minds of what it means to be forgiven and to be saved, because of the prospect that that merciless Grim Reaper would be dragging them down instead of lifting them up when the end comes. Millions of others have rejected Christianity, and indeed all religions, because the same fear of Hell that has inspired men to turn back to God has raised the questions: What are we to make of a God who scolds the unrighteous and then condemns them to a pit of everlasting fire? How is this compatible with a loving God? For many, these questions are not academic; and as a result a lot of people have rejected the God of the Bible as either malevolent or as nonexistent. I recall as a child innocently asking a neighbor, who was also a friend of my grandmother, which church she attended on Sundays. I just assumed everybody went to church. It was what you did before going to Sunday Brunch and then going back home to watch the Forty-Niners later in the afternoon. The neighbor looked down upon me, and said she did not go to church. I assume she saw my mouth open in astonishment, because she proceeded then to offer me an explanation. She said that she did not believe in God, because if there was a God He would not have allowed all those Jews to burn in the ovens. There was nothing I could say, and so I did not even try; but I did learn a lesson from what she said and from the haunted look in her eyes. Hell is visceral. It really cannot be ignored without denying its existence. If we have any sense in our minds that a place of eternal damnation is real, then we are compelled to respond by either embracing God or by rejecting Him. Like with the reality of the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus, there really is no mushy middle ground between those two options if damnation remains in our minds and in our hearts as a very real prospect. By concluding the Season of Advent with a consideration of Hell, what we are saying is that the Coming of Our Lord demands from all of us that we make a choice. Fence sitting is not viable. If we think we can perch ourselves up there, and indefinitely remain indecisive with respect to embracing or rejecting God, we shall find that the devil has no particular respect for our agnosticism. He will reach up to the top of that fence and yank us into his pit whether we choose to believe in him or not. The devil has made his choice, and in battle the one who chooses and acts on his choice always beats out the indecisive thumb-sucker. This is why in today’s Gospel reading St. John the Baptist refers to himself as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” The prospect of Hell is never far from his mind. Whatever he says or does, it is always with a sense of urgency; and in one way or another he is forever demanding that his listeners make a choice and act on it. The imminent coming of God into the world of men demands nothing less.
Still, the questions posed by nonbelievers to justify their rejection of God deserve consideration in their own right. Indeed, what are we to make of a God who scolds the unrighteous and then condemns them to a pit of everlasting fire? Moreover, how is this really compatible with a God of love? In order to answer both questions, we need to remember that God has given man free will. The reason is that God wants men to love Him, and also to love one another, just as much as He loves them. There is no love unless it is freely given and received. The natural condition of man is to be free. The fact that he has been straitjacketed by sin is a perversion of what God set forth as natural and as good. If man has free will, then he must be free to reject God for the hell he has fashioned for himself. I recall learning in Seminary that Hell is the abode of those who by their own free will choose to spend eternity alone with their obsessions. They reject God, for no other reason than that they cannot have both God and their obsessions, and they have learned over a lifetime of sins to value their obsessions over God. The temptation is to shrug off the lost souls as so much worse than us as to be in an altogether different category of mankind – maybe like some of the well-bred Londoners may have thought in silence, when they beheld the worst of the worst being roped and dragged onto the ships set for a remote penal colony in Australia. And yet, we all know in our hearts how much more familiar we are with sin than with grace. We expect almost on a daily basis to be tempted to lie, or to cheat, or to say or to do something we know we should not be saying or doing. We have no such expectation for grace, which is why if and when a moment of grace becomes clear to us we are astonished beyond words. In a fallen world, sin is commonplace, and God is largely hidden. Given the far greater familiarity we have with sin, are we really that much removed from the worst of the worst? Can we be really sure that we too are not creating a hell for ourselves out of our own petty conceits and grievances?
God never condemns a man. He condemns sinful behavior; but he always loves the sinner, and wants the sinner to turn back to Him. Hell exists, because some angels and men have embraced their own mad rebellion against God above all else. The existence of hell is the price to be paid for angels and men to have free will. The fact that God allows hell to exist is a testament to the value He places upon free will. For without free will, there is no love. Without the possibility of love within the created order, there is nothing about that order that God could say is good and worthy to be maintained and redeemed. My Brethren in Christ, pray always for that grace with which we can embrace God and reject hell. Without grace, we are so mired in our sins as to be incapable of differentiating what is truly good from what we imagine is beneficial for ourselves. Without grace, any effort on our part to seek God inevitably ends with us imagining that we are the “god” of our own lives. God came to man as a Baby in a manger to save us from hell, which is to say to save us from our sins and from our too easy susceptibility to the charms of the devil. If hell is the clarion call for us to turn back to God, then grace is the power that allows us finally and fully to reject the snares of the devil and to walk the path with Christ Jesus. Pray always for this gift of grace, so that as time passes we may conform more to God and leave hell behind us.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.