Heaven and Hell

1. I'm a bit confused about your idea of universal salvation. If everyone goes to heaven, regardless of how much they sin, why are there commandments? If our sin is forgiven, whether or not we ask for it, why does it matter if we live a life which follows God's will for us or a life of sin?

2. I accept that heaven is not merited, but is a gift of God. Is it possible to reject God's gift of eternal life with God? And if not, does that not defeat the purpose of free will?

3. Can I expect to get into Heaven if I have not attended Mass in some time and have therefore broken one of the sacred commandments?

4. I have heard so much about your stance on heaven/hell and the theology of it, I was hoping you could clarify for me what your teachings/interpretations are because what I have heard is that your belief is that everyone is saved, I was wondering what this means?

5. What do you suppose heaven feels like; a continual full-bodied orgasm for the rest of eternity?

6. Who goes to heaven, and do you have to be baptized to get there?

7. Assuming God forgives everybody, is there a place for hell?

8. What about Purgatory?

9. Regarding universal salvation. Can someone still be saved who actively rejects salvation?

10. I just finished talking to two Fundamentalist friends. In discussing universal salvation, they stick to John 3:16 as their proof of the necessity to accept Jesus to enter heaven. How can I respond?

11. The biblical passages you quote in discussing Universal Salvation do not say that there is no hell. Are there any such passages? And how do I know that the passages are not quoted out of context?

12. What about passages in the Bible, like Mt. 7:21-23, that say not everyone will enter into the kingdom?

13. If everyone goes to heaven, why should I live a moral life?

14. Other priests I know, as well as the Pope, do not believe in Universal Salvation. Isn't it the role of a priest to teach the beliefs of the Church?

15. You speak about how Jesus came to establish his reign on earth. I always thought he was coming back to take home his believers to Heaven. Isn’t the idea of Universal Salvation, therefore, more appealing to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc?

16. Is there any place in the Bible that talks about Universal Salvation?

17. In a response about chemical weapons, you suggest that one of the moral objections is that they are disproportionate. If that is true, then why not also be opposed to a god who allegedly inflicts disproportionate punishment. The example I allude to is that humans are finite and therefore any "sin" they commit can only have finite consequences. Yet mainstream Christianity teaches that the potential punishment for at least some people is eternal or infinite. How can this be reconciled with the moral principle you state in the question about chemical weapons?

18. I have been troubled about the possibility of hell for a long time, and I have found comfort and support in the theology your present on your website. I am close to some young priests in Detroit who are absolutely opposed to what you preach. I am wondering if you have come under fire from your colleagues or your own archbishop because of this theology?

19. I have spent many hours reading pretty much everything I could about universal salvation. I see that it is a very, very old theory, probably dating back to the early Church. However, it seems that everything I've read indicates that while it is true all of us will eventually be reunited with God in heaven, it may be a very long time--not in chronological terms as we think of it on earth. And it will be a very painful period before that reunion, due to purgatory. It appears that most, if not all of the most vocal and visible proponents of universal salvation, including some of the earliest voices such as St. Isaac of Nineveh, believed that we need to be purified before entering heaven, which makes sense. However, St. Isaac indicated that he believed the process of purification would be "terrible...and most unbearable." He referred to purgatory as "Gehenna." I assume that it is most unbearable for those who just live an immoral life with no regard for God's teaching.

Is it possible though, that, while we all need to be purified to be with God, a woman like my mother, who goes to mass multiple times per week, gives a ton to charity, prays nonstop and has always lived a chaste, holy life will be able to bypass the "unbearable pain of Gehenna" when her times comes, which I fear may be in the near future? Is there a chance in your eyes that someone like her could go straight to heaven?

Sidenote: I hate standing at a viewing in a funeral home and telling bereaving people "well...they are at peace now..they are with God," knowing all the while in my mind I don't really believe that to be true. I mean, they will be at peace at some point, but at the time I say that to people I don't believe the departed is really with God yet. I think we are just mollifying people to bring them peace, but it's probably not accurate. Thoughts?

20. I have a quick question as it relates to universal salvation. As you know I have come to believe in this through you--though readings like today cause me to question and wonder if I've totally bought in on Universal Salvation. The gospel today according to Luke talks about the rich man who ignored Lazarus outside his gates. Time comes they both die and Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man ostensibly to hell (Jesus calls it "the netherworld.") Do you think this story was merely apocryphal or is it possible the place of torment the rich man was in was purgatory? You have never denied the possibility of purgatory.

Q 1: I'm a bit confused about your idea of universal salvation. If everyone goes to heaven, regardless of how much they sin, why are there commandments? If our sin is forgiven, whether or not we ask for it, why does it matter if we live a life which follows God's will for us or a life of sin?

A 1: The purpose of commandments is not to provide a way into heaven. Usually when people speak of commandments, they are referring to the Decalogue (also known as the Ten Commandments) in the Book of Exodus. These are only part of the Law given to Moses. The Israelites at the time of Moses did not believe in a resurrection from the dead or an afterlife, so quite clearly the commandments were not a blue print for the heaven-bound. Although Jesus did believe in the resurrection, the commandments he calls us to live also are not for the purpose of getting into heaven. Commandments have a much deeper purpose--They enable the power of God to break through into our lives and into our world.

Frequently Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God. This kingdom is a present-day reality. Jesus came to establish the kingdom on earth. Not in the context of a government or territory or earthly power. The kingdom is internal. It identifies how people respond to the presence of God within them. Commandments do two things: negative commandments set boundaries to prevent us from moving outside the kingdom; positive commandments set challenges to draw us further into the kingdom. From a Christian perspective, people can only live a full life, empowered by the Spirit, if they choose to live God's call.

While it remains true that everyone goes to heaven, and God forgives our sin even if we do not ask for forgiveness, we must understand that the Christian life is not about heaven--it is about earth. Recall the words of the Lord's Prayer (Our Father): "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Certainly we begin to experience the joy of heaven while still on earth to the extent that we live God's will.

Q 2: I accept that heaven is not merited, but is a gift of God. Is it possible to reject God's gift of eternal life with God? And if not, does that not defeat the purpose of free will?

A 2: Free will only has application when there is a possibility of change. Here on earth, free will is a critical element in decision-making. We can accept or reject God as part of our earthly existence. In the same way that heaven is not merited, it is not chosen and cannot be rejected. It is God's response to our being created in the first place. Since heaven is not a matter of choice, and only becomes an issue after life on earth is over, the concept of universal salvation does not violate free will.

Q 3: Can I expect to get into Heaven if I have not attended Mass in some time and have therefore broken one of the sacred commandments?

A 3: I think we have to distinguish between sacred commandments and church law. Attending Mass is an important part of our lives as Catholic Christians--both in terms of worshipping God and belonging to a community. While I do not want to trivialize belonging to the community and following the rules of the church, I think we need to acknowledge that missing Mass is not the worst thing one can do. Even considering what those worst things might be, there is a strong theological position that everyone goes to heaven, period. I would suggest you read some of the material in the faith section of my web site.

Q 4: I have heard so much about your stance on heaven/hell and the theology of it, I was hoping you could clarify for me what your teachings/interpretations are because what I have heard is that your belief is that everyone is saved, I was wondering what this means?

A 4: God is identified by many attributes, some of which are described in the Scriptures, and some of which are derived from philosophy. The importance of the Scriptural attributes is that they are inspired revelation. One of those attributes is that God is all-merciful. Clearly, Jesus reveals a God who is always forgiving. That concept of God can be found in the Old Testament as well. It is also clear from the Scriptures that we do not earn our way into heaven, or in other words, that we do not merit salvation. It is God's free gift. As a gift, it is God's choice to whom to offer it. It is not the just reward or wages for our actions.

It certainly seems that a God who does not save everyone would be a capricious God, and not worthy of our praise. On the other hand, a God who finds goodness in everyone and who loves everyone, so much that all are saved is a God truly worthy of praise. In any case, it appears from the teaching, example, and parables of Jesus, that God forgives everyone, even those who do not seek his mercy.

This is a complex question involving many aspects of faith. I would suggest for starters that you check out the "Faith Discussion" page on my web site, specifically the article "Is Hell For Real."

Q 5: What do you suppose heaven feels like; a continual full-bodied orgasm for the rest of eternity?

A 5: No, I do not think that heaven is a full-bodied orgasm for the rest of eternity, though I must admit that your idea is an interesting prospect! One of the problems we have with trying to picture heaven is that we are limited to earthly experiences. Yet heaven is para-terrestrial, if you will. It is beyond time and space and cannot be adequately reflected in our earthly experiences. Still, I think that what we enjoy on earth might prove a starting for point for imagining what heaven would be like. Since we are beings who do not actually die, but pass through the portal of death into the fullness of life, it seems that heaven should have some connection with what our earthly existence is like. So keep trying to imagine.

Q 6: Who goes to heaven, and do you have to be baptized to get there?

A 6: There is more than one way to approach this. Let's begin with what is the official position of the Catholic Church. All good people go to heaven. The teaching of the Second Vatican Council is clear that people of good will who seek to live the way they believe God wants them to live, will enter into heaven. The official position of the church leaves open the possibility that some people may not enter heaven, but not because they did not know about Jesus or were never baptized.

There is a growing position among theologians that everyone goes to heaven--a theological concept known as "universal salvation." This is my own belief and it under girds much of my preaching and ministry. Heaven is a free gift of God that is not determined by our activities. That includes whether or not we are baptized and whether or not we sin. Knowing Christ is not a pre-requisite for going to heaven. However, knowing Jesus and choosing to be his follower is key to sharing in the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus came to establish God's reign now, here on earth. Not in the sense of a theocracy (a government controlled by religious law), but in the sense of a world in which God's presence and power break into human existence. We are called to continue the work of building that kingdom. For that, we need to know Jesus, but not for going to heaven.

Q 7: Assuming God forgives everybody, is there a place for hell?

A 7: Both heaven and hell are more properly conceived of in terms of relationship, not place. Being in heaven is being in relationship--in the presence of God, and being in hell is being out of relationship--out of the presence of God. From that perspective heaven and hell are very real experiences here on this earth. Most of us move in and out of one or the other all the time. The beauty of God's forgiveness is that God never leaves us in hell, but continually calls us out and re-establishes us in relationship with him. While some still choose to believe in an eternal hell, I believe that is more conceptual than real, and in my theology it is not helpful.

Q 8: What about Purgatory?

A 8: Purgatory on the other hand, is the act of purification by which we are made ready for the glory of the eternal kingdom. The basic idea of purgatory makes sense. Let's return to the analogy of relationship. In our lives, when we have had a fight with someone, even after the apologies have been offered, we need to work to restore the relationship. The damage has taken its toll, and left a remnant of pain or hurt. So too, in our relationship with God. At the end of our lives, there is need for healing the effects of sin. It probably was a theological mistake to imagine purgatory as a place. But remember that the theological concept was born at a time when both heaven and hell were considered places. Modern theological thought tends to view the death experience itself as purgatory. No matter how we die, death is a violent disruption of everything we know. We may believe that there is a God and a heaven, but our empirical knowledge, along with all that we have been comes to an end with death. That transition can be seen as purgatory.

Q 9: Regarding universal salvation. Can someone still be saved who actively rejects salvation?

A 9: To answer this, we must first look at what sin is. At its very core, sin is the rejection of God's judgment that we are good. By contrast, salvation is God's re-affirmation of that initial judgment. Salvation lies with God, not with us. For this reason, we do not "earn" salvation. It is God's free gift. In fact, the real power of God's salvation is demonstrated in the one who rejects the gift, choosing instead to consider him or herself to be no good. Salvation means that God looks at that person and refuses to see evil. God looks at us and sees only the good originally created in us. God judges us to be good in spite of ourselves. That is salvation.

Q 10: I just finished talking to two Fundamentalist friends. In discussing universal salvation, they stick to John 3:16 as their proof of the necessity to accept Jesus to enter heaven. How can I respond?

A 10: There are a couple of points to make. First of all, anyone can quote the Scriptures out of context and pretty much make them say anything. Every passage of every book must be read in the context of the whole book. And every book must be read in the context of the whole Bible.

To understand the passage quoted, one must first begin with an understanding of the "kingdom" or "reign" of God. The kingdom of God is a present or earthly reality. Frequently the synoptic Gospels have Jesus saying that the "the kingdom of God is near" or "the kingdom of God is among you." On the other hand, John only uses the terminology "kingdom of God" twice--in the beginning of the 3rd chapter.

This earthly dimension of the kingdom does not mean that the kingdom can be identified with any particular place or political structure. What it does mean is that Jesus came to establish God's kingdom now, here on earth. Admittedly, it will only be completed in the fullness of time, but it has been inaugurated now. People who do not believe in Jesus are, by their own decision, omitted from that earthly kingdom. But that kingdom cannot be equated with heaven. While here on earth, some people do not share in the kingdom that is the fruit of faith for believers. That is a long way from suggesting that people will not be saved in the resurrection.

In contrast with the other Gospel writers, John speaks of the kingdom only twice--in the beginning of the 3rd chapter. John prefers to use the term "eternal life" to mean the same thing as the word "kingdom" in the other gospels. When John is speaking about eternal life, then, he is speaking about a present reality that will be fulfilled only in the resurrection. But it has begun now. The same issue is at play in John's gospel as in the others. Those who do not believe in Jesus do not enter into this present reality. Once again, that is a far cry from suggesting that they do not share in the eternal life of the resurrection.

One final note. You will not be able to convince your fundamentalist friends of this. The concept of a literalist interpretation of the Scriptures precludes understanding any passage or book in context of the whole. On top of that, a literalist interpretation of the Scriptures does not allow for modern biblical scholarship that applies the principles of literary criticism to the Bible.

Q 11: The biblical passages you quote in discussing Universal Salvation do not say that there is no hell. Are there any such passages? And how do I know that the passages are not quoted out of context?

A 11: You will not find a passage in the Bible that says that there is no hell. The cosmology of biblical times would not have permitted such a concept. We must remember that it was also an evolving cosmology.

Most of the Bible was written during a long period of time when the ancient Israelites did not believe in or had no real concept of the resurrection. When the idea of life after death did emerge, hell became a useful image for separating good from bad and a tool for encouraging faith. As for whether the passages are taken out of context, I invite you to look up the passage and see what the broader context and understanding is.

Q 12: What about passages in the Bible, like Mt. 7:21-23, that say not everyone will enter into the kingdom?

A 12: To quote one of my earlier responses, "I would suggest that part of the answer lies in the meaning of "kingdom." The kingdom of God is a present or earthly reality. Frequently the Gospels have Jesus saying that the "the kingdom of God is near" or "the kingdom of God is among you." This does not mean that the kingdom can be identified with any particular place or political structure. What it does mean is that Jesus came to establish God's kingdom now, here on earth. Admittedly, it will only be completed in the fullness of time, but it has been inaugurated now. People who do not believe in Jesus are, by their own decision, omitted from that kingdom. But that kingdom cannot be equated with heaven. While here on earth, some people do not share in the kingdom that is the fruit of faith for believers. That is a long way, however, from suggesting that people will not be saved in the resurrection."

Q 13: If everyone goes to heaven, why should I live a moral life?

A 13: As I have suggested in answer to other questions, heaven is not a reward or payment for a good life. It is, on the contrary, God's gift--the same God who “makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust”(Mt 5:45). Perhaps more important, though, is the idea that our choosing to do good is in direct response to what we believe God has already done for us. It is precisely because God has loved us, and redeemed us in Jesus that we have love for one another. It is because God has forgiven us that we forgive one another. Only those who do not believe that God has forgiven us, or have not experiences God’s forgiveness in their own live, can possibly refuse to forgive others.

If we choose evil God will still love and forgive us, for that is what it means to be God. But choosing to rejoice and do good is the only valid response for one who believes that God has already done good for us.

Q 14: Other priests I know, as well as the Pope, do not believe in Universal Salvation. Isn't it the role of a priest to teach the beliefs of the Church?

A 14: While it is true that many Catholic priests may not believe in Universal Salvation, there is nothing in the teaching of the Catholic Church to oppose that idea. In fact, as you may have read elsewhere on my website, the idea of Universal Salvation is as old as the Church itself. It is a belief that was taught by several of the early Church Fathers, and for at least a time, it was the dominant teaching in the area of salvation. Note that the official teaching of the Catholic Church has never required us to believe that anyone is in hell.

My teaching Universal Salvation, therefore, is not going against anything that the Church requires us to believe as Catholics. Perhaps one day some of those priests who do not now agree with me, will--at least when they get to heaven!

Q 15: You speak about how Jesus came to establish his reign on earth. I always thought he was coming back to take home his believers to Heaven. Isn’t the idea of Universal Salvation, therefore, more appealing to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc?

A 15: I think that one of the most significant errors in the Christian Faith is not understanding the notion of the Kingdom that Jesus preached. In following the lead of Jesus, my emphasis has been on the kingdom that Jesus came to establish here on earth. Almost every reference in the four Gospels has to do with an earthly reality. That is not to be confused with a national or political or territorial designation. It has to do with God's power breaking into our lives through the person of Jesus. This is what gives significance to the Church. In a post-New Testament period, the period in which we live, the Church might be considered the kingdom on earth. Those who refuse Jesus, or never even know of him, are excluded from formal membership in the Church in the here and now. However, that is distinct from the fullness of the Kingdom in what we call heaven. The return of Jesus that you refer to is something we await as the time when God ushers in the fulfillment of the kingdom. Universal salvation as such has meaning for all people, Christians and non-Christians alike.

Q 16: Is there any place in the Bible that talks about Universal Salvation?

A 16: No, there is no place in the bible that the words "universal salvation" occur. That is a theological development, if you will--a process of understanding the message of Jesus for our time and for future generations.

Q 17: In a response about chemical weapons, you suggest that one of the moral objections is that they are disproportionate. If that is true, then why not also be opposed to a god who allegedly inflicts disproportionate punishment. The example I allude to is that humans are finite and therefore any "sin" they commit can only have finite consequences. Yet mainstream Christianity teaches that the potential punishment for at least some people is eternal or infinite. How can this be reconciled with the moral principle you state in the question about chemical weapons?

A 17: You are not the first one to suggest that there is a philosophical problem with the idea of a finite being committing an infinite act. When I was in philosophy class I raised that very question and watched as the professor contorted all kind of logic and finally concluded that it was different when dealing with God because God is infinite. That, however, is only part of the problem.

The real problem with the idea of an eternal hell is rooted in the very concept of God. As you can tell from other material on my website, it is time for Christian Churches to abandon the idea of an eternal hell. It is fundamentally irreconcilable with the God whom Jesus proclaims. A good beginning for the discussion is the article by Rev. Robert Short on the "Faith Discussion" page. It might further be a good idea to pursue the idea of punishment in relation to God.

Q 18: I have been troubled about the possibility of hell for a long time, and I have found comfort and support in the theology your present on your website. I am close to some young priests in Detroit who are absolutely opposed to what you preach. I am wondering if you have come under fire from your colleagues or your own archbishop because of this theology?

A 18: I am pleased that you find some comfort and support in the theology that I present on my website. To answer your questions...No, I have not come under fire from conservative colleagues. In fact, I know a number of priests who hold the same theological position on universal salvation. I have not discussed the issue specifically with Cardinal Mahony my own archbishop, and I have not heard any criticism from him. I suspect that the Cardinal is fully aware that the Catholic Church is not monolithic. There are essential truths that are not negotiable, but the difference between particular and universal salvation is not one of them. I will admit to being in the minority among priests and perhaps even among theologians. That is not disconcerting. The theological position is valid, and that is sufficient for me. There is a growing number of priests and theologians within the Catholic Community who hold to the idea of universal salvation. It is unfortunate that the priests you are close to in Detroit are not among them, especially given that they are young.

I believe that many people are afraid of universal salvation because it is too challenging to them. One of the points I have repeatedly made in my preaching and on my website regarding Heaven, is that it is not a reward. It is not something we merit or earn. When I preach at Mass I like occasionally to begin the homily with a rhetorical question: "What kind of God do you believe in?" I think it is a question that we need to ponder with some regularity.

I am pleased that you find some comfort and support in the theology that I present on my website. To answer your questions...No, I have not come under fire from conservative colleagues. In fact, I know a number of priests who hold the same theological position on universal salvation. I have not discussed the issue specifically with Cardinal Mahony my own archbishop, and I have not heard any criticism from him. I suspect that the Cardinal is fully aware that the Catholic Church is not monolithic. There are essential truths that are not negotiable, but the difference between particular and universal salvation is not one of them. I will admit to being in the minority among priests and perhaps even among theologians. That is not disconcerting. The theological position is valid, and that is sufficient for me. There is a growing number of priests and theologians within the Catholic Community who hold to the idea of universal salvation. It is unfortunate that the priests you are close to in Detroit are not among them, especially given that they are young.

I believe that many people are afraid of universal salvation because it is too challenging to them. One of the points I have repeatedly made in my preaching and on my website regarding Heaven, is that it is not a reward. It is not something we merit or earn. When I preach at Mass I like occasionally to begin the homily with a rhetorical question "What kind of God do you believe in?" I think it is a question we need to ponder with some regularity.

Q 19: I have spent many hours reading pretty much everything I could about universal salvation. I see that it is a very, very old theory, probably dating back to the early Church. However, it seems that everything I've read indicates that while it is true all of us will eventually be reunited with God in heaven, it may be a very long time--not in chronological terms as we think of it on earth. And it will be a very painful period before that reunion, due to purgatory. It appears that most, if not all of the most vocal and visible proponents of universal salvation, including some of the earliest voices such as St. Isaac of Nineveh, believed that we need to be purified before entering heaven, which makes sense. However, St. Isaac indicated that he believed the process of purification would be "terrible...and most unbearable." He referred to purgatory as "Gehenna." I assume that it is most unbearable for those who just live an immoral life with no regard for God's teaching.

Is it possible though, that, while we all need to be purified to be with God, a woman like my mother, who goes to mass multiple times per week, gives a ton to charity, prays nonstop and has always lived a chaste, holy life will be able to bypass the "unbearable pain of Gehenna" when her times comes, which I fear may be in the near future? Is there a chance in your eyes that someone like her could go straight to heaven?

Sidenote: I hate standing at a viewing in a funeral home and telling bereaving people "well...they are at peace now..they are with God," knowing all the while in my mind I don't really believe that to be true. I mean, they will be at peace at some point, but at the time I say that to people I don't believe the departed is really with God yet. I think we are just mollifying people to bring them peace, but it's probably not accurate. Thoughts?

A 19: As usual, you bring serious reflection to deep questions--not just the theology of universal salvation, but also the bereavement process. So, let's start with universal salvation and purgatory.

I realize that you do not seem to have a problem with universal salvation itself, but let me say that at a basic level, even granting the concept of free will, it seems absurd that we humans could thwart the will of God. We might be able to stave off doing God's will in our lives (the very reason Jesus needed to enter into the world and bring salvation), but it is difficult to believe that we can deny God's plan of salvation. After all, one of the foundations of the theology of universal salvation is that Jesus entered the world while we were still sinners--we did nothing to merit that gratuitous act of love on God's part. That will of God, that all people be saved and be united with him, cannot go unfulfilled. But there is also the concept of God as being all good and that is where purgatory comes in.

Even in this world, we frequently experience the difficulty of good coexisting with evil. While we would like to believe that good will out (and perhaps it does in the end), we usually encounter the good in us being diminished by the presence of evil. Consider how contorted our thought processes have become as we try to justify actions in a desperate attempt to conquer evil. Capital punishment comes easily to mind, but much less drastic and permanent judgments can also serve as examples. If good will out, it will not be due to any actions or logical compositions on our part, but rather to the fact that we submit to the will of God. God alone has the power to conquer evil and change it into good. Ironically, the theology of universal salvation is built upon the fact that God's response to sin and ingratitude is always forgiveness and love, never revenge or the euphemistic "punishment".

That having been said, our actions against the will of God, both for people assumed to be basically good as well as though deemed more corrupt, have consequences that persist beyond the act itself. Think of the suffering that a single act of evil inflicts on many people associated with one or more of the parties involved--both the victim and the victimizer. These residual effects of sin need purging from our lives if we are to coexist with a God who is "All Good" in the resurrection. This is the fundamental notion of purgatory.

In the past, this concept has been perceived in a linear fashion modeled after our existence on earth. We have developed phraseology, sometimes evolved into truisms, to reflect the effects of sin. For example, "Time heals all wounds". That may be more desirous than real, but within it holds an awareness that it takes time to disseminate the pain in our lives. Just as growth is not instantaneous, neither is healing. But there is a problem with applying linear concepts to a life that exists outside of time, which is what we believe about the resurrection.

Another problem is raised by the means of achieving healing, forgiveness, reconciliation. It is reflected by some of our saints and a number of other writers, as you, yourself, reference the writings of Isaac of Nineveh. The problem here seems to be the inability of humans to accept love and forgiveness as the powerful forces of healing they can be. It is a natural human inclination to seek revenge and exact some kind of punishment on one another for things we do. A fair amount of Scripture attributes that human characteristic to God beginning with the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and subsequent physical strife of human existence. But this anthropomorphic representation of God is precisely what leads to the rejection of Jesus. Without going too far into it in this question, Jesus is rebuffed by the religious leaders of his day, in part because he acts contrary to their understanding of sin, the ongoing effects of sin, and how God judges human beings. Consider the objection to Jesus' eating with and spending time with sinners, not to mention the cultural judgment of "unclean" attributed to any number of illnesses. To return to the idea of punishment...

Is there another way to understand the purgation that needs to accompany our entrance into eternal life, one that is less linear? One modern theological concept of purgatory identifies death itself as the purgation. Consider that the single most disruptive experience in life is death. Suppose there is no resurrection. Then death represents the end of everything we are and everything we believe. Even if, as I believe, we are correct about resurrection, death still represents the end of everything that is empirical in our lives. Resurrection will always demand faith. This disruption of life, this termination of everything we know, is true whether people die violent deaths or die in their sleep. Death, then, can be viewed as the purging of our lives from any remnants of sin and evil. From this theological perspective, death is purgatory.

As for the bereavement process, I have an interesting observation: Over the years I have posed the question to various congregations (frequently on the Feast of All Souls), "How many of you believe that your relatives and friends are in heaven"? Almost without exception everyone raises their hands. That leaves me wondering if the traditional notion of purgatory has any relative value in people's lives today. Perhaps this more modern concept is one that people can relate to and in which they can find some hope.


Q 20: I have a quick question as it relates to universal salvation. As you know I have come to believe in this through you--though readings like today cause me to question and wonder if I've totally bought in on Universal Salvation. The gospel today according to Luke talks about the rich man who ignored Lazarus outside his gates. Time comes they both die and Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man ostensibly to hell (Jesus calls it "the netherworld.") Do you think this story was merely apocryphal or is it possible the place of torment the rich man was in was purgatory? You have never denied the possibility of purgatory.

A 20: The first thing is to identify that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable. And the most important thing about a parable is that is not an allegory. Parables have one point only to make. The story is simply the milieu it is set in. In this particular case, it is about the right use of money. In this case, it was not the rich man's wealth that was his downfall, but his poor stewardship, i.e. not seeing the suffering of Lazarus and not responding to his distress.

It is also important to see this parable in context. Jesus addresses the use of wealth back in Chapter 12 and returns to it here with this story and the preceding one about the dishonest steward. It is also consistent with Jesus' challenge to the Pharisees that giving lip service to the law or merely obeying the letter of the law is not the same as actually hearing and responding to the word of God.

Throughout Luke's Gospel Jesus demonstrates a special concern for the poor. In the first chapter we have a prayer, "Magnificat", that is part of the infancy narrative and only occurs in Luke. His concern for the poor is why the given this third Gospel is often called: "The Gospel of poor."

Finally, not only is this not an allegory, but it has nothing to do with a mythical hell. The Greek word used in Greek is Hades, or Sheol in Hebrew. It is not synonymous with our current use of hell. Purgatory is a completely different concept. In its most basic iteration, it is a temporary condition during which any remnants of sin are purged, thus rendering the individual ready for entrance into the fullness of perfection with God.