Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
In 1975, Raymond Moody published the bestseller Life After Life. In it, he coined the term “near-death experience” to label what some individuals said had happened to them after they were clinically dead. Moody’s pioneer work sparked a great interest in the reality of these experiences. Thus, in 1981, the International Association for Near-Death Studies was established. This international organization encourages scientific research on the physical, psychological, and religious nature of these reported experiences.
In the period from 1975 to 2005, thousands of Americans reported that that they had near death experiences. The overwhelming majority of these experiences were positive. The individuals said that, even after clinical death, they were aware of what was happening to them on earth as they were passing from this life to the next. They were able to describe in detail the people and actions taking place around them on earth, even though they were “dead.” They spoke of a life review and of encountering relatives who had died, all the while being surrounded by unconditional love. Their descriptions of what they saw and sensed seem to have placed them at the very entrance of heaven. But, then, they returned to life in this world.
However, some near death experiences seem to have been a foretaste of what Christians would traditionally describe as hell. No light. Only darkness. Discord and emptiness. An abyss of sinister figures prowling about. The descriptions have varied, but with one factor remaining constant. The experience was terrifying. The number of these reported out of the body journeys to hell is much less than that of those to heaven. As few as 8 percent of near death experiences are of this type. Some speculate that there may be more, but individuals suppress these negative events or are embarrassed to tell others. Hopefully, the number is simply small!
Whatever the scientific explanations or even theological explanations of these out of the body experiences are, the very report of them and the countless books detailing them bring us face to face with the question about our own belief in the afterlife. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, roughly 72 percent of Americans believe in heaven and fifty-five percent also believe in hell. As Catholics, each time we profess the Apostles’ Creed and say “I believe in life everlasting,” we acknowledge our own belief in life after death.
The Church teaches that “Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1021). At the moment of death, we face a particular judgment. We stand in the light of God’s truth and see our entire life in relation to God’s love given us in Christ. As St. John of the Cross once said, “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on love alone.” At that moment, each of us receives the eternal destiny we have willed by the way we have lived: “either entrance into the blessedness of heaven-through purification or immediately -- or immediate and everlasting damnation” (ibid., 1022).
Many people today recoil at the very mention of “hell.” How could an all-knowing God subject anyone to an eternity of torment? Some non-Catholic theologians settle the question by holding that, at death, those who have lived good lives go to heaven and those who die estranged from God pass out of existence. They simply are no more. But, such a theory blatantly contradicts the teaching of Jesus and the Church.
We love our relatives and friends. Certainly, we would not like to see them suffer for all eternity. How can God love them any less than we do? Is not the very idea of hell a contradiction to an all-loving God? In fact, the very opposite is true.
The possibility of hell is a direct result of the fact that God loves us. He sent his only Son who suffered and died for us on the Cross. He graces us with his gifts, his friendship and the offer of sharing in his divine life. He longs for our love. But love that is not free, love that is forced, is not love. And so, God leaves us free to love him or to reject him.
The Church teaches that “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end” (ibid., 1037). God respects our freedom of choice. He does not constrain us to love him, either in this world or the next. Those who pass from this life to the next, in a state of mortal sin, that is, in the condition of having rejected God’s love in a serious way, have chosen to live apart from the God who is love. As C. S. Lewis has said, “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”
God does not delight in the death of a sinner (cf. Ez 18:33). He “is patient…not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pt 3:9). He is the loving Father who runs down every deviant road we take to bring us prodigals back home. In Christ Crucified, God calls us to repent of our sins and to receive his saving grace.
There are two fundamental dimensions to our repentance. First and foremost, there is the mercy of God. “Whenever someone makes a mistake, the Father’s mercy is all the more present, awakening repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace” (Pope Francis, Homily for Mass for the Jubilee of Prisoners). God’s mercy precedes our contrition and sorrow for sin. In the light of his love, we see the disorder of our lives.
Second, in repentance, there is our response to God’s mercy. Our response begins with the mind. We acknowledge that we have sinned. “If we say, ‘we are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing” (1 Jn 1:8-9).
True repentance also comes from the heart. Like David who repented of his adultery and Peter who repented of his denial of Jesus, we have sorrow for our sins. We recognize our own infidelity to God who loves us so much. Ultimately, true repentance also involves the will. It is a matter not just of feeling sorry, but of firmly resolving to sin no more.
In confessing our sins sacramentally to a priest, we must resolve to change our behavior. We cannot willfully persist in a sin that objectively contradicts the commandments of God and be forgiven unless we make a firm purpose of amendment. In the words of St. Gregory Palamas, “repentance which is true and truly from the heart persuades the penitent not to sin anymore.”
True repentance involves the mind, the heart and the will. At its deepest level, true repentance is not a breast-beating mea culpa, but a heroic determination to love God as he commands, as he deserves. It is such repentance that opens us to the forgiveness of even our most serious sins and assures us of enjoying God’s love in the world to come.
In a word, God’s mercy has two sides. The first is his love offering us the forgiveness of all our sins in Christ Crucified, a forgiveness generously given us in sacramental confession. And, the other side of his mercy is our sincere repentance. For, it is by the help of his grace that we confess our sins with contrite hearts and firmly resolve “to sin no more.”