A HELL OF A SITUATION
rich man also died and was buried and from the
netherworld, where he was in torment ... [he cried out]
I am suffering torment in these flames. ... warn them,
lest they too come to this place of torment.
The Hell there
It is frighteningly
odd. We no longer hear of of Hell ... although we see it leaching
into our lives and the lives of those around us everywhere it
crouches, either feeding on our malice and greed, or lurking in some
obscure corner of our lives that shrinks from the light.
progressive theological speculation, Hell has not been
abolished ... nor has its rage abated. Look around you.
Like children fearing
to invoke the very evil they fear through merely uttering it,
we have somehow convinced ourselves that if we resolutely ignore Hell,
it will go away; that if we pretend that there is no such place,
then it will become a fiction and therefore we have nothing to fear
... and also nothing to avoid. It is we are told, and therefore tell
ourselves a quaint vestige of pre-enlightened and distinctly medieval
thought, of long gone days of dismal dogma; in fact a notion abolished
after Vatican II as unkind, as severe, and therefore
unworthy of God.
This is not true.
But still, we whistle
in the dark as we pass a graveyard or a place of darkness fraught with
a sense of looming evil. Odd. Very odd.
Despite all that Christ has told us, all that Holy Mother the Church
has taught us, we will not hear of it ... we insist on our
way. Christ knows this. That is why He gives us the Parable of the Rich
Man.1 Do you doubt it?
Ask yourself this: have
you ever (that is to say, even once)
been to a funeral Mass where the bereaved are not
told, indeed, completely assured, that their dead (who, like
the rest of the congregation, had apparently never sinned) are already
in Heaven smiling down benignly on our obsequies even as we utter
The real illusion
... and it is not Hell
It matters not that
the departed were cruel and miserly, utterly indifferent to the poor;
that they profited from the pain, misery, sin and degradation of others,
caring nothing for God and even less for men and we know it!
We knew it while yet they lived, and were ourselves often keenly
aware of their selfishness, their lust, pride, and greed even their
open depravity. Unrepentant to the moment of that clap of thunder that
ended the illusion of tomorrow, they went to death as they had lived
celebrate their lives ... instead of trembling before
their death. In the lowest octave of our
celebration we instinctively
discern a deeply dissonant note that is discordant with our carefully
revised narrative. It is deeper than the human voice, and more ancient
still. We know that we
celebrate a fiction of our own making to dispel
the remorseless truth that stirs uneasily within us: that Heaven alone
is not, after all, the abode of all our dead; that we have something
to deeply lament, rather than celebrate; in fact something to fear
rather than to rejoice in.
Has the question, let
alone the concern, of the deads urgent and utter need for every possible
prayer ever once so much as arisen? Are we ever invited,
urged, to so much as pray for our dead? *
Are they not in need of our prayers? They were in life, yes? But
somehow death appears to have abrogated this necessity. For all
practical purposes and appearances,
is synonymous with
The dead, in every aspect of todays
liturgy, are, as it were,
(and rite ...) in virtue of the fact that they are dead
in the company
of the Angels and Saints.
Strangely enough, we
acknowledge ourselves to be sinners if we acknowledge sin at
all but in a remarkable dispensation that quite suddenly becomes concomitant
with death, not the recently departed ... who yesterday
one among us, that is to say, a sinner also. What he needs most
celebrant carefully contrives to conceal from us: the need
of our prayers. One day perhaps this day I
will need them ... and so will you.
We no longer pray for
Why is this?
Praying for the dead
is very closely connected to a sober recognition of the reality of
... other alternatives than Heaven. Lesser alternatives,
frightening alternatives, even everlasting alternatives.
We wish to spare our dead either a measure of that privative state of
purgation preparatory to Heaven through the suffrage of our prayers,
or were it possible, the pains of Hell through an impassioned petition
to the Judge.2 In any event, the outcome at least admits
of doubt in terms of clearly distinguishable consignments.
Monuments and mirrors
For many years we could
find the following inscribed on tombstones both in Europe and America:
Fui quod sis, Sum quod eris As you are, I once was; as I
am you shall be
It was as much a reminder
of the brevity of this life as an admonition to live our lives in recognition
of realities that we cannot avoid, minimize, or simply wish away and
that these realities, moreover, will correspond with how we have lived.
Of two things we are
certain: that we die, and that following our death we will either live
forever or we will not.
If we do not, we have
nothing to hope for and nothing to fear. We are not Catholics. We are
not even Christians. We are atheists and everything ultimately means
nothing. But if we are either, we do we
have an abundance of the one or the other: either much to
hope for or much to fear.
We reject the first
option offhand, that is to say, the notion that death brings total extinction.
We are ... after all ... Catholics, and that flies in the face of everything
Christ said and did.
But neither do we embrace
the alternative (of either much to hope for or much to
fear), at least in the eschatological terms enunciated by Christ Himself
involving death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
We cannot have both.
Neither, then in our
preferential and subjective cosmology that accords with neither reason
nor revelation can we have a Heaven and
a Hell. So we abolish Hell much in the way that we may succeed in abolishing
Mount Aetna by our preferring to say that it is not there, despite
persistent and troubling reports that it is.
Dives, the rich man
in this parable, would have a decidedly different opinion on the matter
were he present to offer it, but Dives is being ... detained. Indefinitely.
Even eternally. Or Christ is a liar.
Go to my brother,
he would importune us, as he did Abraham. Unfortunately, we
ourselves would tell him very much what Abraham told him:
It would be of
think you're in Heaven! The priest told them so; he
assured them ... remember? They think that you are looking
down on them, having no clue that, could you
see, all that you would see of them would be the soles of their shoes!
It's a hell of a situation: Priest, Rabbi, Minister, even their psychologists,
are all of one accord: there is no such thing as Hell. To which we
The Hell there
Ah, the price of constant gratification! Yes, such lies console the
bereaved, but are a definite disservice to the dead who stand
much in need of prayer and, could they tell you, would be eternally
grateful for it.
But even if they
did like the rich man in the parable you would not believe them
either ... would you?
* Of course,
during the Mass the names of those who have died recently are, in fact,
announced, and a perfunctory prayer is offered for them but rarely
with pleas for mercy since mercy presumes sin ... and the
hope of forgiveness by God.
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"There was a certain rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen;
and feasted sumptuously every day. And there was a certain beggar, named
Lazarus, who lay at his gate, full of sores,
Desiring to be filled with the crumbs that fell from the rich man' s
table, and no one did give him; moreover the dogs came, and licked his
sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by
the angels into Abraham' s bosom. And the rich man also died: and he
was buried in hell. And lifting up his eyes when he was in torments,
he saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom: And he cried, and
said: Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may
dip the tip of his finger in water, to cool my tongue: for I am
tormented in this flame. And Abraham said to him: Son, remember
that thou didst receive good things in thy lifetime, and likewise Lazareth
evil things, but now he is comforted; and thou art tormented.
And besides all this, between us and you, there is fixed a great chaos:
so that they who would pass from hence to you, cannot, nor from thence
come hither. And he said: Then, father, I beseech thee, that thou
wouldst send him to my father's house, for I have five brethren, that
he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torments.
And Abraham said to him: They have Moses and the prophets; let them
hear them. But he said: No, father Abraham: but if one went to them
from the dead, they will do penance.
And he said to him: If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither
will they believe, if one rise again from the dead. (Saint Luke