Save us from the Fires of Hell
O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of your mercy.
This is a prayer that was added to the end of a decade of the Rosary after Mary appeared in 1917 to three shepherd children at Fatima in Portugal as the rumblings of war in Europe were growing louder. Mary told the children to pray this for all who would be affected by wars to come. Mary also asked everyone to pray for the conversion of Russia. I’ve said this prayer all my life as I pray the Rosary. It grows in meaning for me more and more each day, especially the phrases “save us from the fires of hell” and “those most in need of your mercy.”
Last week I talked about catechumens learning to put away all anger (forgiving others, loving enemies, etc.) before baptism. Jesus backs this up in today’s Gospel when he says But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. Anger and calling someone a fool serve no good purpose, add to conflicts and wars, which bring about the fires of hell. In the Gospel Jesus also teaches about divorce brought about by anger, resentment, and unwillingness to forgive and keep vows.
So what is hell? We all have our ideas about hell, but what does Jesus mean when he mentions hell? The most popular idea people have about hell is that it is a place where people are condemned by God to be tortured eternally in the afterlife. It’s a place we definitely would never want to go, but sometimes hope that others experience. Another notion, softening it by removing the “flames” of torment, is the thought that hell is being estranged from God, absent from God, for all eternity. The problem with these two notions and others, is that these notions of hell don’t square with a Gospel of a loving and merciful Father who loves all his children even when they go astray. So again, what is Jesus referring to in the Gospel?
The word Jesus uses in the Gospel is Gehenna. This was a valley south of Jerusalem where refuse was burned. It was a fiery, smoldering heap. It was also the same place where children were sacrificed to the god Molech many years before. Everybody in Jesus’ audience would understand this “hell” Jesus is talking about. What Jesus is saying is that if you go around defaming people’s character, calling them fools, bad things will happen to you: you’ll find yourself caught up in constant enmity, violence, and continual warfare. Most important, when we talk “hell,” we’re talking of human violence, never Divine violence.
So let’s summarize. Hell is not a place of torture where God sends mortal sinners are sent to suffer for all eternity. This is completely counter to the Gospel. Instead, hell is a real place (Gehenna) where the fires of violence and war burn and cause pain and suffering to God’s children. God doesn’t make or send to hell, human beings cause their fellow human beings to experience hell. “Save us from the fires of hell” means save us now from the fires we make by our human greed, violence, and never-ending wars. Hell is what we see on the TV and read about in the papers every day.
Following Jesus, Paul talks about God’s intention: tearing down the walls of separation between people, uniting all humanity, perfecting all of us in love, and redeeming us (in our day) from the violence we do to one another. When we have a problem or disagreement with a person, instead of going to the altar to offer a sacrifice to win God’s favor for your side of the argument, go to the brother or sister involved and talk it out face to face. Don’t just call each other names.
Jesus’ Cross symbolizes God’s communion with all victims who suffer violence from others. God never stands with the perpetrators of violence. The hellish violence experienced by real human beings in real places in this world is hell, not some neo-platonic, ethereal place of torment where bad people are dispatched to out of this world.
I don’t know where the popular notions of hell came from. The Church is a mystery of human and divine interaction and the human side is fraught with weakness and at times a desire to condemn others to eternal torment if they don’t match up to expectations placed on them. Thank God we are reading the Gospel and refocusing on Jesus’ teaching and example. Jesus, better than any other, reveals the nature of God as pure love and mercy. The choice is ours: live in rivalry and sacrifice or allow our desires and actions to change. As Deuteronomy puts it:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord you God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live. . . .
Bad news or Good News: the choice is always ours!
Saint Alban Episcopal Mission (English, Anglican Communion) meets for mass every Sunday at 10:00 A.M. (see welcome letter at sidebar) at Casa Convento Concepcion, 4a Calle Oriente No. 41, Antigua, Guatemala.