Our spirituality

An Unfashionable Concept

When I was young, there was much preaching on hell and the consequences of sin. Nowadays, no matter what we do, God loves us, we are told. Are we giving our young people a false sense of security by saying that God loves them, even when they are in a stat~ of mortal sin? Or has God changed his ways since I was a child?

Tom.

Today there is a widespread reluctance to refer to sin. When it is mentioned in the media, it is carefully surrounded with inverted commas as 'sin', lest the writer be accused of believing that there is really any such thing. In ordinary conversation, it is rarely used except when someone is making fun of the concept.

No-Go Area
Activities regarded as sinful since the beginnings of Christianity are, as you suggest, rarely mentioned in our churches, although they are main topics of discussion in the newspapers on sale at the gate. In contemporary preaching, hell is virtually a 'no-go area', if I may be pardoned the pun.

This attitude prompted the remark of Pascal, the great seventeenth-century French thinker, which he meant in all seriousness: 'If you do not go to hell in imagination, you increase your chances of going there in reality'. So, the occasional little flight of fancy in that direction might do no harm at all. In fact, it could be very salutary for all of us.

What you describe is a deplorable state of affairs that seems to be all too prevalent, in spite of thousands of years of Judaeo-Christian civilisation. In the Scriptures, no concept is more clearly asserted than sin and sinfulness. Indeed, without it the Bible makes no sense.

The whole story, from Genesis to the Apocalypse, is about God's plan to undo the damage caused by sinful disobedience, something he carries out with a mysterious respect for human freedom that is beyond our comprehension. Saint Catherine of Siena tells us that we will be astonished at death when we see how extraordinarily respectful God has been of our freedom at every single moment of our lives.

Eternal Life
Scripture also teaches us in the clearest manner, of course, that God loves us no matter what we do, and everyone should be made aware of that. It is found, for instance, in In.3:16, well known to sports fans world-wide, whether their interest is the Ryder Cup or the All-Ireland Final: 'God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life'.

This means that God loves us unconditionally. It does not mean that he saves us unconditionally. St. Augustine's memorable phrase puts it succinctly: 'God made us without us, but he will not save us without us'. God's gift of eternal salvation is continually on offer throughout our earthly lives. Indeed, every act in a human life is either an acceptance or rejection of this extraordinary gift, whether we are aware of it or not. One thing we can be sure of: under no circumstances will God ever force us to accept it.

Moral Duty
Every human being knows deep down that, during life, you should avoid evil and do good. Evil here means moral evil or sin, something that happens in the heart, as Jesus taught his disciples, whether others know about it or not. The Christian position in this matter is clear: Evil is always to be avoided, while the good has not always to be done.

Moral evil, or sin, is never justified, but there may be a valid reason for not doing a particular good at a particular time. You are not obliged to tell your child a bed-time story every night, although this is a thoroughly good and commendable thing to do, but there is no night in your whole life when you may tell your child a lie.

The World to Come
In a world where the notion, but not the reality, of sin has been sidelined, we are all challenged to convince ourselves and others that something can be profoundly evil and destructive of personality, even though it may not be fattening, and is unlikely to cause wrinkles.

It won't lose us either a penny or a night's sleep, or land us in jail; it won't affect our popularity ratings, or prevent our upward mobility; it won't be known to another sinner in the whole world, and is unlikely to shorten our life in it by a single second. It could, however, affect our circumstances and accommodation in the life to come.

'I tell you, if your uprightness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of Heaven' (Mt.5:20).