Love in Hell

28 Feb


All that are in Hell, choose it.
~ C.S. Lewis

Getting ready for work one day last week, I was bantering with Katharine, my 9-year-old, who snuggled under the covers and tried to focus on her book. She had a snow day; I didn’t. My tongue-in-cheek resentment gave rise to a steady stream of playful paternal pestering.

At one point, it became clear that she wasn’t listening at all. “Go ahead and ignore me – I’ll still love you,” I pouted. “I’ll still love you till the day I die.”

Without looking up from her book, Kath idly responded, “Even if you die, you better keep loving me in heaven.” Then, as a hedge, she added, “Or in hell.”

In that brief statement, Katharine skirted the edges of some weighty theology – the Four Last Things, for instance. Note the prominence of the word “or” with reference to my ultimate destination. Kath takes it for granted that there’s a final stop for us all after death – that everybody, including her dad, will wind up spending eternity in paradise or the pits. “Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death,” is how the Catechism puts it, “either entrance into the blessedness of heaven…or immediate and everlasting damnation.”

Note, too, the assumption that her own pop could very well be damned – a loaded comment perhaps? Was my daughter implying that her dad was falling short in the sanctifying grace department? I imagine not, for she never looked up from her book, and when I jested back that I hoped to love her from heaven, she took it in stride.

Even so, it was a comment that reflects reality, for nobody should take the state of ones soul for granted. Yes, we can be confident in the salvation that Christ won for us through his life, death, and Resurrection, and, yes, we can be sure of the Church’s ministration of that salvation to us through the Sacraments and her very existence – “the sign and the instrument of the communion of God and men” (CCC 780).

Nonetheless, our appropriation of salvific grace requires our assent – and that’s not a one-shot deal. Yeah, it’d be nice if we totally embraced Jesus once and for all, but it doesn’t work that way. Every day requires conversion, every moment requires turning toward God and away from sin. Over and over we stumble, fall, and get up again, slouch forward and stumble some more – no turning back! No giving up! Why, it’s built into the system itself – we have the Sacrament of Penance after all.

OK, so there’s all that orthodoxy embedded in Katharine’s minor aside, but what of her contention that I’d better keep loving her even if I end up permanently down below? It was a provocative idea that came back to me later in the week at Mass. The Gospel on Thursday was the story of the rich man (“Dives”) and Lazarus, with its stark divesrepresentation of ultimate reversal of fortune based on earthly human conduct. The rich man paid no heed to the destitute Lazarus as his doorstep; after death, the condemned Dives still seemed to treat the now glorified Lazarus as a nonentity who ought to do his bidding – that is, the rich guy still had no clue and evidently no hope.

Yet, there’s that incongruous entreaty of Dives on behalf of his family near the parable’s end:

He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send [Lazarus] to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’

Jerome Kodell writes of the rich man’s plea that it’s “the first sign we have that he is concerned about others.” Although it’s too little, too late, could it be a tantalizing Biblical hint that even the accursed retain some tenuous link to charity? Will damned dads, in other words, be able to keep loving their daughters as Kath presumed? And, if so, could that lend credence to the idea of an empty hell?

Maybe – maybe not.

What’s certain is this: My young girl is apparently so trusting of my ongoing fatherly affection and solicitude that she can’t conceive of a circumstance in which they’d go wanting – not even endless perdition. That’s a boost to my confidence, for sure, but also a spur to my pursuit of holiness. Regardless of what’s possible in hell, I have no doubt that I’d be able to keep loving her from heaven, and I’ve got a reputation to live up to.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

3 Responses to “Love in Hell”

  1. nancy brockhoff at 10:09 am #

    Whoa! What a great correlation made between the the Gospel (rich man and Lazarus) and the quip of your little daughter. Thank you for sharing.

    • kkollwitz at 2:16 pm #

      I use that Anastasis in Catechism class to discuss Jesus “descending into into Hell.” Good take on the Rich Man, I may use that next year.


  1. Love in Hell | One Thousand Words a Week -

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