In another few weeks the Church’s liturgical new year will start with the beginning of Advent. That means it is almost Christmas time. It is time to ponder the existence of hell.
At this upcoming Christmas time those who still watch television can expect to see among other items a few Christmas-themed movies broadcast. One of the perennial favorites is the movie made in 1970 based on the short story “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens.
In that movie, titled “Scrooge”, the miserable old penny-pinching, skin-flint Ebeneezer Scrooge meets the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. The first two spirits set him up to learn a thing or two. They give him a chance to get out of himself and examine his life from a new perspective. The final spirit, the ghost of Christmas future with his grim-reaper like appearance frightens old Ebeneezer, but not too much. A cheery song and dance ensues with the protagonist not quite aware that everyone is dancing at his funeral.
Finally the spirit leads Ebeneezer to his grave and shoves him in. He screams and plummets downward. This is where the story diverges. In the television version, old Scrooge wakens from the nightmare in his bedroom, glad to be alive. Realizing that his life will end at the grave, he vows to do good to his fellow man in the time he has left. Its a nice sentiment, but only a sentiment.
In the original movie however, Ebeneezer thumps at the bottom of the fall into his grave, and wakes up, in hell. He meets his old business partner Marley played superbly by Alec Guinness. Marley is there to greet him and show him his new home. Scrooge will have a special job as the devil’s bookkeeper. Just as Scrooge kept his assistant chained to a desk, so must Scrooge be. As a special favor, the devil has decreed that Scrooge’s new office will be cold, just as Scrooge refused heat to his employees on earth. Marley goes on to explain that in life the sins we commit are like the links in a chain. These links add up and will tie us down in the afterlife. Scrooge’s chain is so big that it took extra devils to forge. In the final dramatic moment the devils come in, played by burly weight-lifter types in executioner masks, and wrap Scrooge up with the chain of sins that he has committed in his earthly life. Scrooge screams in horror, but to no avail. When he finally wakes up in his bedroom, Scrooge is still all wrapped up, but this time it is in his bed sheet.
In this full length version, Scrooge’s conversion makes sense. It is not a vague platitude about “doing good” it is a man’s recoil from a horrible vision of hell.
At this time you may be wondering why we had to go into so much detail about this scene. The detail is necessary because you won’t see it on television. The television moguls are engaged in a bit of censorship.
This is not the only place where hell has been cut out. Some people today talk and act like hell is just a figment of someone’s imagination. They talk like it doesn’t exist or nobody goes there. Many people would like to ignore or explain away the fact that hell exists. They don’t like to think about it. In their view there really is no down-side to sinful behavior.
Our guide for daily living, the Holy Scripture, is very clear on the subject of whether hell exists or not. See Matthew 10:28, 13:41-42,49-50; Mark 9:47-48; Luke 12:5; 1Corinthians 6:9-10. The Catechism is just as clear. It states absolutely that the “...state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’”. (CCC1033). This is why John Paul II has described hell as more than a place, it is a state, or condition.
As far as people like old Ebeneezer who die in a state of mortal sin, “Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell...”(CCC1035) That is why the hell scene fit in perfectly after the grave scene. That’s the way it works. You die in a state of mortal sin, you go to hell. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.00 That ride only goes one way.
Advent and Christmas is a good time to ponder this eternal truth. If there is no hell, what would our Savior save us from? The next time someone starts in with the all-dogs-go-to-heaven routine, just ask them directly if hell actually exists. If they don’t really have an answer, you could show them the above scripture or Catechism passages. If they don’t want to read, get them to watch “Scrooge”; the full-length version that is.
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Published by The Minnesota St. Thomas More Chapter of Catholics United for the Faith, November 2001.