The readings of today’s liturgy emphasize one simple truth of our Catholic faith: sin damages us and others. It has serious long-term consequences—even those of an unending, eternal duration. Sin can lead to that terrifying reality we call hell.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
30 September 2018
Every once in a while it’s a good thing for us to take time to reflect on topics that make us uncomfortable. Why? Because if we ever fall into the trap of thinking we can live as a Catholic and Christian comfortably, without cost, without challenge and sacrifice, we’re no doubt already in serious trouble.
We often need a little “affliction of discomfort” for the sake of the good of our soul.
The readings of today’s liturgy emphasize one simple truth of our Catholic faith: sin damages us and others. It has serious long-term consequences—even those of an unending, eternal duration.
We should fear sin, hate it and despise it. It’s not normal. It’s damaging. It’s disordered.
To Call a Sin a Sin is Akin to Hate Speech
Today, it’s not all that easy to have a clear view of the danger of sin, given the way our culture often ignores its reality and its ugly consequences. We live in a world in which even calling a sin a sin is akin to hate speech. It’s the age of “There’s no such thing as sin, only better or worse choices.” It’s the age of “Who am I to judge?” It’s the age of “Judge not even yourself.” Sin is a very unpopular word in today’s relativistic culture. You don’t think so? Check out how Christians are persecuted in the state of Colorado, for example, for refusing to bake wedding cakes for homosexual couples.
We live in an age in which people regularly dismiss as harmless—and even approve of—grave sins like lust, cohabitation, contraception, homosexual activism, pornography, fornication, using God’s name in vain, and so forth.
The situation often stems from this single issue: there are many people who think that God doesn’t make any moral demands in their lives. It’s what I call the “Teddy-Bear-God” syndrome.
No, God is not a divine, permissive, cuddly teddy-bear in the sky. He does not approve of sin, which means it has consequences.
In today’s gospel, Jesus gave this warning: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mk 9:42).
Jesus is here speaking about the sin of scandal; that bad example people give which leads others to copycat their sins. Scandal is one soul leading another into hell.
But sin isn’t only about what we do. It’s also about what we refuse to do. These are sins of omission. Jesus had warnings about that kind of sin too.
In Matthew 25 we read about how the King (Jesus Christ), on his second coming, will call those on his left hand “accursed.” These are people who did not provide for the needs of others. The King will say to them “depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; …. ’Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
In today’s Second Reading, St James graphically explains that if someone spends their earthly life in selfish exploitation of others—hoarding wealth, cheating people out of their wages and otherwise living as a hedonist—although they might enjoy the fruits of their crimes for awhile, they will not escape justice forever.
St. James writes that these kinds of people will “weep and wail over their miseries.”
Jesus is just as clear about the dangers of hedonism.
I’m reminded of the parable Jesus tells of the Rich Fool in Luke’s gospel, chapter 12. In this parable, a man had produced an abundant harvest. In order to store it away safely for his future use, he tore down his barns and built larger ones. He then said to himself: “you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink and be merry.”
But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.”
In America, we’re often surrounded by hedonistic mentalities. It’s the “He who dies with the most toys wins” attitude. We often encounter a business and/or corporate mindset that says, “You must make dust or eat dust.” It’s an outlook in which people are viewed as objects of profit. When people are injured in the race for more, we say, “It’s just business.”
But good business means exercising charity: love for God of his sake, and love of neighbor for the sake of our love for God.
Jesus is clear about the consequences of sin in today’s gospel.
He explains just how serious sin is by urging us to dismember any part of our body that causes us to sin in order to avoid the consequence of hell.
Of course, we should not take this literally. Jesus is using hyperbole. A hand or foot or an eye does not cause us to sin. In order to commit sin, we must intentionally choose it. The point Jesus is making is that we need to strive to avoid sin with all our might and, let us not forget, by availing ourselves regularly of his grace in the sacraments.
Jesus explains that sin, if left unrepentant, can lead to damnation, to that state called hell, which is referred to as “Gehenna” in our gospel for today.
The word “Gehenna” originally referred to a valley on the outskirts of Jerusalem that had been used for human sacrifices in Old Testament times.
By the time of Christ, the valley had come to be used as dumping ground and public incinerator. All kinds of unwanted things were discarded there: rotten trash and refuse, the bodies of criminals and dead animals. All these were gradually consumed by a smoldering, rank fire kept constantly burning as it ate its way through the refuse. The point is, what went into Gehenna, never came back out again.
Gehenna became a symbol of the state of eternal separation of a soul from God and the unending spiritual destruction and frustration that accompanies such a state, one which is devoid of all goodness.
According to Jesus, Gehenna or hell is the state to which unrepentant sin leads. Hell is a final state of existence for those who die in a state of unrepentant mortal sin. It’s the permanent reality people experience who’ve died in rejection God’s plan of love. When we sin mortally, we chose this very state of eternal separation. Mortal sin is a “yes” to damnation.
People today often reject the permanency of hell. They can’t imagine how a perfectly good and all-loving God would send anyone to such a place of torment. It’s an idea related to the “Teddy-Bear-God” syndrome I mentioned earlier.
But the fact is, God does not send people to hell. It’s the individual who himself chooses it. He does this by deliberately committing mortal sin. God simply ratifies at death whatever state of life a person has chosen for himself. In the end, people get what they’ve chosen. They get what they’ve proven they want by their deliberate actions in this life.
And, yes, hell is permanent. Jesus himself teaches this. Which means we have God’s word on it. It also means all of us need to take life seriously. Life is not about gathering toys; it’s about glorifying God so as to avoid hell and attain heaven.
Venial and Mortal Sin
As a theological aside, let’s briefly take a closer look at sin.
The Catechism teaches us that sin is an offense against reason, truth, ourselves, and God (see CCC 1849 ff). St. Thomas defined it as a voluntary bad human act. Sin is something we do on purpose. It’s not an accident. It’s not a mistake.
Although there are many different kinds of sin (CCC 1852), there are two main categories we can discern according to gravity: 1) venial sin and 2) mortal sin (see CCC 1854 ff).
Venial sin wounds our relationship with God but does not destroy it. Venial sins are small sins that do not do great damage to ourselves and others. But they’re nothing to take lightly. Venial sin tends to pile up. If we do not diligently combat it, it gradually leads us into the commission of mortal sin.
Mortal sin, on the other hand, destroys our relationship with God. The operative word here is “destroy.” Mortal sin is not something God overlooks, for if he should do so it would make him a permissive God and implicate him in sin, which is something unthinkable. People today are often quite self-deceived about the gravity of mortal sin. For example, consider how 65% of Americans now think cohabitation is a “good idea.” Cohabiting couples (many of them claiming to be Christian) seem to think it impossible that God would punish them for showing sexual love for their partner. However, sex outside of marriage is, in biblical language, fornication. St. Paul warns that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (see 1 Cor 6:9-11).
For a mortal sin to occur, three conditions must be met: 1) the sin must involve grave matter, such as breaking one of the 10 commandments; 2) the sin must be committed with full knowledge; 3) the sin must be committed with full consent (see CCC 1857 ff).
If we’ve committed mortal sin, we’re no longer in a state of grace. Which means we cannot receive the Eucharist. It means we’re in real trouble.
But God is merciful. That’s why Christ has provided the sacrament of confession. We can walk through the confessional doors, having destroyed our relationship with God, make a good confession, and walk out those doors restored to God’s friendship and once again in a state of grace.
Not Complacency but Serious Diligence
But, as I said, we must never allow ourselves to become too comfortable in this life. We must never think the Catholic and Christian life is a “walk in the park,” or that it’s nothing more than being “nice” to people.
In Matthew chapter 7, Jesus warns us to live a sober and virtuous life. It’s a life that is at times challenging and difficult:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Mt 7:13-14)
We must strive to avoid the teachings of an often corrupt and depraved culture that labors to convince us to take the easy road leading to destruction. St. Paul urges us:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:1-2)
We all suffer from the disease of sin. It’s a problem everyone endures. Due to original sin, we have become a rebellious people. Is there hope for us? Can we really live a saintly life of holiness and attain eternal beatitude in communion with the Tripersonal God?
If it were not for Christ and his saving death on the cross, there would be no hope.
However, there is great reason to hope. Christ has shed his blood on the cross out of love and for the redemption of humankind, opening the way to salvation. For our part, we must repent of sin, be baptized, live the life of faith, and receive the sacraments—especially the Eucharist. We must entrust ourselves to Christ and fight against sin with all our strength.
The whole purpose of Jesus’ earthly mission was to defeat sin, eternal death and the devil. These are your greatest enemies. By virtue of his saving death on a Roman cross, he has won you for himself. Although sin is the sly destroyer, Jesus is the divine restorer.
Live the Catholic and Christian life in its fullness.
God will never disappoint. Christ will never abandon those who love him.
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Photo Credit: Deacon Frederick Bartels. All rights reserved.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.