Everyone goes to heaven, right?
KARL KEATING writes that many people mistakenly believe they are heaven-bound . . .
Is that so? Haven’t you been reading the headlines? Many people behave as though they’re basically evil, including many who never make the news.
Is the abortionist a good fellow? What about those who seem to build their lives around a particular sin? Have they given their hearts to Christ — or to their passions?
True, God created everything good, including every person. But we have free will, which we can use or abuse. We all abuse it at times, and we call such abuse sin. Some people will continue in sin until the end, at which time they will take the down escalator. Others will repent of their sins and die in the state of grace; they will take the up escalator. How many will be on each escalator? We simply don’t know. Scripture doesn’t tell us the proportion outright, but there are unpleasant suggestions: “How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life” (Mt 7:14); “many are invited, but few are chosen” (Mt 22:14).
When asked whether only a few will be saved, Jesus replied, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” (Lk 13:24). Indeed, in the New Testament hell is mentioned about 30 times. Our Lord refers to “eternal fire” (Mt 18:8) and “fiery Gehenna” (Mt 18:9). Paul wraps it up by saying that when the Lord returns, he will inflict with “blazing fire those who do not acknowledge God” (2 Thes 1:8-9).
The idea that most people will go to heaven arises, perhaps, when people lack a sense of the seriousness of sin — and when they concentrate on God’s mercy to the exclusion of his justice. More than that, the idea is that he will save even those who don’t want to be saved. He won’t force his mercy or his salvation on anyone.
Salvation is a free gift, which, as with any gift, can be declined. We have no good reason to think that there will be only a few decliners. It isn’t so much a matter of God consigning anyone to hell as of the unrepentant sinner consigning himself there. The damned choose to go to hell by choosing self over God. They remain there, impenitent, unable to repent because they have grown absolute in their hatred of God.
This is all a consequence of the most frightening and glorious of our attributes: free will. God allows us to choose him or to choose ourselves. He gives us free rein to decide where we’ll go. He gives each of us enough grace to gain heaven. Only those who reject the grace go elsewhere.
KARL KEATING is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith.”
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. 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, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1035, 1037