Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
I read your 'Pains of Sense in Hell' article and I thought it was very good. Anyway, this is an issue that has been bothering me about Christianity since I originally became am Evangelical at 18 (I was raised in a not-very-religious Jewish family), made my away throughout Protestantism and eventually came to the Truth (Catholicism) a few years ago. I admit I came to Christianity purely out of fear of Hell and, since becoming Protestant and, later Catholic, I have had difficulty with Scrupulosity (I have dealt with OCD issue for virtually my whole life).
My question is: how is one supposed to love God with the threat of Hell? I mean, Fr. Barron has described love as 'willing the good of the other as other' (he describes 'willing the good of the other for one's own reasons' as 'indirect egoism'), but with the threat of Hell, my main reason for being Catholic and giving a hoot about God and religion is fear of Hell. Even if one talks about desire for Heaven as being a motivator, it just seems like two sides of the same coin (since there are only two choices eternally: Heaven or Hell) and it still isn't love (if you're 'willing the good of God to either avoid punishment or get reward', it's not love). I admit that if Jesus appeared to me and asked me to do something that would cause my own suffering (i.e. whether inconvenience all the way to martyrdom) but said there would be no punishment or reward, temporally or eternally, for refusing or agreeing, I would probably say 'no', especially since my faith has played so well into my own mental illness and caused me all sorts of internal sufferings.
Sorry if I rambled, but it comes down to: how/why should anyone love God when it all comes down to fear of Hell (or desire for Heaven)?
Hell is not a threat by God. It’s a diagnosis of the stakes for which we play and the consequences of being the sort of fallen creatures we are in the sort of universe this is with the sort of God who made it. When the doc says "If you persist in your behavior without change you will get liver cancer and you will die" he's not threatening you. He's stating a fact. The cancer is not being sent by the doc to kill you. It's the fruit of the stuff you are doing. The doc is there to heal you. But the healing requires the diagnosis.
Jesus' diagnosis is that our race is sick with sin. Hell is the fruition of a life obstinately ordered toward sinful selfishness. The endstage of sin is hell just as the endstage of cancer is death. It’s not an extra added punishment for sin. It's just what sin fully is. So it’s not something God does to us. It’s something we do to ourselves. God is not Daddy Dearest, standing there threatening to shove you into the box of scorpions forever “to teach you a lesson” if you don’t clean up your room this minute. He is the guy on the beach waving his arms and trying to get the oblivious (and contemptuous) bathers out of the surf and into the Land Rover that will speed them to high ground before the tsunami makes landfall. He has done and continues to do absolutely everything—including die—to make sure that we don’t lose the life of grace for which we were created. In short, he is Emmanuel—God with us—not against us.
Analogous to the fact that hell is simply sin in fruition, likewise Heaven is simply the love of God and neighbor in fruition. C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain points out that Jesus is frank and open about promises of “reward” to his disciples and responds to the fear that seeking such reward is mercenary by pointing out that there are proper and improper rewards. A man, for instance, who marries for money is seeking a reward that is not proper to the nature of marriage. But a man who marries for love is seeking the reward proper to the kind of thing marriage is. He wants his Beloved and he gets her. That is how love is supposed to be rewarded. Likewise, the general who fights for victory receives victory as his reward. Again, the reward is the fruit of the virtue, not something extrinsic to it.
It’s the same with the love of God. Heaven is not something glued on like a gold star for being a good boy. It’s the fruition of grace expressed in a life of love as a human being cooperates with the Blessed Trinity dwelling in his heart. It’s just that life in its fullness, filling the whole person in the end as it already dwells in him now and trains his whole being toward full and free cooperation with the Spirit. The reward of Heaven is God himself. All the other good things about Heaven are just ways of participating in Him. And that is, surprise!, true here on earth too. All of reality is sacramental and heaven and earth are full of the glory of God.
That doesn't mean you are sunk if you come to God out of servile fear in the beginning. Lots of people do. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and God takes us where we are. But it does mean that God has no intention of you remaining in servile fear. The irony of your position is that the thing God is most unhappy about is exactly the thing you are most unhappy about: that you don't have a relationship of love with him. He hates that you live in bondage to servile fear more than you hate it, because he loves you and desires your peace, freedom, and happiness. He doesn't want you to be afraid any more than you want to be afraid. The Bible says, "For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship." (Romans 8:15). That's where you actually stand with God: in the same place Jesus stood. You have have the right to call him "Abba" as Jesus did and to know that he says "You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased" as he said to Jesus.
One final point (since I have other readers who struggle with OCD, and therefore often have a scrupulous person’s inordinate fear of hell). One of the paradoxical rules of thumb that scrupulous people should bear in mind is that Christ’s warnings of hell are not intended for the scrupulous. People in your psychological boat are about a million miles away from the spiritual danger of arrogantly disregarding the commands of God or desiring to offend him. It is the mighty in their arrogance that the warnings of hell are meant to cast down, not the meek and the lowly whom he lifts up. So from a purely practical perspective, what I would focus on is finding ways to cultivate contemplation of Jesus himself and not spend much time taking your spiritual pulse or filling your heart with more servile fear.
A wise priest once told me that the trick the devil likes to pull on those us with an unhealthy and servile fear of God is this: He urges us to keep asking ourselves “Do I really trust God?”
The trick behind this question, as with all the devil’s tricks, is that it takes your eyes off Jesus. That’s all the devil really wants and if scruples do the job better than lust, anger, greed or envy (since you are too well-fortified to sin in these ways), then he’s happy to use scruples. As long as your eyes are taken from Jesus and turned to something else, mission accomplished as far as hell is concerned. The great thing, from hell's perspective, about questions like “Do I really trust God?” is that they have no answer. It’s like turning your eyeballs inward and trying to study your own brain. You can try till Doomsday and you'll never get an answer, because the moment you tell yourself "I think I trust God", the little voice in your head says, "Sure you say you trust God, but did you really mean it?" And given that all of us can point to post-baptismal sins and habits of concupiscence, the devil can then lay it on thick with the "If you really trust God, why do you keep sinning and being tempted?" schtick. Lather, rinse, repeat till you are bald. There's a reason the devil is called the Accuser of the Brethren. He's really good at his job too.
So instead, said my priest friend, the question to ask is, “Is Jesus trustworthy?” That’s because there is a solid affirmative answer to that question. The message of every crucifix in the world is “I am trustworthy.” Look at him, not at your fears, or unworthiness (that’s a given), or failures (ditto). It’s like Peter walking on water. As long as your eyes are on Christ, you’re good. It’s only when you take your eyes off him that you sink. When (not if) that happens (as it does to all of us), just say you’re sorry, ask Jesus for mercy and grace, get to confession when you can (scrupulous people typically commit venial, not mortal sins, so don’t be too tightly wound about it because that's just another way of taking your eyes off Jesus) and then get back up and keep walking in the grace you receive. More than anything else, what us scrupies need to give to God is exactly the thing we treasure as our life preserver the most: our fear. It, no more than any other idol, cannot save and when it takes our eyes from Jesus it, like any other idol, must be ruthlessly thrown on the fire. God loves you with a persistent love that will not be denied. He's not sitting there with a checklist, watching you with hostility over the tops of his half-moon glasses and just waiting for you to slip up so he can send you to hell. He's Jesus, who willingly took a beating, a crown of thorns, three nails, and spear in the heart for you and then, when he got to the underworld he grabbed the keys of sin, hell, and death from Satan and said,"If you ever come within a mile of my brother (and here he spoke your name), I will beat the living daylights out of you. He is a special favorite of mine. Hands off!"
God is on your side. He hates hell more than you do, because he loves you more than you do. Let the love in as best you can. You don't have to do anything to make him love you. In fact, you can't do anything to make him love you any more than some act of the will on your part can make the sun hotter. He is love and not only is that not going to change, it is an objective ontological fact that can't change. So all you need do is accept the fact that he does love you. You personally. You by name. God bless you.