This topic is even scarier than yesterday’s, but again, it does us no good to try to deny it. Better to learn the hard truth now, when we can do something about it, than when it’s too late, and we can’t.
In reading over my last post, I realized that some could get the impression that since Christ atoned for our sins, our salvation is thereby automatically assured, though we might have to be taught a few painful lessons in the meantime. That sounds too much like the erroneous “once saved, always saved” idea put forth by some Christians. But Scripture makes it clear that we have to endure to the end if we are to be saved—enduring in faith, hope, and love, in obedience to the will of God, which alone is the way to salvation. It’s true that we ought to have confidence in God’s mercy, but confidence is not the same as presumption.
So let’s look briefly at what happens when God’s therapeutic punishments go unheeded, when we don’t learn our lessons, persevering in sin and refusing to repent. God will do everything He can to bring us to salvation. He already cleared out the biggest obstacle—our absolute banishment from Paradise due to sins for which we are essentially and radically unable to atone—by sending his Son as a sacrifice for our sins, reopening Paradise to all who would believe and follow Him. But during the span of our earthly lives that work of believing and following has to be accomplished. Part of that work, as I wrote yesterday, involves the divine discipline or temporal punishments that open our eyes and help us to know and do God’s will, that we may change whatever needs to be changed—with the help of grace—so that we may be found fit for the Kingdom when Jesus returns in glory to judge the living and the dead.
But what about that atonement for every sin? How can we lose our souls if all our sins are already atoned for? Since Christ’s sacrifice was not some mechanical act that produces a pre-determined or universally-guaranteed result, we have to choose to accept his sacrifice, allow it to mark our lives, that is, to personally appropriate his gift, for He wishes to grant it personally to each of us. If we do not say “yes” to the atonement of our sins, then that atonement will not apply to us personally, even though it is objectively available to the whole world.
Therefore I suggest the following (you may not find this explanation in the Catechism, so just think about it and discern for yourself). The question is often raised why the damned have to be punished eternally, when, say, a few billion years of torment ought to suffice. Well, look at it this way. Those who die in a state of unrepented mortal sin have willfully cut themselves off from God, have spurned his repeated offers of mercy and hence of salvation, and have therefore rejected the atonement of their sins that Christ accomplished on the Cross. I said yesterday that man is utterly incapable of atoning for sin; only the God-Man could do it. So the punishment of the damned may perhaps be understood like this: since they have rejected Christ’s atonement for their sins, they now have to do it themselves, as it were. Hell is being forever burdened with your own sins, knowing—all too late—that Christ was willing to take them all away and receive you into
That’s also why eternal punishment has such a different character than temporal punishment. God’s punishments in our lives are actually graces, helps, instructions, and purifications, but none of that applies in Hell. Hells punishments are just that—punitive; they cannot be remedial or therapeutic. That time is past. The definitive rejection has been made toward God (God doesn’t reject us; He just accepts the consequences of our freedom, even if we use it to permanently reject Him). Now all that remains is the impossible task of suffering for one’s sins, which will never result in atonement.
So let us soberly examine our lives. It’s not sufficient that we once make a profession of faith and then live in sin, blithely talking of God’s mercy but ignoring the better part of Scripture. “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked,” says the Apostle. “Whatever you sow, that you will also reap” (Galatians 6:7). He goes on to say that only by sowing according to the Holy Spirit will we reap eternal life.
Let us also be willing to accept divine punishments now, so we don’t have to endure them forever. Life is not to be taken lightly or carelessly, even though we are called to live in joy and gratitude. Christians are happy and thankful that they’ve been warned beforehand! We are then to bring the Good News of salvation to others, so that they do not waste and destroy their lives and have to hear the Bad News of damnation. The choice is ours; God has done and is doing his part. God does not desire the death of a sinner, but that he repent and live—so say “yes,” repent, endure to the end, and be saved!