Hell is never a nasty surprise waiting for a basically happy person. Hell can only be the full-flowering of a pride and selfishness that have, through a long time, twisted a heart so thoroughly that it considers happiness as unhappiness and has an arrogant disdain for happy people. If you are essentially warm of heart this side of eternity, you need not fear that a nasty surprise awaits you on the other side because somewhere along the line, unknowingly, you missed the boat and your life went terribly wrong.
Unfortunately for many us, the preaching and catechesis of our youth sometimes schooled us in the idea that you could tragically miss the boat without knowing it and that there was no return. You could live your life sincerely, in essential honesty, relate fairly to others, try your best given your weaknesses, have some bounce and happiness in life, and then die and find that some sin you’ve committed or mistake you’d made, perhaps even unknowingly, could doom you to hell and there was no further chance for repentance. The second of your death was your last chance to change things, no second chances after death, no matter how badly you might like then to repent. As a tree falls so shall it lie! We were schooled to fear dying and the afterlife.
But, whatever the practical effectiveness of such a concept, because it really could make one hesitate in the face of temptation because of the fear of hell, it is essentially wrong and should not be taught in the name of Christianity. Why? Because it belies the God and the deep truths that Jesus revealed. Jesus did teach that there was a hell and that it was a possibility for everyone. But the hell that Jesus spoke of is not a place or a state where someone is begging for one last chance, just one more minute of life to make an act of contrition, and God is refusing. The God whom Jesus both incarnates and reveals is a God who is forever open to repentance, forever open to contrition, and forever waiting our return from our prodigal wanderings.
With God we never exhaust our chances. Can you imagine God looking at a repentant man or woman and saying: “Sorry! For you, it’s too late! You had your chance! Don’t come asking for another chance now!” That could not be the Father of Jesus.
And yet, the Gospels can give us that impression. We have, for example, the famous parable of the rich man who ignores the poor man at his doorstep, dies, and ends up in hell, while the poor man, Lazarus, whom he had ignored, is now in heaven, comforted in the bosom of Abraham. From his torment in hell, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him with some water, but Abraham replies that there is an unbridgeable gap between heaven and hell and no one can cross from one side to the other. That text, along with Jesus’ warnings about that the doors of the wedding banquet will at a point be irrevocably closed, has led to the common misconception that there is a point of no return, that once in hell, it is too late to repent.
But that’s not what this text, nor Jesus’ warning on the urgency of repentance, teaches. The “unbridgeable gap” here refers, among other things, to a gap that remains forever unbridged here in this world between the rich and the poor. And it remains unbridged because of our intransigence, our failure to change heart, our lack of contrition, not because God runs out of patience and says: “Enough! No more chances!” It remains unbridged because, habitually, we become so set in our ways that we are incapable of change and genuine repentance.
Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus actually draws upon a more ancient, Jewish, story that illustrates this intransigence: In the parallel Jewish parable, God does hear the rich man’s plea from hell for a second chance and grants it to him. The rich man, now full of new resolutions, returns to life, goes immediately to the market, loads his cart with food, and, as he is driving home, meets Lazarus on the road. Lazarus asks for a loaf of bread. The rich man jumps off his cart to give it to him, but, has he pulls a huge loaf of bread from his cart, his old self starts to reassert itself. He begins to think: “This man doesn’t need a whole loaf! Why not just give him a part! And why should he have a fresh loaf, I’ll give him some of the stale bread!” Immediately he finds himself back in hell! He still cannot bridge the gap.
Kathleen Dowling Singh submits that in making a series of mental contractions we create our own fear of death. That’s true too for the afterlife: By making a series of unfortunate theological contractions we create our own fear of hell.