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Death, Judgment and Hell

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.


We are privileged to bring to you another series of spiritual conferences given by Father John A. Hardon, S.J. professor at the Jesuit school of theology in Chicago and St. John's University in New York. Father Hardon is a well-known retreat master, author and spiritual director. Each conference in this series is separate in itself and yet together they form a complete retreat. The overall theme being sacrifice and love. The heart of all spirituality is sacrifice and the spiritual life not built on sacrifice is building on sand. In the following conference Father Hardon speaks on the subject: death, judgment and hell.

Fr. Hardon:

Our meditations for today will be understandably sobering ones. Our present reflection is on death, judgment and hell. Over the years our modern Jesuit Generals have warned us never to give the spiritual exercises without speaking on death, judgment and hell. As an obedient son of St. Ignatius, I am sharing these three important reflections with you this evening.

We have seen something of the meaning and gravity of sin. What bears emphasis is that sin by its very essence is related to God. There is no such thing as a purely philosophical or psychological or social sin. No doubt. No doubt sin affects many people beginning with the sinner. It does harm to others. It injures society. But the essence of sin is that it offends God. And this, by the way, is not merely the teaching of the infallible Church founded by Christ. It is the verdict of all religious history. All religions of all mankind have always understood and they all have names for an offense against the Deity. That’s sin.

We would then expect God whom sin offends not to be indifferent or impassive to the commission of sin.

God’s response to sin we call punishment. Now there are two kinds of punishment that God inflicts on sin. They are punitive and what we call remedial. Punitive punishment which sounds like needless repetition but is not, means that God punishes sin in order to, well, inflict suffering or pain where the person had offended God by indulging himself against the will of God. If sin is against the will of God, pain is against the will of man. It’s all that simple. Moreover, God punishes, as we say, remedially, that is, He inflicts pain indeed but not precisely or primarily in order to, as it were, make up for the indulgence by a creature against God’s will, but in order to bring the sinner back to God.

Having said this we should also remind ourselves that there are two kinds of drastic punishment that God inflicts for grave sin. There are two kinds of death. Death of the body and death of the soul. In between stands the judgments. With that as our backdrop, now we reflect on the subject of death.

The Lesson of Death

It is remarkable how the whole human race is agreed that all living beings, that is, human beings now on earth will die. Is that remarkable? None of us has yet died. We are all sure that we shall. Faith tells us however that we were not to have died that our mortality is the fruit of sin. We were to have, had our first parents remained faithful, to have inherited from them not only the life of God, which we call the state of grace, we were also to have inherited from them immortality of the body. Well, they sinned and they died and we will die. What's the lesson? The lesson of death.

The first lesson I think is the fact that we are all somehow mysteriously united and in the deepest sense of the word co-responsible. Only one man sinned yet the whole human race, so faith tells us, pays the consequence of his sin. There is no such thing as anyone ever sinning, really, in total solitude. Anyone who sins affects, if you please, the whole human race. Even as we know and we shall see anyone who merits does good, benefits the whole human race. Rather than blame Adam which we are sometimes tempted to do, we should look to ourselves and ask ourselves how much we have contributed - what a contribution - to the blindness and the weakness and the estrangement from God of mankind because we have sinned. And any figure of speech we use we know is as nothing compared to the reality.

On my way from 83rd and Park where I live to 86th and Lexington in New York where I get the subway I always have to cross the street and pass the Park Avenue community church. They have some of the most delightful mottos. I think they change them three times a week outside the church. The latest - just before I left New York is - a pebble on the Pacific affects the ocean. As we look over the chaos in once flourishing institutions of Catholic Christianity: the defection by now only the Lord knows of how many thousands of priests, the departure from the religious life of over 50,000 sisters in the last decade, the disintegration of whole school systems, dioceses with 40, 50 empty convents. I gave a retreat for three days before the Feast of the Sacred Heart to Mother Teresa and her community before she founded her most recent community, The Sisters of the Word, in an abandoned convent built in ’57, so the cornerstone says, unoccupied for the last three years.

As we look over the shambles of family life, one of my students told me the other day that a judge friend of his in New York, a Catholic who has been witnessing as he may civil marriages what averaged a few years ago up to 400 marriages a year – last year he had less than 10. They're just living together. It is one thing however to reflect on what is happening and much more difficult to strike our breasts and say mea culpa. Only God knows to what extent we have contributed. What we should be told, all of us, is that we have contributed. So much for the first lesson that sin, as faith tells us occurred in Adam’s case so in its own measure in our case, is social in its consequences. And people don't have to witness our sin. It's not just bad example I am talking about - is the mystery of human solidarity. But then we are not now merely speculating, we are reflecting meditatively on our own forthcoming sooner than we expect – leaving this world.

Death and Certitude

There are two facts about death that we should face up to. First is the certainty that we shall die, well more than that, not only are we sure we shall die but we are sure we shall die as we have lived. If we live in God's friendship we shall die in His friendship. Now God is merciful and there are as we know occasions and we praise the Lord when we hear about it when some lifelong sinner estranged from God for years suddenly makes as we say a deathbed conversion. President Cárdenas (?) of Mexico, by the way, was one. As I was informed I went on my Jesuit confer to Mexico who was told this by the priest who heard Cárdenas (?) last confession. Isn't that beautiful? But if there are deathbed conversions let’s be sure there are no deathbed perversions. Get it? No one on his deathbed suddenly turns his back on God. Comforting isn’t it? We need to hear that. It's all that easy. Well it seems hard as we drag ourselves through life. Any figure of speech will do – a tall mountain, a difficult road, a jungle. The Orientals use a large body of water. Well, whatever the lifespan is and the struggles we’ve got to undergo through life is very short. The younger persons in Chapel let me assure you it’s very short. All we’ve got to do – that’s all – is just remain in His friendship and of course we know what this means it means in large measure walking hand-in-hand with God through the darkness. But then it's all over. Thank God! Viva! That's the certitude.

Death and Incertitude

What is the incertitude? It is, well, such minor details as when, where and under what circumstances? This past Christmas well just before Christmas my last class day in New York City one of the students suddenly had a seizure, collapsed. I absolved him. One of the other priest students was better prepared than I, he had his oils, anointed him. He didn't recover. A few weeks later died. My pastor in Cleveland, Monsignor Schaffold, just like him, he was always an impresario, he was dogmatic, that was Father John, as a sister in charge of servers once described him to us when we came back to her for consolation after he, well, told us off. Boys, you know father John, he’s a diamond in the rough. A great man, shaped my life. I wasn't there to witness his most dramatic action. It was graduation night on a cool June evening before an auditorium filled with the relatives and guests of the graduating class. He was on the stage. How appropriate giving out the awards to the high school graduates. Had an attack and little sister James, you wouldn't believe she could do it, the principle, rushed up and grabbed him in her arms. There was a priest from the front seat gave him absolution. He died on the stage.

Oh, what I most like is John Francis Regis he died in the confessional. Isn’t that marvelous? So we don't know when, and it is just as well, isn’t it? Suppose we knew exactly when we would die. How good God is or where as Terry Righterly whose name I learned. I just come into class at the State University where I was teaching. Put my books on the desk when I heard a crash, turned around in time to see a body flying through the air. He was on a motorcycle, was hit at right angles by a car thrown some fifty feet. I dashed out. It had rained. How good God is. The night before there was water in the streets. I scooped up some water ran over and baptized this cracked skull still alive. Helped to place him in the ambulance which came a few minutes later. He died on the way to the hospital. Had never been baptized. Had been a clean living college student. The night before he died some of his fraternity pals tried to encourage him to become a Catholic. His answer to them was, “Listen fellas, I’ll get to heaven before you do.” and for the first and perhaps last time in the history of that State institution we had a Catholic funeral at the State University.

Death - An Oblation to God

Clearly we are to be prepared for death but may I suggest before I leave this tantalizing subject that we should honestly anticipate death. Why not? We ought to daily. Anticipating death accepted from the hands of God. Isn't it wonderful? Though we die only once physically, we can die a thousand times in spirit. Marvelous isn’t it? And we can make that oblation to God to accept from His hands whatever kind of death He will send us because you see death is not only a punishment, death is a sacrifice. It is if you wish in the noblest sense of the word making a virtue of necessity. Virtue do I say? We make a sublime oblation to God on what's going to happen anyway. Why let it just happened? Why not profit from this gift of God.

Judgment and Death

After death, judgment. The trouble with that preposition “after” it is not quite accurate because the nearest thing to a split second is the judgment, shall we say, following death.

There are, we believe, two kinds of judgment: the one that will take place the moment we die, let me change the accent, one that will take place the moment we die and the other that will take place the moment the world dies. The first, for want of a better word, we call particular judgment, the other general. What is most satisfying to know and how we should remind the Savior of this daily. You know who is going to judge us? Isn’t it great? Jesus. Isn’t that marvelous? We've seen a lot of each other during life. Well, he's going to judge us when as we say we die evidently not as though he's got to somehow in some crude sense have to weigh the pros and cons of our life. It is just to inform us, that’s all, and one of the difficulties with the word judgment is that, don't you agree, it has an adverse connotation. Don't you think so? We kind of assume that a judge, well, judges and judges people who have done wrong and while judges do also acquit in ordinary human language we usually associate judgment with inflicting a penalty. Consequently, while reflecting necessarily on the fact that we shall be judged because we have done wrong, the more we can convince ourselves of the fact that we shall be judged indeed according to our deeds we shall also be judged according to God's mercy.

General Judgment at the End of the World

The general judgment we shall come back to before the end of the retreat. Let me just point out one simple fact implied in our previous reflection on sin. The main reason, so the church tells us, for what we call the general judgment is that the whole world might learn and glorify God by seeing how the good deed that each individual had done had had their beneficent consequences, the good that was the result of the good things we had done and correspondingly the harm that had come from even a single misdeed. Because if both sin and virtue are by their nature sociable and they simultaneously affect the whole world, that’s our faith, sin and virtue are also consequential in their effects. A single act of kindness performed, I don't know how you describe this place where you live. To me it's the Rockies. An act of kindness to one of your fellow sisters which perhaps even she does not notice. Is that possible? Nevertheless will have its consequences until the end of time. So be it sin and it's especially with sin that we should impress ourselves with the seriousness not so much always of the inherent malice of the sin that is committed but the seriousness of the consequences which follow. How many times as a priest I have heard people tell me they have left the church, done all kinds of mad things, because of some act of unkindness of a priest. All of this will be unfolded on the last day.


Finally, hell. My notes say seldom preached. How true. It is unfortunate that what is after all the most tragic counterpart to man's salvation, namely is loss of the vision of God for all eternity, should be so, only God knows why, but so seldom talked about. I don't know why. May I hazard a guess? I think that belief in hell is one of the most difficult mysteries of our faith. It is, I am sure you know, widely doubted or even denied even in circles supposedly Christian, or may God forgive them, nominally Catholic. Yet there are few things, in fact, nothing that Christ more clearly taught beyond his own divinity than the existence of hell. And the Church has never budged on this article of revealed faith. But as with other revealed mysteries so this one its purpose obviously is not only to, well, give us some factual information about the future prospect of those who die estranged from God. The existence of hell is not just a piece of sober information. God never reveals anything without a purpose.

Lesson One

I have seven purposes, seven lessons and the only reason I stopped at seven was I figured that was a good round biblical number. What should hell teach us? It first of all teaches us that the same God who is all good is also all just. God will not be mocked. He is merciful. He is patient but there is a limit. Hear it? There is a limit to God's mercy and that limit is man's willingness to return to God. Hell is what happens to a person who resists God's mercy.

Lesson Two

For us who by now have been so often the objects of that divine mercy we should be grateful. Now this may sound strange, we usually think of being grateful for things we have received, well, that is a legitimate and more common object of gratitude. But do you know that we can also be grateful for, well, the harm or the injury or the evil that we’ve been spared. Right? If someone saves our life we should be grateful and we are. God has spared us the life of our souls. We are still alive in body. We can still depend on God's mercy and if any of you are like me we should now be in hell. Gratitude. Profound gratitude.

Lesson Three

Again the revelation of hell is meant to inspire us with a salutary fear. The fear of the Lord which is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is not indeed a cringing, servile fear that we are afraid mainly of what God might do to us. Nevertheless it is a kind of a fear we have and should have of not wanting to offend God because, as we know from human relationships, there is no hatred like that of rejected love. God wants us to love Him. Oh! How He wants us to love Him, but if we resist and keep resisting His advances, well, He will do what any rejected lover will do.

Lesson Four

A fourth lesson and how powerful this should be in the apostolates to inspire us with an ardent zeal to save others from going to hell. And if this sounds fundamentalist so be it. If it sounds pietistic so be it. If it sounds unenlightened so be it. All I know is the greatest missionary, after St. Paul, declared by the Church as the patron of missions, Francis Xavier, was mainly motivated to spend his life and exhaust himself in working among the pagans to bring Christ and Christ's saving mercy to them was as he more than once wrote to Ignatius, I want to save these souls from hell. Call me whatever names you wish that's one of my motives for trying to keep people in God's grace.

Lesson Five

There is another lesson however and that is the fact of hell should remind us that though we are still in God's friendship we can lose it. We know that Cedars of Lebanon have fallen. All I know is that no position in the Church, no accumulation of virtue, no amount of learning, no amount of reputation in the eyes of others for holiness is any guarantee absolute that we shall persevere in grace. How we should pray daily, Lord, that I may live and die in your friendship. And when we recite the Hail Mary let's be sure we know what we are saying. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. To pray and keep praying for the gift of final perseverance because the devil is never asleep and the principal objective, demonic machination, is the souls that are consecrated to Him. In the three volumes on Christian perfection that we used to read in the novitiate by Rodriguez - ever hear about them? Well, my novitiate being some years back I forget the exact wording. All I remember; how could I forget? Rodriguez describing the horde of demons that some mystics saw invading convents of dedicated religious. If the devil had the audacity to tempt the Son of God be sure he won't hesitate tempting us.

Lesson Six

A resolution. We’re talking about resolutions on the first day of the retreat. The resolution to work for God's service, now, and that now can be tomorrow, but now, as we would wish to have done when we come to die. My, what effort we would put into what we are doing if we knew that after finishing this, well, little task, we would be called into eternity.

Lesson Seven

And finally, in as much as we have sinned we are all Magdalen's in our own way because we have sinned much and God has forgiven much therefore we should love much and don't tell me this is a low motive for becoming holy because it is born of gratitude toward God's goodness to me. Indeed in His Providence this is why God allows us to sin and perhaps have deserved hell that having come to our supernatural senses we might from the time we wake up give ourselves entirely to God where no cost is too heavy or any task too hard since we want to give God everything, in as much as given us. Everything we now have and hope for having still His grace to cooperate with, until when we are judged, we shall be admitted to the life that awaits us after what we call bodily death. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Conference transcription from a retreat that Father Hardon gave to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Mother of Sorrows Recordings, Inc.
Handmaids of the Precious Blood
Cor Jesu Monastery
P.O. Box 90
Jemez Springs, NM 87025

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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