Does hell play a role in evangelization? If it does, then when and how? Catholics take many positions on this topic and they all impact the effectiveness of evangelization.
To begin, let me situate this analysis by raising three relevant points. First, discussing hell can be emotional and difficult to face for obvious reasons, such as hell’s forever state. Merely considering its possibility and reality causes anxiety. This affects people’s ability and desire to deal with it.
Second, most people leave the Church because they no longer believe its teaching. Similarly, the level of participation and enthusiasm among those who still consider themselves Catholic is reduced by various doubts and disbeliefs. The Church’s teaching on hell is one of these difficult beliefs because many people can’t reconcile it with a loving God. Thus, if we want to win them back to the Church and help strengthen their faith, we must address this subject, especially given the many references to hell and Satan in Scripture and other parts of the liturgy.
Third, it is extremely challenging to sell the Church to people who don’t need God. In this prosperous and relatively safe country, most people do not need the Lord in this life, except perhaps for an occasional funeral. Moreover, people do not need him to enter the next life either; in every eulogy I hear, the deceased has gone to a “better place.” It seems everyone believes there is a warm bright light at the end of the tunnel regardless of whether or not they ever knew Jesus.
In my lifetime, I have seen many things tried to make people feel good about coming to church, such as placing a resurrected Jesus on the large sanctuary cross, shaking hands at Mass, welcoming people at the church doors, hosting parish socials, appealing to people intellectually, adopting sound business practices, showing folks the beauty of the Church, and on and on. While all this has its place (except for removing the crucified corpus), it won’t work in a widespread sustained way until people begin to feel a need for God. In lieu of a national or global catastrophe, the only option left is to challenge people’s presumption about eternal life.
The position of preachers, teachers, and believers regarding the risk of hell varies considerably. For instance, Pew Research noted that 50 percent of college-educated Catholics do not believe hell exists.
Another popular position is that hell exists, but that it’s reasonable to hope that no one is in it. To the average listener in the pews, who is not used to theological musing and nuance, this is tantamount to saying it doesn’t exist.
A similar position refrains from discussing hell except as a topic for advanced Catholics. Within this position are two camps. The first, like the latter, believes very few people are in hell. This would explain, for instance, why sin and judgment are rarely discussed and why Confession is so infrequent. In other words, why arouse negative feelings in people and spend more time in the confessional, if everyone eventually goes to heaven?
What intrigues me most, however, is the second camp. They believe in the risk of hell, but somehow it still takes a back seat in their preaching and is reserved for advanced Catholics. This is a tactical mistake because few in the pews will take the time to consider Jesus and become advanced Catholics. To someone who believes in the existence of hell, all these positions will leave people ignorant of vital spiritual knowledge.
As a Church, we are competing against the world for people’s attention and time. Persevering in prayer cannot compete with the pleasures of the world, unless there is a compelling reason to do so. If all we do are the good and kind things mentioned above, like welcoming people and showing them the beauty of the Church, we will continue to lose Catholics at a rate of 6 or more for every 1 entering.
The crux of our problem, and the reason our Church is in such decline, is we have lost sight of the daily drama for eternal salvation. Without people’s need to be saved, the Church is just another feel-good club competing against all the others.
When I ponder how to guide my three young-adult sons, I choose to follow Jesus’s words and official Church teaching instead of accepting the complacency around me or the wishful imagining of a bishop or theologian, because the downside of ignoring God’s words is too dreadful. Furthermore, as a deacon who must preach and teach, I need to listen to my conscience and address the people as I do my own family.
Speaking the Truth Works
Several years ago, not long after my ordination, I attended my first funeral Mass as a deacon, and it was for my mother. Since much of my extended family probably didn’t attend Mass regularly, I prepared a challenging homily. As I walked down the center aisle to the front of the church, I was surprised to see my boss and Jewish colleague—two people I wasn’t expecting to preach to.
During the sermon, I emphasized the shortness of life using examples from my chaplaincy experience on a hospital cancer floor and how one particular patient was afraid to die. I finished by saying that we are on the conveyor belt of life, and that we won’t need to be scared when we reach the end, if we first get to know Jesus.
The next morning, I went to work and my boss immediately called me into her office. She started to tell me that she was Catholic, and hadn’t been to church much, but now that her children had finished youth sports, she could start going again. Smiling, I told her I hadn’t known she was Catholic until I gave her Communion.
Since then, I have become more direct in expressing concern for people’s salvation. At Baptism, for instance, families and their friends come to church expecting to celebrate the joy of a new baby. Statistically speaking, they probably don’t go to Mass regularly and yet expect to go to heaven. After acknowledging the joyful occasion, I try to pull them into the eternal drama of this Sacrament and explain how the Church anticipates the baby’s entire life by using symbols also used in a funeral Mass. At Baptism, I say, all the angels and saints are sitting on the edge of their seats wondering if the child will grow up to love God and neighbor.
Then I heighten the drama and pose a series of questions: Why did God the Father send his only beloved Son to us knowing full well he would be crucified? What could be so urgent and dire that a parent would do such a thing? From what and whom is Jesus saving us?
I mention how many no longer believe in Satan and hell, and ask: then where does the inspiration for man’s evil ingenuity come from? Can it all be explained by survival of the fittest or psychological problems?
Then I speak frankly about the fact that Catholic families have drifted away from practicing the faith and ask two more questions: If someone lives a life ignoring the crucifixion of Jesus, how is that face-to-face encounter with God his Father going to go? And how can we expect to jump into intimate union with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit having never spent time getting to know members of our own parish?
Finally, I counsel them not to follow the crowd. I conclude my remarks by saying these are exciting times, a period when God is raising real Saints, and a time when, as Saint Paul says, “grace abounds all the more.”
Even though I do my best to meet them where they are then ramp up, I can see surprise and seriousness in their faces. But I cannot simply laugh, bless them and send them on their way. If I believe salvation is at stake, which I do, I must find a way to get their attention and alert them. Thus, instead of keeping hell in reserve as a topic for advanced Catholics, I bring it forward. At the climax of my Baptism homily, I lead with the crucifixion followed by speaking of the implicit risk of hell.
We live in a time when people must be convinced about Jesus and his Church. In a previous Crisis article, I discussed the need for a presentation that would promote all God’s words and invisible realities, reconcile them with a loving God, and address people’s doubts, confusion, and moral challenges. If we allow folks to believe unchallenged that the Church can be wrong about one teaching, then we clear a path for more doubts and disbelief regarding other doctrines.
Some time ago, I presented my case at my brother’s parish. It began with film clips from The Passion followed by interview clips with Exorcist director William Friedkin and an old Jesuit priest who had been featured in the docudrama, In the Grip of Evil, which tells the true story that inspired The Exorcist (as a young Jesuit, the priest had assisted at that exorcism). As with the Baptism homily, I led with the crucifixion followed by an implicit risk of hell.
My brother attended both sessions, parts one and two, over two nights. I had to twist his arm, though, because he rarely went to Mass and his children had not received all the sacraments. The following weekend, while on a ski trip with his family, he sent me this text:
So here’s the funny thing. I was thinking about going to Mass the night before but I forgot to set my alarm. I ended up waking up early and checked to see the Mass times and location. I was still laying in bed listening to Spotify off the iPad and what literally comes on is… “Take Me to Church.” I figured that was a pretty good sign to get my butt out of bed. 🙂
Then he sent me pictures of himself in front of the church.
Broaching the Topic of Hell
You might wonder why I “imply” the risk of hell instead of directly threatening people with it (another common tactic). We live in a free world where people will not tolerate being threatened; it will push them away. Moreover, if we were to succeed at terrorizing people, how could they ever freely come to know God as their loving Father, as in the story of the Prodigal Son? That said, on occasion, its shock value might be warranted.
I am under no illusion about being a talented homilist or possessing the secret sauce for evangelization. But I am very clear about two things.
First, if we want to get people’s attention and loosen their soil to be able to receive Christ’s words, we must undermine their presumption of eternal life. That is, we must appeal to self-preservation and their desire to save loved ones, and not to guilt.
Second, we need to address people’s doubts and lack of faith in a systematic way. We cannot let our brothers and sisters live burdened with disbelief without providing help.
If Catholic priests, teachers, and believers in our country rallied around the need to save souls and taught all God’s words, then the Devil would be in for a true fight. Until then, it’s up to the often-isolated faithful to help others believe and appreciate the daily drama for eternal salvation—an extra difficult challenge for those who rarely get this message.
Author’s note: For more information on this subject, visit http://www.JohnBeagan.com/Catholic.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “St. Peter Preaching in Jerusalem” painted by Charles-François Poerson (1653-1725).