A reader struggles with fear of hell

A reader struggles with fear of hell February 7, 2017

He writes:

Confession or Holy Communion for a couple of years because I am worried about making a sacrilege.

People tell me, “Don’t worry, you have scruples/neo-Jansenism/OCD” but yet there are a number of Catholic saints and even Doctors of the Church who thought that almost everyone will be damned. There are hundreds of quotes I can use, this one is by St. John Chrysostom.

One day Saint John Chrysostom, preaching in the cathedral in Constantinople and considering these proportions, could not help but shudder in horror and ask, “Out of this great number of people, how many do you think will be saved?” And, not waiting for an answer, he added, “Among so many thousands of people, we would not find a hundred who are saved, and I even doubt for the one hundred.” What a dreadful thing! The great Saint believed that out of so many people, barely one hundred would be saved; and even then, he was not sure of that number. What will happen to you who are listening to me? Great God, I cannot think of it without shuddering! Brothers, the problem of salvation is a very difficult thing; for according to the maxims of the theologians, when an end demands great efforts, few only attain it.

There were so many quotes which were even worse. For example, in a sermon by a saint, he named three people saved out of 60,000. Yes he is not infallible but he is a saint and I am not.

So Mark how can people say this is scruples/Jansenism/psychological issue when the Church allows for the possibility that few, perhaps extremely few people are saved? Yes, maybe the opposite is true too, but the great majority of saints were pessimistic about the number.

So how do I live in a way where my life is not crippled. Oh, and happily Hell lasts forever! But don’t worry about it too much, people say. Huh?

The only logical and consistent way to approach this seems to be to go crazy with fear. People telling me just be happy need to give be a logical way to deal with this seemingly massive contradiction.

First things first, the normative teaching of the Church is to go to confession and communion frequently.  If anything is keeping you from that, assume that, not frequent confession and communion, is the lie from hell.  It is Satan, not God, that wants you away from the sacraments.

It sound like you struggle with scruples.  A good confessor and spiritual guide is vital here.  You need somebody who can pull you out of your own head the fears you tell yourself.  I would try to make it a discipline to deliberately defy this Jansenist fear and to look not within (“Do I really trust God? Have I really made a good confession?  Am I really in a state of grace?”) but outward at God.  You cannot judge your own heart perfectly or even very well at all, especially when you are in the grip of scruples.  But there is a real answer to the question “Is Jesus trustworthy?  Does he love me?”  Hand your scruples over to God when the words of absolution are pronounced and really take his word for it that all your sins are forgiven.  The last thing that a person like you needs to fear is that you have not made a good confession. Nobody would anguish as you do if they were not contrite for their sins.  Let the grace in and thank God for it and tell your guardian angel to send Satan back to hell when he tries to whisper that it is not yours.  It is.

As to the business of the population of hell, the Church allows for all sorts of opinions about all sorts of things.  But in the end, that’s all they are: opinions.  And the reason is that we simply do not know.  Some early Fathers say few are saved.  How do they know?  They don’t.  They speculate.  Others (St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Gregory Nazianzus, among others) speculate that most if not all will ultimately be saved.  How do they know?  They don’t.  They speculate.  What such speculation does is tell us a great deal about the cast of mind of the speculator.  What it does not do is tell us anything about the end of the story.  Because we do not know the end of the story.

Because we do not know, we are free to speculate but forbidden to claim we know.  And if the speculation gets in the way of our present obedience for one single second, we must reject it as a temptation from hell.  Your present call is not to speculate about you chances of hell or heaven, because it manifestly leads to the sin of despair.  Another person might be lead to the sin of presumption.  Both have in common the fact that they are sins.

You are called to the virtue of hope.  And hope says, “Get yourself to confession as soon as possible because Jesus Christ await you there to welcome you and forgive you and pour out his Spirit upon you because you are called to live in faith, hope, and love and not in a spirit of servile fear.  Then, as soon as you can, get to Mass and make frequent communions and don’t stop.”  The odds of you committing a mortal sin are, I reckon, incredibly low.  Why?  Because you are full of scruples and intensely scrupulous people are the last people on earth to commit mortal sins.  You are, in fact, in the position of a man with a terrible disease who is telling the Divine Physician that your sickness makes you unworthy of the medicine he is urging you to take.  Put down the quack remedy of rigorism the devil has pushed on you and return with all deliberate speed to the counsel of Holy Church.  Frequent confession (a couple of times a month) and, above all, frequent recourse to the Eucharist is what you need.

And do what you can to find a spiritual director.  I speak from experience here.  There is real healing, but you need to trust the mercy God wants to give you.  Let go of your grip on fear.  Very consciously (and repeatedly as the devil returns to assault you as he will) hand your fear and despair back to Jesus in the person of your confessor.  God wants you.  He desires to have you with him.  He is not looking for ways to reject you.  And he has a plan for you for good, and not for evil.  Perhaps, in fact, to help others tormented as you have been by lie that God does not mean to save you.

I will pray for you that you do the will of the Father and get to confession and communion and that you receive the grace and mercy Jesus has already won for you and wills to give you.  Please write back if there is anything more I can do.

God is with you.

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