Digby Anderson explores the reasons for the modern Church’s silence on the Last Things
A good and prominent Forward in Faith priest complained recently that we don’t hear much these days about hell. Nor indeed about the other Last Things. The list of topics Mother Church is silent about is even more interesting and revealing than that on which she gushes, such as Peace’n’Justice. So often P’n’J is an excuse for a secular rant ‘fostering progress in needy regions’ as its licence puts it.
An early warning
C.S. Lewis knew its game in 1941 even before Paul VI gave it much unneeded encouragement. His Screwtape counsels Wormwood:
`The thing to do is to get man at first to value social justice as a thing the Enemy (God) demands, and then work him onto the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations (indeed churches) who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs to heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. You see the (game)? ‘Believe this, not because it is true but for some other (earthly) reason’.
Certainly, modern, especially liberationist, P’n’J rant has little to do with traditional ideas about pax andjustitia. One suspects the Last Things are ignored or concealed because, at least superficially, they, unlike P’n’J, do not serve the fashionable secular-materialist agenda. But there are two reasons given by liberals for the silence. The first is, ‘You know the church does not actually have much to say about hell. We know little about what heaven and hell are like: This is nonsense. Of course we do not know how hot hell is and how sharp the demons’ forks or what happiness heaven offers or details about the Christian equivalent of plump young virgins.
But we know a lot about the spiritual states which will get us to one or the other, a lot about the character of the Judge and the criteria of Judgement, a lot about what God is and hence about what it is to be separated from him or united to him.
The New Testament may explicitly mention hell rarely, and sometimes to mean the place of all the dead, good and bad, but it refers to punishment frequently and flames explicitly. The early Fathers had much to say about the Last Things, so did the Middle Ages and the Counter-Reformation and the Victorian churches, everyone that is except modern liberals.
Hell is in the Athanasian creed, which is more than you can say about ‘fostering progress in needy regions’ and the rest of the materialist agenda.
The other reason given for silence on the Last Things is that they sit uneasily, even contradict, other key themes of the Church, especially that of love. Since one should quote one’s enemies at their best and strongest, here is an instance of this from a surprising source, the Victorian Edward Caswall. Even more surprising, perhaps shocking, the Latin hymn he translates, ‘O Deus ego amo Te’, is said to have been by S. Francis Zavier. Verses 4 and 5 are:
Then why O Blessed Jesu Christ,
Should I not love Thee well,
Not for the sake of winning heaven,
Or of escaping hell;
Not with the hope of gaining aught,
Not seeking a reward;
But as Thyself hath loved me,
O ever-loving Lord.
A contrived contrast
This is a false and contrived contrast. Of course we love because he loves us. But precisely because we love him we want to love him forever in heaven where he continues to love us. He is indeed an ever-loving Lord. And we should be desperate to escape hell where we should be forever separated from him and his love. Even the modern church admits that hell is a ‘place of definitive self-exclusion from Communion with God: We shall go there if we do not love him and if we utterly reject his love for us. Heaven and hell are then the key and eternal facts of Christianity established by the Divine Love. To ignore, downplay or conceal the Last Things is to deny God’s love itself. To remove the Last Things from our understanding of God’s love is to turn that love into a sentimental indulgence.
Once we have restored the Last Things and their relation to divine love, we might direct our attention to his commandments, including pax and justitia. If we love God, fear hell and hope for heaven, then we will want to keep his commandments. But as Lewis reminds us, because he wishes it. When peace and justice are not anchored in him, and when he is used, that is, abused and exploited to advance them, they deserve not our support but our derision.