Thursday, 21 May 2015
An Eternity of Heaven Or Hell. Part 1, By Rev. Clement Henry Crock. “MAN SHALL GO INTO THE HOUSE OF HIS ETERNITY” -ECCLES. 12:5.
We have arrived at the stage of life when we must realise that the hour-glass is rapidly running out, that the pendulum of life is coming to a stand still, and that time will soon be no more. With death an eternity without end begins. Every year, on Ash Wednesday, the Church solemnly reminds us of these eternal truths. With the inauguration of the Lenten season, the priest places blessed ashes upon our forehead in the form of a cross, saying:”Memento homo quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.” “Remember man that thou art dust, and into dust thou shalt return” (Gen. 3, 19). The ashes are intended to remind us of our own mortality when our bodies will return to dust whence they came. The cross upon our foreheads reminds us of our immortality; that while the body dies, the soul does not die; that through the Cross of Christ our redemption was purchased. In the words of the poet, Longfellow, the Church wishes to remind us that “Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal; Dust thou art,to dust returnest, Was not spoken of the soul.”
While many have tried to explain the meaning of eternity, no one has ever succeded in defining the word adequately. “Whatever you say of eternity,” says Saint Augustine, “you will fall far short of the subject. It is impossible for our weak intelligence to form an absolutely clear conception of eternity.” Some have compared the word with things we know. Boetius, for example, tells us “eternity is the complete possession of a life that has no end.” Saint Bernard calls it “a condition comprising in itself all times, the present, past and the future.” Saint Gregory says, “eternity is one long day, never followed by night.” Some have compared eternity with the sands on the sea shore, drops of water in all the oceans of the world, or the multiple letters in the books that have ever been printed. But in the fanciful flight of our imagination we might still look forward to a time when every grain of sand might be counted, every drop in the oceans or letters in all the books accounted for, and yet, when all that is accomplished we would still be forced to say that eternity had just begun.
This is the eternity that confronts us at death. From the moment you and I were born into the world, each of us was started on the road to eternity. Mark the words of Holy Writ, saying, “Man shall go into the house of HIS eternity” (Eccles. 13, 5). Note the words, “his eternity!” Your eternity, my eternity, because everyone prepares his own eternity. The Creator has endowed us with understanding and free will. The choosing is ours to determine what kind of an eternity awaits us. The difference lies between sinner and saint. In Christ’s own words, the former will be greeted with the words: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you”; the latter with the words: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire” (Matt. 25, 34–41).
Proper reflection upon these words and what kind of eternity might await them, led many people to alter the course of their lives and prepare for a happy eternity. Ask the Saints of God who have gone before us and are now enjoying their eternal reward in heaven at this moment what prompted them to lead heroic lives. It was the thought of eternity that made Saint Stephen remain steadfast in his martyrdom, that sustained Saint Lawrence and rendered endurable his death in the flames; that made St. Augustine desire only crosses and suffering in this life and led him to exclaim: “Here burn, here cut, O Lord, but spare me in eternity.”
After so many of our patriotic men and women had faced death on the far-flung battle fronts during the last World War, many others returned and sought seclusion in prayer and contemplation behind cloister and monastery walls. The same thought of eternity prompted kings and emperors to relinquish their crowns and renounce the world. Pope Celestine V resigned his eminent office in order to lead the life of a hermit. The thought of eternity has prompted untold others to a life of prayer, fasting, study, work and the fulfilment of the duties of a Christian, of one’s state of life, of every kind of penance, of keeping all the Commandments under the stress of temptation and adversity, in every nation and clime down through the centuries. Like Saint Bernard, they look upon life as seeding time and their good deeds as the “seeds of eternity.”
These many cogent facts and examples should prompt us to reflect upon the thought of eternity and prepare for it while it is still time. For,
“Life is short—and death is sure;
The hour of death—remains obscure.
A soul you have- and only one;
If that be lost, all hope is gone.
Waste not your time—while time shall last
For after death “tis ever past.
The all-seeing God your Judge will be—Or heaven or hell, your destiny.
All earthly things will fleet away.
Eternity shall ever stay.”
By remembering this now, then, when our eternity begins, may it be said of each one of us: “Blessed is he that is found without blemish. For he hath done wonderful things in his life. He could have transgressed, and hath not transgressed; and could do evil things, and hath not done them. Who hath been tried thereby and made perfect, he shall have glory everlasting” (Eccles. 31, 8–11).
* * * *
“Then He will say to those on His left hand, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire” “ -Matt. 25, 41.
Some years ago the daily newspapers carried a gripping story, captioned with large glaring letters, EXILED. The story described the departure of 670 convicts of the worst type who had been banished from their native land to a penal colony on a small island in the South Atlantic. Hysterical over the prospects before them, these desperados were chained and handcuffed and herded into steel cages in a stinking prison ship on which they were slowly carried out from the harbour of their native land. They were on their way to DeviI”s Island where they faced a cheerless and utterly hopeless future in a tropical heat to which they were not accustomed, and in quarters so restricted as to constitute a prison without walls. There these criminals of the worst type, rascals, murderers, thieves and thugs, were to waste away their lives and die, forgotten by kith and kin as completely as the public forgot them the hour the ship sailed.
These criminals deserved little mercy, but the nature of their punishment is one of the cruelest that can be devised. Some poet has said: “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” It is not so much the physical ordeal confronting such convicts that is so terrible as the hopelessness of their plight, the horrible nostalgia in a far-off and forbidding land, the terrible mental depression which makes the punishment so gruesome. It is the nearest approach to hell itself that man can conceive.
But the word “hell” is no longer a welcome word in polite society. Much less will such tolerate any mention of eternal punishments or of everlasting fire and torments in hell. Now, we wish to frighten nobody. But silence will not extinguish the pains of hell, nor render them non-existent. Were all of us to agree to remain silent on the subject, hell would still continue to exist; for as sure as there is a heaven to hope for, so surely is there a hell to fear. Our Lord told us so, and God cannot deceive. And since this is true, we should think of it and speak of it more frequently; for knowing it, we shall fear it, and fearing it, we shall avoid it. “If those who argue against hell,” says Saint John Chrysostom, “would embrace virtue, they would soon be convinced of its existence.” Hence, like her Divine Founder, our Church teaches there is a hell; that souls there suffer a punishment which will never end; that both body and soul will suffer eternally after the General Judgment; that there is a fire in hell which will last forever; that the damned suffer pain, misery and despair, loss of God, indescribable agony, and unavailing remorse.
Here are some of the reasons for our belief: In the twenty-fifth chapter of Saint Mat thew’s Gospel, our Lord draws a vivid picture of the Last Judgment. All the people of the entire world will be gathered together. The good will be separated from the wicked. The Lord will say to those on His right hand: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you.” But to those on the left He will say: “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels.” Immediately Christ adds these significant words: “And these shall go to everlasting punishment; but the just into life everlasting.” Saint John (Apoc. 20, 9–10), describes hell in these words: “There came down fire from God out of heaven, and devoured them; and the devil, who seduced them, was cast into a pool of fire and brimstone, where both the beast and the false prophet shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”
And Saint Paul is even more specific in singling out those who will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. “Know you not,” he asks, “that the unjust shall not possess the kingdom of God? Be not deceived! Neither fornicators, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God” (I Cor. 6, 9–10; Gal. 5, 19). “These words would be untrue,” says Saint Augustine, “if the damned after a length of time, would be set free from hell, if they would yet possess the kingdom of God.” And Saint Gregory adds: “The justice of the Supreme Judge requires that they who in this life would never be without sin, should never be without punishment in the hereafter.” Then Saint Chrysostom argues this way: “All of us, Greeks and Jews, heretics and Christians, acknowledge that God is just. Now, many who sinned have passed away without being punished, while many others who led virtuous lives did not die until they had suffered innumerable tribulations. If God is just, how will He reward the latter and punish the former, unless there be a hell and a resurrection?”
If further proof for the existence of hell is needed, then let us hear from a few pre-Christian and pagan sources. The ancient Greeks believed in their Tartarus. Plato says: “The wicked will be precipitated into Tartarus, never more to come out.” Xenocrates taught that the souls of the wicked wander about in dark places under the earth. Plutarch held that the wicked, after death, are confined in a place that no man can open. The Latin poet, Virgil, in his Aeneid, portrays to us the never-ending sufferings of the damned souls. The Jews compared hell to Gehenna, in a valley near Jerusalem, in which human beings, especially babies, were sacrificed to the god of fire, Moloch. Hence Plato, the poet and philosopher, declares in his Phaedo: “After having maturely weighed all things and tested them severely, I have found nothing that is more compatible with wisdom, reason and truth,” than the belief in hell and its punishments.
There are those who say that such an eternal punishment is unreasonable, altogether out of proportion to a sin committed which takes but a brief moment of time. But such a comparison is not correctly drawn. We must first consider the nature of mortal sin for which hell is the punishment; secondly, the nature of the damned who are undergoing the punishment; and, thirdly, the nature of God Who imposes and enforces the punishment.
No one will go to hell against his will. Only those are there who have died unrepentant, with mortal sins upon their souls. And a mortal sin is a deliberate defiance of God and His laws in grave matter in which the sinner knowingly and deliberately exclaims defiantly: “Non serviam!” “I will not serve!” “Even here on earth,” says Saint Thomas, “the fact that adultery or murder is committed in a moment, does not call for a momentary punishment; in fact, these crimes are sometimes punished by imprisonment or banishment for life, sometimes even by death; this punishment, in its own way, represents the eternity of punishment inflicted by God.” And if the punishment were not eternal, then the worst criminal could for all eternity remain in defiance of God, knowing that in due time the punishment for his crime would cease. Therefore, it is man, not God, who creates an eternal punishment for himself. God merely permits it, in order not to frustrate the free will of man which makes man accountable for his good as well as his evil deeds.