Sunday Night Journal — November 30, 2008
This is something of a follow-up to last week’s journal, and to some of the discussion that followed it. The topic there was the broad one of defiance of God, and the discussion began with the question of when the rejection by a Catholic of some part of the Catholic faith becomes the kind of defiance that leads to a total rejection of God—in other words, to Hell.
I’m thinking this evening of a more specific question: under what conditions is it a sin, and a deadly sin if not repented, to disbelieve in God. The way we look at that question has undergone some changes in recent times. Five hundred years ago the answer would likely have placed much more blame on the unbeliever than we might be inclined to do now; unbelief would have been thought most often an act of the will, a deliberate, conscious, and prideful rejection of the truth.
But the door had always been left open for the possibility that the unbeliever might be so prejudiced and limited by culture or circumstance as to make him incapable of understanding and receiving the faith, and therefore not personally responsible for his rejection of it. The possibility remains that if he could have understood it and seen it as it really was, he would not have rejected it. And the further possibility remains that he may in fact have received as much as he was capable of receiving of God’s truth, and that he may have responded as much as he was capable of responding, and that he might be saved.
Most of us like this idea a lot better, I think. It seems more compatible with God’s love, mercy, and justice. It leaves the door to heaven open to the millions or billions of people who, through no fault of their own, have not heard, or have heard but not understood, the Good News.
But it’s possible to carry that idea too far, to remove all personal responsibility from the decision. One thinks: well, no one who really understands the Good News could refuse it, and therefore anyone who does not receive it has not understood it, and is therefore not culpable for having rejected it. That won’t do, either; if the old harsher view made was too ready to put all the blame on the non, this places him beyond responsibility altogether, and effectively nullifies freedom.
I am certain, however, that there is at least one person for whom disbelief would be a mortal sin: me.
I was struck by this one night a week or two ago when I was feeling rather low. I began to think that the promise of the Christian faith is really too good to be true, and the hope it inspires only an illusion. These thoughts, or more accurately these feelings, come to me from time to time, and usually I don’t give them much attention, knowing that they’ll pass and that my mind is firmly set against the idea of abandoning the faith. This time, though, I had a somewhat different reaction: I was suddenly conscious of these feelings as temptation, an urge to do wrong and a sensation that doing it might be a pleasure. If nothing else, it would be pleasant not to fight, just to allow myself to be swept away by the current. I saw disbelief as a moral act, a deliberate rejection of a gift. It was disconcerting, and even a bit frightening; it was almost like realizing that one has stepped too close to the edge of a cliff.
I don’t think it would be possible for me now to “lose my faith” in the casual sense in which I might say that I had “lost faith” in the President or Congress, meaning that on the basis of some evidence I had lost the trust I had once placed in something or someone. For me to turn away from the Catholic faith now would, I’m quite certain, be a surrender to temptation and a mortal sin. And I think this must be true for many Christians.
I recently heard someone ask, half-seriously, why one should become a Christian, if losing one’s faith later would result in damnation, while not having faith in the first place leaves open the possibility of salvation. It’s a silly question, and I don’t think anyone seriously contemplating the possibility of conversion would ask it. But it has an answer.
The answer is that heaven begins at the moment you believe it can be your destination. Not that your life will suddenly turn blissful, or even more pleasant; it may well become more difficult and painful in some ways. But it will make sense; it will have a meaning, even when you are suffering. It will have a pattern and a purpose that will and make sense of your past and guide you in the future. Even the misfortunes and sins of the past will be taken up into the pattern: the forgiveness of sins removes much of the pain and puts to rest the lingering guilt and uneasiness. The sins themselves remain sins but become a means of understanding, a little more each day, yourself, your relationship to God, and everything else.
Every pain that comes your way in the future likewise becomes something you can use: for your own growth in discipline and love, as an offering to God for your own salvation and the salvation of those you love. Moments of pure joy become possible, when you are freed of the tyranny of time by the knowledge of eternity. You can love the world and the people you are given to love with all your heart even though you know you will lose them, because you have good hope that nothing good is lost forever. Instead of a tale told by an idiot, life becomes a story that makes sense and will sooner or later end well, unless you choose another ending.
I’ll quote C. S. Lewis again:
But what, you ask, of earth? Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.
More succinctly, St. Catherine of Siena:
All the way to Heaven is Heaven.
And the same is no doubt true of the way to Hell. To return to my opening thought, it makes sense that one who has once received the gift of understanding this would sin in rejecting it. He is turning from light toward darkness.