It’s your choice: all or nothing

C. S. Lewis wrote in the preface to The Great Divorce, his classic allegorical tale of a bus ride from hell to heaven:

I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot ’develop’ into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, ’with backward mutters of dissevering power’—or else not. It is still ’either-or’. If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.” 1


The Narrow Gate

The Narrow Gate

Lewis describes hell (and Purgatory) as a vast grey town on an endless featureless plain, largely unoccupied because the residents are so quarrelsome that as soon as they settle into a place, they immediately quarrel with their neighbor and move on to another street and then to another and another and another.

What Lewis describes may well be hell or it may not. Popular images of hell often picture it as eternal fire, while the Bible speaks of hell as “experiencing God’s wrath”, as “being outside” the wedding, as “mourning and weeping and grinding of teeth,” as being thrown into “Gehenna” (a garbage dump outside Jerusalem,) as being eaten by worms, as fire, as missing out on the banquet, as being outside the kingdom, as living inside a bitter and warped heart, and as missing out on life.

Personally, I tend to favor hell as “nothingness.” In this perhaps I find myself in rather peculiar agreement with Atheists, for in their denial of God’s existence along with their denial of a heaven or any spiritual afterlife, the Atheist sees death as finality, as nothing more, and that seems to me to be the very definition of hell itself.

Many have asked: How could God, who is all good and all love, punish anyone by sending them to hell for all eternity? The answer is God does not; we send ourselves to hell. Jesus always speaks of God, our heavenly Father as the giver of life, never death. Death, evil, sin, and hell originate from elsewhere. God neither creates hell nor sends souls to hell—we do.

God creates life and loves life into existence. It is his gift, given when we are first created. Any gift, freely given, places a debt upon the receiver; a debt which must either be repaid or the gift refused. Our debt to God differs not from any other debt.

In a letter written by Anselm of Canterbury, often called the “Father of Scholasticism” he says:

If anyone asks the price that must be paid, the answer is: The One who wishes to bestow a kingdom in heaven has no need of earthly payment. No one can give God anything he does not possess, because everything belongs to him.Yet he does not give such a precious gift entirely gratis, for he will not give it to anyone who lacks love. After all, people do not give away what they hold dear to those without appreciation.

So since God has no need of your possessions but must not bestow such a precious gift on anyone who disdains to value it, love is the one thing he asks for; without this he cannot give it.

Give love, then, and receive the kingdom: love and it is yours.” 2

If you believe that you can achieve for yourself all that God has offered as a gift, then you are refusing to accept his gift and telling God you owe him nothing. And “nothing” is precisely what you will discover at the end; for you will have chosen to send yourself into nothingness, into hell.

Father John Kavanaugh once wrote that “Most young people are said to believe in a hell where nobody goes. Many others, perhaps adults, think there is a hell largely populated by enemies. And among the old are believers who nervously wonder if hell might be populated by the likes of themselves. They, like St. Paul at some moments, consider the question of their salvation ‘in fear and trembling.’” 3

Perhaps they may have good reason to tremble in fear. When Jesus was asked if only a few people would be saved, he answered, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” 4

Like many I imagine, the first image that comes to mind is of a small sliver of a gate or door, something so small that one would have to enter by turning sideways and seriously sucking it in in order to make it through to the other side. That image doesn’t quite seem to fit with what Jesus was saying.

It was when I came across two pictures with an opening in the shape of a cross; in one: a woman carrying two large shopping bags stood before the  narrow gate and in the other a woman stood before it with her arms empty and outstretched. The juxtaposition of the two images was all that was necessary to gain greater understanding into what Jesus was telling us.

The narrow cross-shaped gate is the size of a person and that person is Jesus Christ. Only by entering through the cross of Jesus can we enter into the heavenly kingdom.

Another thought that comes to mind, one that is equally if not perhaps more illuminating is this: If you stand before the narrow cross-shaped gate with arms either at your side—whether empty or not—or folded across your chest you will find it quite impossible to traverse to the other side. The gate is simply too narrow.

This posture represents those who have lived life dependent on no one but themselves, who have refused God’s forgiving love, or who have refused to pick up and carry their cross. They stand there with their chests puffed out, full of pride at their own achievements. Their arms, either by their side or across their chests, in smug defiance show their steadfast refusal to admit that they owe God anything at all.

For those who have recognized their absolute dependence on God’s mercy, forgiveness and grace; those who have accepted the crosses they have been given and carried them without complaint, they know the way through the narrow gate.

They know to stand before the gate with arms held wide in humble supplication acknowledging with gratitude the salvific sacrifice made by God’s only son, Jesus Christ. They know that standing with arm outstretched in imitation of Christ’s sacrifice that they can walk without difficulty through the narrow gate and enter the kingdom of God.

Anselm in the same letter further writes:

Love God more than yourself, then, and already you will begin to have what you desire to possess fully in heaven.But you cannot have this perfect love unless you empty your heart of every other love. That is why those who fill their hearts with love of God and neighbor desire nothing but the will of God or that of some fellow human being—provided this is not contrary to God.

That is why they devote themselves to prayer, spiritual conversations, and reflection, for it is a joy to them to long for God and to speak, hear, and think about him whom they dearly love.

Hence too their contempt for riches, power, pleasure, honor, and praise. Those who love these things frequently offend against God and their neighbor.”

Accept the gift of God’s forgiving love and the spirit of Christ will abide in you and you will be his beloved. Acknowledge that only with God’s forgiving love and grace can you hope to see him face to face. Amen.


Homily # 083
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time — Cycle C
Isaiah 66:18-21
Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13
Luke 13:22-30

1 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, HarperCollins e-books; Revised ed. Edition, June 2, 2009.
2 Anselm of Canterbury, Letter 112: Opera omnia III, 244-246, ed. Edith Barnecut.
3 John Kavanaugh, SJ, The Word Engaged: Consoling Hope, The Sunday Website of Saint Louis University, August 21, 2016.
4 Lk 13:24.

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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