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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Should We Care Whether Gandhi's In Heaven Or Hell?

On several occasions over the years, I've been asked - by people purporting to be Christian, no less - if I think Gandhi's in Hell. My response has been along the lines of "Why is my opinion of that important to you?" His eternal abode has no bearing on my spiritual life. The person asking isn't interested in my opinion - what they're looking for is affirmation in one of several categories:

1) It's universally accepted that Gandhi was a "good" person, because he advocated non-violent pacifist protests. He lived what he believed. Thus, God must have welcomed him into heaven upon the shedding of his mortal coil because he was so Christ-like, even if he weren't a Christian. He even said he liked and admired Christ, in spite of all the un-Christlike Christians he knew.

2) Related to #1 - God wouldn't condemn a good and holy person to Hell, would He? That just seems so unfair. How could an all-loving God do that to a good and holy person?

3) Perhaps subconsciously, some - or maybe most - folks are hoping that if they are Christian just enough without having to go all in with God, they can still make it to heaven. They cite Gandhi as an example, assuaging themselves that there's a bare minimum requirement to reaching heaven, and hey! you don't even really need to be Christian, either!

4) There really isn't a Hell, after all.

The state of Gandhi's soul has recently showed up in the news - reported briefly here at the NCDistorter - in reaction to the publication of a book by Rob Bell, a pastor of a rock-n-roll Bible School church out of Grand Rapids, MI. The book, "Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,", 'describes as "misguided and toxic" the dogma that "a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.”' [Source]

The book spawned a ridiculous piece at the Washington Post, in the "On Faith" section, over the weekend. Sally Quinn posits the following question:
"With his new book, “Love Wins,” Pastor Rob Bell has stirred an enormous debate in Christian circles on heaven, hell and the nature of God. Bell’s thesis is that God wouldn’t allow only evangelicals into heaven and condemn everyone else to eternal hell. “’Will only a few select people make it to heaven? ... And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell?’” Bell asks provocatively in a video previewing the book. Bell’s critics have accused him of leading Christians astray, calling the minister a universalist and a heretic. In this life (and, perhaps, the next) why does what we think about the afterlife matter?"
The question is then taken up by a panel of folks - one secularist, two rabbis, a professor from the Chicago Theological Seminary, a UCC minister, a non-denominational Christian-type guy, and a lawyer/activist. No priest, no bishop, no Catholic theologian. No blogger either! I know! In other words, no one who can answer the question seriously, by relying on authentic Christian teaching and Catholic understanding.

It's the secularist who mentions Gandhi again:
I can understand why self-interest might have led someone like Saint Cyprian of Carthage to say, “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” It is difficult, though, to believe a claim that a loving and all-powerful god would condemn Mahatma Gandhi to an eternity of torture while the Catholic Adolph Hitler has an eternity of bliss as he looks down at Jews suffering in hell.
This guy just canonized Hitler. Wow. Can't get more outside mainstream than that.

Interestingly, it's the lawyer/activist dude who gets closest. After quoting some pertinent Scriptural passages, he says:
Each one of us is a flawed human being and it would be foolish for any one person to claim that they alone comprehend the full extent of God’s grace. (emphasis mine)
What these opinions lead to is the mistaken notion of Universal Salvation. Everyone makes it to heaven. Since God is all-loving, He is also all-forgiving - so in the end, God will forgive everyone's sins, and even those who are in Hell right now, well, they've suffered enough. Their time-out will end on the Last Day, and everyone will enjoy eternal bliss.

Yeah, right. Wishful thinking.

Such belief contradicts Christ's words - for instance, Matthew 25 talks of sheep and goats, a judgment between the righteous and the damned - and furthermore, unravels the doctrine of Christ's atoning death. If He didn't die in expiation for our sins, sins that condemn us to Hell, then why did He die in the first place? Heck, why did God send His only Son if no one is in danger of eternal damnation?

If everyon
e goes to heaven...why evangelize? Why write a book about it (now there's an interesting question)? Why spread the Good News? Why prevent an abortion - all we're doing is delaying for some 70-odd years that unborn soul's destiny with God, right? Why not euthanize? Let the Japanese suffer and die as a result of their recent calamities - they'll be in Heaven soon, away from all their troubles. Maybe the other 75% of Catholics are right - why go to Church every Sunday? What difference will any of it make - we're all headed to paradise anyway, right?

Crazy talk.

That's not to say I accept Bell's premise - that only a select handful will enjoy heaven while billions upon billions will suffer eternal torment. That may or may not be true - doesn't matter, really. I know I don't want to go there, nor do I want anyone else to go there either. In the book of Revelation, John says he had a vision of countless saints before the throne of God. Doesn't sound like "a select handful'' to me.

But the truth is - people will end up in Hell. And this business of God sending people to Hell...let's stop that rubbish, okay? When people say that, what they're really saying is that they wouldn't send people to Hell - they would make exceptions, in order to be perceived as nice and all. But since none of us are omniscient and perfect, we can't grasp how just one unrepentant mortal sin is completely irreconcilable with the complete perfect goodness that is God. It's impossible for us to comprehend that. Thus, if it's incomprehensible, many decide to think of it in human terms rather than divine ones. And screw it all up in the process.

It's true, as Scripture says, that God wills the destruction of no man. But the folks who end up in Hell chose that for themselves - they have cut themselves off from God; they've chosen to love themselves above all others, including God. God will not force anyone into paradise.

Incidentally, what the folks who say "God sends people to Hell" tend to forget, is that there is someone who wants people to go to Hell. Satan. And he'll trick and cajole and fool and lie to every single one of us to prevent us from choosing God and His will. God respects our free will, while the devil seeks to exploit it. If you read the responses at the "On Faith" site, you'll notice that none of them mention a belief in the devil. Which makes sense - no Hell means no Satan.

Frankly, while I do believe that there are non-Catholics in heaven (and I don't just mean ancient Israelites like David, Moses, etc), I have no idea how they got there. The means of salvation are the sacraments, which are present only in the Church. Through the sacraments we receive sanctifying grace, which is necessary for salvation. The teaching of invincible ignorance notwithstanding, I don't know how else they would make it to heaven. God is not bound by the sacraments, I know - and all who end up in heaven were ultimately saved by Christ. Which alludes to what the lawyer/activist said - we can't comprehend the full extent of God's grace. The means of salvation outside the Church are a mystery known only to God, reliant on his freely given love and mercy. That doesn't excuse us, though, from fulfilling our mission of spreading the Gospel - the whole Gospel, including the uncomfortable bits about hell, damnation and loss of communion with God. We're bound to live our lives according to what has been revealed by God, and taught by the Church. And the Church has never taught Universal Salvation.

The problem with Universal Salvation, along with being wrong, is that it encourages people to be mediocre. To be merely good, rather than strive for holiness. To seek the widest narrow road possible. A priest I know said that merely natural means - ie, being "good" - are insufficient to reach a supernatural end. Thus the need for the sacraments, which provide those supernatural means.

The Universal Salvation mindset is pernicious. It's the bastard child between "I'm okay, you're okay" and "Stop judging me". But none of us are okay - we're all sinners in need of salvation. As to the judging bit - if you're heading towards the edge of the cliff, should I not warn you? If you're abusing alcohol or beating your kids or cheating on your spouse or shacking up with someone or engaging in homosexual behavior, should I just shut up so as to not appear judgmental? "Loving my neighbor" ultimately means nothing, if I'm forbidden from charitably pointing out behaviors and faults that will separate you from God and cause a loss of sanctifying grace. Not only that, I'd be guilty of breaking Christ's commandment - is that really what you want me to do?

I understand the allure of hoping there is no Hell. I sympathize with those who wish for a Final Affirmation rather than a Final Judgment. But all the wishing and hoping in the world will not make the Truth go away. When we die, when our souls meet our Creator, we will either hear "Welcome, my good and faithful servant", or "Depart from me, you accursed".

Gandhi heard either one or the other - but all that matters to me is which statement I hear when my turn comes. Gandhi made his choice a long time ago. What matters now is, what's mine?

What's yours?