God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us (Sermo 169)
In that way salvation is like a marriage. God isn't a spiritual rapist, intent on forcing every one of His creatures into eternal union with Himself, rather He proposes, He offers, an eternal relationship and allows us the free choice to say "yes" or "no." Saying "no" has some logical consequences attached to it (see: Could God Have Made Hell a Nicer Place for more on that) as does saying "yes." These logical consequences make those without God (those who say "no") end up in "hell" and those with God (those who say "yes") end up in "heaven." Thus, just like marriage, it takes two "yeses" for someone to be saved - God's and their own. God, for His part, both wills all men to be saved (cf. 1 Tim 2:4) and provides the grace needed for each man to say "yes" to God. All that then separates the saved and the damned is the willingness of each individual person to say "yes" back to God. Or as CS Lewis puts it in The Great Divorce,
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.
St. Catherine of Siena, the great mystic and Doctor of the Church, in her famous Dialogue (which was nothing less than a transcription of a conversation she had with the Father) received the same message on salvation from the lips of God
How great is the stupidity of those who make themselves weak in spite of my strengthening, and put themselves into the devil's hands! I want you to know, then, that at the moment of death, because they have put themselves during life under the devil's rule (not by force, because they cannot be forced, as I told you; but they put themselves voluntarily into his hands), and because they come to the point of death under this perverse rule, they can expect no other judgement but that of their own conscience. They come without hope to eternal damnation. In hate they grasp at hell in the moment of their death, and even before they possess it, they take hell as their prize along with their lords the demons.Indeed it is our disposition toward Christ that even affects the way we see Him at the Last Judgement (for He looks on all of us the same) but the blessed,
wait for divine judgement with gladness, not fear. And the face of my Son will appear to them neither terrifying nor hateful... The differences in the appearance of his face... will not be in him but in those who are to be judged by him. To the damned he will appear with just hatred, but to the saved with mercy and love.
St. Catherine explains this thus,
So no one waits to be judged. All receive their appointed place as they leave this life. They taste it and possess it even before they leave their bodies at the moment of death: the damned in hate and despair; the perfect in love, with the light of faith trusting in the blood. And the imperfect in mercy and with the same faith, come to that place called purgatory.Thus it is the love of God that allows his beloved sons and daughters to turn their backs on Him forever. This love is powerful enough that He finally respects our choice, the choice we make not just with our lips but with our lives (cf. Matt 7:22). The great Dante, recognizing this truth, bold inscribes on the gates of hell,
Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into the eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric mov'd:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.
Before me things create were none,
Save things Eternal, and I eternal endure.
All hope abandon ye who enter here. (Inferno, Canto III)
Such it is that some choose hell.
To put this in practical terms, I had the occasion of asking an atheist recently whether he would even want to be with Jesus for all eternity. Not whether he thought it possible, not even if he thought a person could survive death, but simply if he'd want it. He might think it as likely to come true as wanting to be Superman is, but still the question remained - would you even want it if it were possible? To those that answer "no," they can see immediately why existence apart from God, "hell," is possible.
Perhaps, though we might wonder, wouldn't the damnation of even one person ruin the joys of heaven for all, including God? C.S. Lewis shows us that such thinking amounts to no more than,
the demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven. (The Great Divorce)Which itself would be loveless and unfair (the very things people accuse the doctrine of hell of). Hatred doesn't have the last say. Love does.
Which means every man has the same choice presented to him - know God or no God. The one is the narrow path that leads to eternal bliss. The other the wide road to perdition (cf Matt 7:13-14). For those whose lives are centered on Christ, death just means more Christ. For those who live Christless lives, they receive an eternity of just that - Christlessness. This Advent I implore you to take stock of your life and ask yourself what choice is the way you're living making? Remember, it isn't enough to pay lip service to living God, just as it isn't enough to say "I love you" to your wife and then cheat on her. Talk is cheap. Those who love Jesus will show it by the way they live their lives (cf. Jn 14:13), which means more than going along with the prevailing culture (cf. Rom 12:2). So take this season, where we are called to reflect upon the coming of Christ not just at Christmas, but at the end of time, and decide to live a life of holiness. Don't wait for next year or when the kids are older or when you get that promotion or graduate from school or retire. Start today.
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