The Loss of Heaven and The Fear of Hell


Growing up as a Roman Catholic, like the rest of my generation, I was taught a prayer called, The Act of Contrition. Every Catholic back then had to memorize it and say it during or after going to confession. The prayer started this way: Oh, my God, I am truly sorry for having offended thee and I detest all of my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell.  …

To dread the loss of heaven and fear the pains of hell can seem like one and the same thing. They’re not. There’s a huge moral distance between dreading the loss of heaven and fearing the pains of hell. The prayer wisely separates them. Fear of hell is based upon a fear of punishment, dreading the loss of heaven is based upon a fear of not being a good, loving person. There’s a huge difference between living in fear of punishment and living in fear of not being a good a person.  We’re more mature, humanly and as Christians, when we’re more worried about not being loving enough than when we’re fearful that we will be punished for doing something wrong.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I breathed in the spirituality and catechesis of the Roman Catholicism of the time. In the Catholic ethos then (and this was essentially the same for Protestants and Evangelicals) the eschatological emphasis was a lot more about the fear of going to hell than it was about being a loving person. As a Catholic kid, along with my peers, I worried a lot about not committing a mortal sin, that is, doing something out of selfishness or weakness that, if unconfessed before I died, would send me to hell for all eternity. My fear was that I might go to hell rather than that I might not be a very loving person who would miss out on love and community. And so I worried about not being bad rather than about being good. I worried that I would do something that was mortally sinful, that would send me to hell; but I didn’t worry as much about having a heart big enough to love as God loves. I didn’t worry as much about forgiving others, about letting go of hurts, about loving those who are different from me, about being judgmental, or about being so tribal, racist, sexist, nationalistic, or narrow in my religious views that I would be uncomfortable sitting down with certain others at the God’s banquet table.  

The heavenly table is open to all who are willing to sit down with all.  That’s a line from a John Shea poem and it spells out succinctly, I believe, a non-negotiable condition for going to heaven, namely, the willingness and capacity to love everyone and to sit down with everyone. It’s non-negotiable for this reason: How can we be at the heavenly table with everyone if for some reason of pride, wound, temperament, bitterness, bigotry, politics, nationalism, color, race, religion, or history, we aren’t open to sit down with everyone?

Jesus teaches this too, just in a different way. After giving us the Lord’s Prayer which ends with the words, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, he adds this: “If you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you.” Why can’t God forgive us if we don’t forgive others? Has God arbitrarily singled out this one condition as his pet criterion for going to heaven? No.  

We cannot sit at the heavenly banquet table if we are still selective as to whom we can sit down with. If, in the next life, like here in this life, we are selective as to whom we love and embrace, then heaven would be the same as earth, with factions, bitterness, grudges, hurt, and every kind of racism, sexism, nationalism, and religious fundamentalism keeping us all in our separate silos. We can only sit at the heavenly banquet when are hearts are wide enough to embrace everyone else at the table. Heaven demands a heart open to universal embrace.

And so, as I get older, approach the end of my life, and accept that I will soon face my Maker, I worry less and less about going to hell and worry more and more about the bitterness, anger, ingratitude, and non-forgiveness that still remains in me. I worry less about committing a mortal sin and more about whether I’m gracious, respectful, and forgiving towards others. I worry more about the loss of heaven than the pains of hell, that is, I worry that I could end up like the older brother of the prodigal son, standing outside the Father’s house, excluded by anger rather than by sin.

Still, I’m grateful for the Act of Contrition of my youth. Fear of hell isn’t a bad place from which to start.

What Makes for Christian Communion?


The question of intercommunion within our churches today is a big one, an important one, and a painful one. I’m old enough to remember another time, actually to remember two other times.

First, as a young boy growing up in the pre-Vatican II Church, intercommunion with other Christians, Non-Romans, was a taboo. It just didn’t happen. An individual maverick may have ventured it, but he or she would have been called out for doing it, were it known. Then things changed. In the early years of my ministry, I worked in dioceses where intercommunion, at least for special occasions such as weddings, funerals, and inter-church gatherings, was common, even encouraged. As a priest presiding at a Eucharist at these gatherings, I was allowed to positively invite non Roman Catholics to receive the Eucharist, as their own faith and sensitivities allowed.

Those times came to an end.  Within the space of ten years, by the mid-1990s, those of us who presided at a Roman Catholic Eucharist were asked to positively disinvite non-Roman Catholics from receiving the Eucharist, irrespective of occasion. The rational given was that the Eucharist is the most intimate act that we, as Christians, can share with each other and that intimate sharing, analogous to the intimacy within a marriage, to be honest and meaningful, demands that we be in communion with each other and given our differences in doctrine, ecclesiology, and some issues of morality, we simply are not in sufficient communion. Further still, this argument suggests that accepting the pain of not being able to receive communion in each other’s churches should be the kick in the pants we need to stir us to make greater efforts to come together around dogma, church, and morality.

What’s to be said for this? First, it’s’ true and has its merits, save for the one, salient, idea that needs to be lifted out from this apologia and scrutinized more closely, namely, the notion that we are not in sufficient communion with each other to share the Eucharist because of our differences in dogma, ecclesiology, and some moral issues.

What does it mean to be in communion with each other, in faith, as Christians, at least in sufficient communion to receive the Eucharist from each other’s tables? What constitutes genuine intimacy in faith?

Theologically, it’s clear; baptism puts us into the family of faith. All Christians hold this and so too do the Gospels. St. Paul, admittedly, adds a qualification regarding receiving communion. However, beyond the theological issue involved there’s also an ecclesial one, namely, while we all share one Christian community through baptism, we do however belong to different faith families and families tend to eat in their own houses. True again. But then this question arises: When does eating in another family’s house make sense and when does it not?

The deeper question which needs to be asked regarding what constitutes intimacy inside the faith and what constitutes the kind of intimacy that justifies receiving the Eucharist together is not, first of all, one of doctrine or church affiliation but of oneness inside the Holy Spirit. What makes for oneness among us as Christians? When are we one family in faith?

Perhaps no text is clearer than St. Paul in the 5th Chapter of his Letter to the Galatians. He begins by telling us what does not constitute oneness inside the Holy Spirit. We’re not living inside the Holy Spirit or in communion with each other, he submits, if we’re living in strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factionalism, envy, idolatry, sorcery, or adultery. These are infallible signs that we’re not in communion with each other. We are however in genuine communion, in intimacy in faith, in one family, when we’re living in charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, fidelity, mildness, and chastity. Living inside of these is what makes for Christian communion, oneness, for intimacy with each other. Differences on select issues of dogma, church, and morals are, in fact, secondary. More important is whether our heart is full of charity or anger, goodness or factionalism, peace or strife, impatience or chastity. We are more in communion, in a communion of faith, with someone of another ecclesial denomination whose heart is fueled by charity, patience, and goodness than with someone of our own church whose heart is angry, envious, and judgmental.  Ecclesial difference isn’t the real criterion.

What constitutes the kind of intimacy that justifies intercommunion? I’m not a bishop and so the pastoral decision on that question is not mine to make. As a loyal son of the church, I need to trust that the Holy Spirit will work through the persons and offices entrusted to make that decision. As a theologian, however, I’ve also a task. My job is to look at issues like this and bring various theological and biblical perspectives to bear on them, accepting that the pastoral decision won’t be mine.

So I offer this perspective to those entrusted with making the pastoral decisions about what justifies and what does not justify intercommunion.

Rachel Held Evans, 1981-2019


No community should botch its deaths. Mircea Eliade wrote those words and they’re a warning: If we do not properly celebrate the life of someone who has left us we do an injustice to that person and cheat ourselves of some of the gift that he or she left behind.

With this in mind, I want to underscore the loss that we, the Christian community, irrespective of denomination, suffered with the death of Rachel Held Evans who died, at age 37, on May the 4th.

Who was Rachel Held Evans? She defies simple definition, beyond saying that she was a young religious writer who wrote with a depth and balance beyond her years as she chronicled her struggles to move from the deep, sincere, childlike faith she was raised in to eventually arrive at a questioning, but more mature, faith that was now willing to face all the hard questions within faith, religion, and church. And in this journey, she was beset with opposition from within (it’s hard to courageously scrutinize your own roots) and from without (churches generally don’t like being pressed by hard questions, especially from their own young). But the journey she made and articulates (with rare honesty and wit) is a journey that, in some way, all of us, young and old, have to make to come to a faith that can stand up to the hard questions coming from our world and the even harder ones coming from inside of us.

Carl Rogers once famously said: “What is most personal is also most universal.” The journey Rachel Held Evans traces out from her own life is, I submit, by and large, the universal one today, that is, the naïve faith of our childhood inevitably meets challenges, questions, and ridicule in adulthood and that demands of us a response beyond the Sunday School and catechism of our youth. Not least among these questions and challenges is the one of church, of justifying belonging to one, given the propensity within our churches for infidelity, narrowness, judgmental attitudes, reluctance to face doubt, and the perennial temptation to wed the Gospels to their favored political ideology. 

Rachel Held Evans struggled to make the journey from the naiveté of childhood, with all its innocence and magic, where one can believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny and take biblical stories literally, to what Paul Ricouer calls “second naiveté”, where, through a painful interplay between doubt and faith, one has been able to work through the conscriptive sophistication that comes with adulthood so as to reground the innocence and magic (and faith) of childhood on a foundation that has already taken seriously the doubt and disillusionment that beset us in the face of adulthood.

The Irish philosopher, John Moriarty, whose religious story plays out along similar lines as Rachel’s, coins an interesting expression to describe what happened to him. At one point in his religious journey, he tells us, “I fell out of my story”. The Roman Catholicism he had been raised into was no longer the story out of which he could live his life. Eventually, after sorting through some hard questions and realizing that the faith of his youth was, in the end, his “mother tongue”, he found his way back into his religious story.

Rachel Held Evans’ story is similar. Raised in the Southern USA Bible Belt inside a robust Evangelical Christianity she too, as she faced the questions of her own adulthood, fell out of her story and, like Moriarty, eventually found her way back into it, at least in essence.

In the end, she found her way back to a mature faith (which now can handle doubt), found a church (Episcopalian) within which she could worship, and, in effect, found her way back to her mother tongue. The church and faith of her youth, she writes, remain in her life like an old boyfriend. … Where, while not together anymore in the old way, you still end up checking Facebook each day to see what’s happening in his life.     

Many Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, I suspect, may not be very familiar with Rachel Held Evans or have read her works. She wrote four best-selling books, Inspired, Searching for Sunday, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, and Faith Unraveled. The purpose of this column is therefore pretty straightforward: Read her!  Even more important, plant her books in the path of anyone struggling with faith or church:loved ones, children, spouses, family members, friends, colleagues.

Rachel Held Evans arose out of an Evangelical ecclesial tradition and out of the particular approach to Christian discipleship that generally flows from there. She and I come from very different ecclesial worlds. But, as Roman Catholic priest, solidly committed to the tradition I was raised in, and as a theologian and spiritual writer for more than 40 years, reading this young woman, I haven’t found a single line with which to disagree. She’s trusted food for the soul. She’s also a special person that we lost far too soon.