One thing that guys like me enjoy doing over Christmas is leafing through the "Special Holiday Double Issue" of The Economist. This year’s cover-page feature is "A Rough Guide to Hell." Its leader caught my attention at once: "For hundreds of years, Hell has been the most fearful place in the human imagination. It is also the most absurd." Intrigued, I read further. The first two paragraphs informed me that the seers and sibyls of old—Plato, Homer, Cicero and Seneca—thought the idea of Hell too ridiculous for words and that, furthermore, to the rational Western mind, "Hell is just a medieval relic." Being a rather sinful person, one can imagine my relief at these glad tidings from such a respected periodical. I read on. "Theologically, even the Vatican now defines Hell as a state of exile from the love of God." Is that all? Phew! What a relief!
But those troublesome Catholics will get you every time. The mention of the Vatican and its "new view" of Hell suddenly reminded me of an end-of-advent sermon that wife recounted to me the Friday before Christmas. A priest in Brooklyn delivered it to a congregation of Catholic high school girls and their teachers. He began by pointing to two things that had happened within the previous week. The first was the slaying of the innocents in Connecticut. The second was the suicide of a young man in the parish. What, he asked, do these two terrible events have to do with Christmas? Well, everything. What does Emmanuel mean but that "God is with us"? Adam Lanza did not know that God was with him, and the young man who took his own life had forgotten it. Let us never forget it.
Suddenly, the "state of exile from the love of God" did not seem so innocuous after all. Maybe the rational Western mind of the twenty-first century has been too quick to forget the names of men who did not believe in Hell either—Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Robespierre, Herod. In their own way, they chose self-imposed exile from the love of God and, as a consequence, created a hell for everyone around them. Adam Lanza, may God forgive him, did the same for twenty-six families in Connecticut, and so did the poor young suicide in Brooklyn for everyone who loved him.
Perhaps I have a less than rational Western mind, but somehow I credit the priest in Brooklyn with more sense than I do the clever and erudite writers and editors of The Economist. I also believe (and, being a sinner, hope) that an All-Loving Creator will sort it all out in the end. In the meantime, who among us can deny feeling, even at a remove, some intimation of the torments of Hell as the news emerged of the killings in Newtown?
Oh no, Hell is real, and it is the most fearful place that I, at least, can imagine. Tremble for the world to be created by the "rational minds" that deny it.