Who Needs Hell?



The latest brouhaha in modern society’s never-ending quest to feel outraged is over Pope Francis’s supposedly claiming there is no Hell. In a private conversation with a friend, the pope reportedly conveyed the idea that bad souls just disappear into the ether. The Vatican had to work overtime to reassure us all that Il Papa was not quoted verbatim and thus the sentiments purported to have come from him cannot be taken at face value.

Now I don’t believe for a second that Pope Francis is truly dismissing centuries of Catholic doctrine about Heaven and Hell. Despite his humane and conciliatory approach toward such issues as homosexuality and divorced Catholics, the pope has not asserted any challenges to existing Catholic beliefs.

But the issue got me to thinking about why many Christians need to hold up the prospect of an eternity in Hell in order to be faithful to God’s mandate that we love Him and our fellow human beings.

It’s true that it is very hard to be good. Our self-interest leads us to be greedy and competitive, and when others conflict with our needs or desires, we can be mean-spirited and cruel. Our pride causes us to build ourselves up while putting others down. Our anger often erupts in hurtful words or violence to others. In short, whether or not we believe in Hell, many of us deserve to spend eternity there.

But the overarching mission for which Christ came to Earth was love. Not some hippy-dippy-wear-beads-and sing-Kumbaya type of love, but an all-encompassing, self-abnegating, self-sacrificing love; a love that knows no boundaries of country, race, religion, gender, or ability.

And Jesus Christ made it clear: Our mission is to practice that same humble and self-sacrificing love with everyone we meet. We were made not just to aspire to communion with God in the next life, but to bring about the kingdom of God in this life.

It’s a paradox that the more we realize earthly life is hard, fleeting, and involves suffering, the more we are called to reach out in love to others: to alleviate suffering, to quench others’ loneliness, to swallow our pride so that our fellow human beings come first. In doing so, we can create a sort of Heaven on Earth. There can be as much joy in holding the hand of a dying friend as there is in holding a newborn baby – if we look through the lens of love.

I don’t need the fear of Hell to do what is right. I just need to look at what Christ did on the cross for me and for the world to know what my vocation is: to die to self and pour myself out for others in love.


Religious Persecutors



I recently watched the film Patriot Days, which tells the story of the Boston Marathon bombings. It details the lives of some of the victims as well as the bombers themselves and the law enforcement officials who apprehended them.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, like many fanatics, used religion to justify the murder and maiming of innocent men, women, and children. His brother Dzhokhar, who seems less ideologically driven, does not come off any better in the film, showing a selfishness and callous disregard for human life. He even ran over his own brother with a car in his haste to save himself. Tamerlan is dead, and Dzhokhar languishes in prison while lawyers appeal his death sentence for the bombings and the shooting death of an MIT campus police officer.

Today is Good Friday, and Christians all over the world commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus Christ at the hands of the Romans but at the behest of religious leaders who saw Jesus as a threat to their power. These leaders used trumped up charges of blasphemy to justify handing over an innocent man to be crucified, a cruel and ignominious form of execution.

Although the larger story of Christ’s passion and death points to his resurrection and the salvation of the world, the actions of the chief priests and Pharisees of Jesus’s time are echoed in history’s many instances of people using religion to justify violence.

The world is filled with many faith traditions, each with its own beliefs, rituals, and customs. People of faith may disagree with and even criticize each other. But our religious beliefs should never be the basis for hatred or killing.

As Jesus neared his death, he prayed, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” If Jesus can forgive his tormentors, we too should seek to promote peace and healing, not violence and death.

Easter Joy



There is a moment in the Gospel of John that always brings tears to my eyes. It is the third day since Jesus was crucified, and his devoted disciple Mary Magdalene sits weeping by the tomb. She had gone to give him proper burial rites, but when she arrived at the tomb, Jesus was gone. Some angels ask her why she is crying, as does the risen Jesus himself, but she doesn’t recognize them. Then Jesus calls her by name, “Mary,” and she realizes her Lord is before her.

I think it’s because my name is Mary that I so identify with the miraculous beauty of this moment and the personal nature of salvation through Christ. Think about your most intimate relationships. Then imagine having that kind of intimacy with the Creator of the universe. The beauty and strength of Christianity is that we place our faith not in a system of beliefs, but in a person – a person who died a gruesome death so that we could fully live.

There are so many religious conflicts in the world. Competing faiths and even competing ideas within faith traditions create so much strife. We fallen humans use religion for our own self-aggrandizement, for dominance, or to excuse our violence. We are prideful, and we even extend that pride to our so-called religious beliefs.

Most of us are probably capable of giving up our lives for our children or other close loved ones. Our love for them supersedes our interest in self-preservation. I used to wonder how the early Christian martyrs could endure horrific torture and death in Jesus’ name. Now I realize that they were willing to sacrifice themselves not for an idea, but for a beloved person, their Savior.

In the gospels, Jesus continually exhorts his followers to bring about the kingdom of God. By the end of the story, it is pretty clear he does not mean by force or by law. The only way to share the personal salvation we have received is within the personal relationships we foster in our daily lives. Our patience with our children, our acts of charity to the less fortunate, our kindness to our co-workers and others: these are ways to strengthen our relationship with the One who gave us life.

In John 15:16, Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last.” What a beautiful feeling in this broken world to be chosen by a loving, self-sacrificing God. There is only one way to honor this reality: by sacrificing ourselves for others. I hope in my life to bear bushels of good fruit in His name.