Not-Quite-Sunday Catechism: Hell, What Is It Good For?

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Q: What does every sin deserve?

A: Every sin deserves God’s anger and curse, both in this life and in the life to come.

Scales of Justice

I believe in hell. Seems like a quaint notion in this modern age, like it’s a vestige of medieval theology, a superstition for the unenlightened. And yet it’s mentioned in the catechism, specifically in the nineteenth question (“What is the misery of man’s fallen condition?”), but also inferentially here, in the eighty-fourth.

Prior to the new covenant in the gospels, hell, or Sheol, is not seen in lurid terms, a place full of byzantine tortures. Instead, it’s a vague, shadowy, uncertain place. In fact, it is Jesus, our incarnated Savior of love, who specifically mentions fire and brimstone. And the context of his doing so doesn’t indicate that it’s a rhetorical point meant to scare anyone into choosing salvation, as if it’s a choice about the afterlife.

It is, instead, an assurance of perfect justice. You take the implications of the previous catechism question, that there are relative levels of sinfulness despite sin’s absolute effacement of divine communion–and the apparent fact that in our fallen world punishments never do properly fit the crime–it only stands to reason that these things will have to be dealt with outside of this life. Our whole life on earth is unfinished business. Who will take care of it? To know there is a heaven and hell tells us that God will. In these respective spheres of afterlife every thought, every gesture, grand or subtle, will get its due.

Believers will not be acquitted from this. Confronted with the full knowledge of the truth, we will be put to shame for our thoughts and deeds, dragged through the horrors of our specific sins and the consequences they have wrought on others. And yet. And yet from the pits of our despair we will be reminded of our exoneration and justification and given the grace of fellowship, unearned and free.

I say assurance because all this tells us is that in the full reality of the kingdom of God, all things will be made whole. Just as Christ’s miracles gave us a glimpse of how wounds and deformities will be healed and scarcities will be met, so His clarification on hell and judgment assures us that all of the suffering and slights and gross villainies and intractable messes of this gray life will find relief and resolution one hot summer day.

I think it’s useful to reflect on this because we need to be careful how to deal with the concept of the afterlife with children. Hell has often been used a cudgel, a threat, a bogeyman to force compliance. We’re tempted to make up stories and details about it (and heaven, too) to make them loom large in the imagination. I think that’s counterproductive. The Bible only gives us a sketch, setting them up as placeholders, definite but outside our ken — so that’s the approach we should take. We should let our kids know that they are there, but we don’t know much about them. They matter because their existence tells us what we do right now matters. Just as the past matters because it frames and informs the present, the present matters because there is a future we have to live with.

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