Mother Angelica foundress of EWTN used to say, “My intention is to scare the hell out of you.” She minced no words as she spoke the truth in love.
I have my own story of a sermon I heard at church camp when I was 12 years old. The preacher was an “old-fashioned” man of God who wasn’t afraid to talk about hell. In the message he talked about the danger of missing heaven and if one did so, the eternal destiny was hell. The central point that I remember was how he described someone going to hell for all eternity. He painted the picture of a iron sphere the size of the earth and a tiny bird like a sparrow. The sparrow began his trek of circumnavigating the world walking without stopping. The bird’s little feet didn’t make a dint on the sphere, but who knows after how many eons the sphere begins to show some wear and a little path is carved into the ball. Eons more pass and the bird has made quite a dent in the sphere. Finally the bird is able to wear a path clear through the iron ball (remember it’s the size of the earth) and it breaks into two. And then God says, “Eternity has begun!” All the time I’m sitting there trembling, thinking about the absolute endlessness of the eternal torment one would never see the end of. He scared the hell out of me!
We might take issue with the preacher’s tactic, but I will tell you I am thankful! I learned that day there is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun. During the 30 plus years that I served as a pastor I preached my share of sermons, but I never preached one like that, perhaps to my shame. Hell was not something we talked about in “polite company.” We tend to focus more on God’s love, but to be honest, we don’t talk much about heaven either. Our focus seems to be more on making the world a better place. Now there’s nothing wrong with that—that too is our call as Christians. But unfortunately, that’s only part of the story—eternity is a long, long, long…
Jesus talked about a lot about heaven, but he talked even more about hell. The fact that there is more to life than what we know in the present helps us keep perspective. At the end of our life we will either spend eternity with God or separate from God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches this biblical truth:
1035 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.” 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.
I believe when we lose the vision of eternity, or believe that it really doesn’t matter how we live now, we lose our moorings, we lose restraint, and we decide what is right for us. Proverbs 29:18 says,
“Without a vision the people lose restraint;
but happy is the one who follows instruction.
Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, gives that instruction that will make us truly happy.
“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.
I venture to say in light of our current challenges in the Church there is a need to recover the teaching on eternal destiny—that there is something that follows our life here. I can’t help but think that when we have a healthy fear of hell, it will also increase our love for God and for the promise extended to those who love and serve Him.
You know what, I am thankful for the preacher that “scared the hell out of me!”