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Hell as definitive rejection of God (Jn 3, 17-19)

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on the History of Salvation
General Audience, Wednesday 28 July 1999 - in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,

1. God is the infinitely good and merciful Father. But man, called to respond to him freely,  can unfortunately choose to reject his love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself for ever from joyful communion with him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or hell.  It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life. The very dimension of unhappiness which this obscure condition brings can in a certain way be sensed in the light of some of the terrible experiences we have suffered which, as is commonly said, make life “hell”.

In a theological sense however, hell is something else: it is the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it. It is the state of those who definitively reject the Father’s mercy, even at the last moment of their life.

2. To describe this reality Sacred Scripture uses a symbolical language which will gradually be explained. In the Old Testament the condition of the dead had not yet been fully disclosed by Revelation. Moreover it was thought that the dead were amassed in Sheol, a land of darkness (cf. Ez 28:8; 31:14; Jb 10:21f.; 38:17; Ps  30:10; 88:7, 13), a pit from which one cannot reascend  (cf. Jb 7:9), a place in which it is impossible to praise God (cf. Is 38:18; Ps 6:6).

The New Testament sheds new light on the condition of the dead, proclaiming above all that Christ by his Resurrection conquered death and extended his liberating power to the kingdom of the dead.

Redemption nevertheless remains an offer of salvation which it is up to people to accept freely. This is why they will all be judged “by what they [have done]” (Rv 20:13). By using images, the New Testament presents the place destined for evildoers as a fiery furnace, where people will “weep and gnash their teeth” (Mt 13:42; cf. 25:30, 41), or like Gehenna with its “unquenchable fire”  (Mk 9:43). All this is narrated in the parable of the rich man, which explains that hell is a place of eternal suffering, with no possibility of return, nor of the alleviation of pain (cf. Lk 16:19-31).

The Book of Revelation also figuratively portrays in a “pool of fire” those who exclude themselves from the book of life, thus meeting with a “second death” (Rv 20:13f.). Whoever continues to be closed to the Gospel is therefore preparing for “eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thes 1:9).

3. The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God. Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy. This is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the truths of faith on this subject: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’” (n. 1033).

“Eternal damnation”, therefore, is not attributed to God's initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created. In  reality, it is the creature who closes himself to his love. Damnation consists precisely in definitive separation from God, freely chosen by the human person and confirmed with death that seals his choice for ever. God’s judgement ratifies this state.

4. Christian faith teaches that in taking the risk of saying “yes” or “no”, which marks the human creature’s freedom, some have already said no. They are the spiritual creatures that rebelled against God’s love and are called demons (cf. Fourth Lateran Council, DS 800-801). What happened to them is a warning to us: it is a continuous call to avoid the tragedy which leads to sin and to conform our life to that of Jesus who lived his life with a “yes” to God.

Damnation remains a real possibility, but it is not granted to us, without special divine revelation, to know which human beings are effectively involved in it. The thought of hell — and even less the improper use of biblical images — must not create anxiety or despair, but is a necessary and healthy reminder of freedom within the proclamation that the risen Jesus has conquered Satan, giving us the Spirit of God who makes us cry “Abba, Father!” (Rm 8:15; Gal 4:6).

This prospect, rich in hope, prevails in Christian proclamation.  It is effectively reflected in the liturgical tradition of the Church, as the words of the Roman Canon attest: “Father, accept this offering from your whole family ... save us from final damnation, and count us among those you have chosen”."

After the Catechesis, Papa Giovanni Paolo II greeted the pilgrims in various languages:

Je salue cordialement tous les pèlerins francophones présents à cette audience. Que le Christ vous donne sa paix et sa joie ! À tous, j’accorde de grand cœur la Bénédiction apostolique.

I am pleased to greet the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s audience, especially those from England, Scotland, Nigeria, Hong Kong and the United States of America. I wish you a pleasant visit to Christian Rome and I invoke upon you the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sehr herzlich grüße ich alle deutschsprachigen Pilger und Besucher. Gern erteile ich Euch und Euren Lieben daheim sowie allen, die über Radio Vatikan und das Fernsehen mit uns verbunden sind, den Apostolischen Segen.

Saludo con afecto a los peregrinos de lengua española. En especial a los dos grupos de formadores de seminarios que participan en cursos de actualización en Roma, así como a los fieles venidos desde España, México, Chile, Colombia y demás Países de América latina. Muchas gracias por vuestra presencia y atención.

Saúdo os peregrinos de língua portuguesa aqui presentes, com votos de paz e de prosperidade na graça de Deus-Pai. De modo especial, saúdo os visitantes provindos do Brasil e os grupos anunciados de Portugal da Paróquia de Azambuja e de Ermesinde e das viúvas do Movimento «Esperança e Vida» de Leiria. Penhor daquela juventude de alma e coração que brota do Espírito Santo em acção na Igreja e no mundo, seja para vós e vossos familiares a minha Bênção Apostólica.

Witam pielgrzymów z Polski! W szczególności pozdrawiam bpa Wojciecha Ziembę - diecezja ełcka i bpa Edwarda Samsela, jego wspólpracownika, wraz z delegacją diecezji. Pragnę wam podziękować bardzo za przyjęcie, jakie zgotowaliście mi w Ełku i na Wigrach. Pozdrawiam również: z Krakowa - współpracowników Duszpasterstwa Rodzin; z Drohiczyna, Rzeszowa i Lublina - oazy III stopnia; z Częstochowy - Katolickie Radio « Flat »; siostry urszulanki szare i elżbietanki uczestniczące w kursie odnowy duchowej; ponadto: grupy parafialne z Aleksandrowa, Buska-Zdroju, Gliwic, Ostrowa Wielkopolskiego, Piotrkowa Kujawskiego, Rokietnicy i Lublina - Katolickie Centrum Kultury; grupy młodzieżowe ze Szczecina, Torunia, województwa podlaskiego, ministrantów z Misji Polskiej w Fuldzie oraz Regionalny Zespół Pieśni i Tańca « Sądeczoki » z Nowego Sącza.

Bardzo wam dziękuję za tę rewizytę, w szczególności pielgrzymom z Sącza i Drohiczyna, także z Ełku, z Wigier. Żeby krótko streścić dzisiejszą katechezę, nawiążę do słów poety: « Ty bez nas samych nie możesz nas zbawić ». Otóż jeżeli to jest prawda o wiecznym zbawieniu, to tym bardziej jest to prawda o wiecznym odrzuceniu. Bóg nikogo nie potępia, nie chce potçpić. Chce, ażeby wszyscy doszli do poznania prawdy i do zbawienia. Jeżeli wbrew tej zbawczej i odwiecznej woli Boga człowiek jednak odrzuca Jego miłość, Jego zaproszenie do uczestnictwa w życiu Bożym, to w końcu on sam decyduje o swojej wieczności bez Boga, poza Bogiem. « Ty bez nas samych nie mogłeś nas zbawić i bez nas samych nie możesz nas potępić ». Módlmy się bardzo o to, ażeby ta wola człowieka, który odrzuca zbawczą wolę Boga, nie ucieleśniała się w nikim i nigdzie. Módlmy się o zbawienie wszystkich ludzi, o wieczne zbawienie dla każdego człowieka. To krótkie streszczenie dzisiejszej katechezy.

Bóg zapłać raz jeszcze za wasze odwiedziny.

Traduzione italiana del saluto in lingua neerlandese

Adesso vorrei salutare i pellegrini belgi e neerlandesi.

Voi vi trovate in una città nella quale gli Apostoli Pietro e Paolo hanno proclamato la fede e nella quale numerosi santi hanno vissuto e pregato. Auguro che ognuno di voi sperimenti la ricchezza della grazia di Dio, affinché possiate testimoniare il suo amore nel vostro Paese.

Di cuore imparto la Benedizione Apostolica.

Sia lodato Gesù Cristo!

Traduzione italiana del saluto in lingua ceca

Un cordiale benvenuto agli Amici del Movimento Salesiano di Don Bosco!

Auguro a voi tutti che le ferie estive giovino non solo alla salute del corpo, ma anche a quella dell’anima. Con questi voti volentieri vi benedico.

Sia lodato Gesù Cristo!

Traduzione italiana del saluto in lingua ungherese

Ora saluto i pellegrini provenienti dall’Ungheria.

Auguro che questa visita alla tomba di San Pietro approfondisca la vostra fede ed arricchisca le vostre comunità parrocchiali. Di cuore vi imparto la Benedizione Apostolica.

Sia lodato Gesù Cristo!

Traduzione italiana del saluto in lingua lituana

Sono molto lieto di salutare il gruppo dei pellegrini giunti dalla Lituania.

Cari fratelli e sorelle, auspico che il vostro pellegrinaggio vi infonda la forza e il coraggio di fare tutto il possibile per essere saldi nell’abbracciare gli ideali cristiani e rimanere sempre fedeli alla Chiesa, rispondendo ai suoi richiami alla pace, all’unità e all’amore fraterno.

Dio benedica voi, i vostri cari e tutta la Lituania.

Sia lodato Gesù Cristo!

* * *

Maiore nunc quodam studio animique affectu gratulamur discipulis omnium gentium qui cursui decimo quinto litterarum Latinarum "Aestiva Romae Latinitas" appellato adhuc interfuerunt in Urbe, ubi gaudente Matre Ecclesia tot thesauri fidei et culturae sermone Latino foventur. Vehementer omnes cohortamur ut discendo diligenter efficaciter docendo intellectum, amorem, usum eiusdem immortalis linguae sua quisque in Natione tamquam lampadem tradant.

* * *

Mi rivolgo ora con viva cordialità ai pellegrini di lingua italiana. In particolare, saluto i partecipanti al Corso di aggiornamento promosso dal Centro Interdisciplinare di formazione permanente della Pontificia Università Lateranense, ed i dirigenti dei Consigli diocesani che prendono parte al Congresso Nazionale del Movimento di Impegno Educativo di Azione Cattolica. Carissimi, vi ringrazio per la vostra presenza, ed auguro che i vostri incontri vi siano di stimolo per impegnarvi con rinnovato slancio educativo e missionario nell'opera della nuova evangelizzazione.

Uno speciale pensiero indirizzo ai due gruppi di Religiose, che stanno svolgendo il Capitolo Generale dei rispettivi Istituti: le Suore Sacramentine di Bergamo e le Francescane Missionarie del Cuore Immacolato di Maria. Carissime Sorelle, sono lieto di incontrarvi e di invocare l'abbondanza dei doni dello Spirito Santo sui lavori capitolari di questi giorni, affinché essi suscitino nelle vostre Famiglie religiose un rinnovato fervore spirituale ed apostolico, per vivere fedelmente anche oggi il carisma da Dio affidato alle vostre Fondatrici: la Beata Geltrude Comensoli e la Beata Maria Caterina Troiani.

Saluto, ora, i fedeli della Parrocchia Santa Cristina Vergine e Martire di Sepino, venuti per commemorare il nono centenario dell'arrivo delle reliquie della loro celeste Patrona da Bolsena a Sepino, come pure gli organizzatori ed i partecipanti all'edizione del "Festival della Collina" di Cori. Su ciascuno invoco la continua protezione di Dio e della Vergine Santissima.

Come di consueto, saluto, infine, i giovani, i malati e gli sposi novelli.

Ricorre domani la memoria liturgica di Santa Marta, che il Vangelo ricorda per l'amorevole ospitalità offerta a Gesù nella sua casa di Betania.

L'esempio di questa santa donna laboriosa e solerte aiuti voi, cari giovani, a seguire generosamente Cristo come testimoni del suo amore aperto a tutti; sostenga voi, cari malati, a cercare Gesù nel momento della tribolazione e guidi voi, cari sposi novelli, a fare della vostra casa un luogo di calda accoglienza verso il prossimo.

A tutti la mia Benedizione.

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