Free Will and Hell
Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. Matthew 12:32
No series of reflections on hell would be complete without mentioning free will. Among the amazing gifts we are given as a part of our human experience, free will – the opportunity to make choices of our own volition – perhaps is of the greatest consequence. Our ability to choose is both a blessing and a curse because, for the most part, we do not have a broad enough perspective to always make the best choices. We can, however, learn more from our poor choices than our good choices, so there are growth opportunities even in our short-sightedness.
Some consider our ability to freely choose as a root of all kinds of evil because they believe we are self-centered and will always seek personal gain at the expense of others. There is sense in which that is true, too. Most of us eventually learn that our narcissistic choices come back to harm us, however. Once we realize our lives are interconnected with the lives of others, we understand we cannot benefit at another’s expense, at least not for long. We recognize that choices made to benefit others ultimately benefits us, too.
We see this perhaps most clearly in our relationships. If we do not freely choose to act in loving ways toward another, there can be no love. A child who is forced to clean his room under the threat of being grounded is not obeying his mother’s wishes out of love for her. Love expresses in the choices we do or do not make, in how we use our free will. We experience this, too, in our relationship with God. God likely does not want a forced obedience reluctantly given out of our fear of hell. God desires a willing participation in love and life that springs from a genuine sense of self-interest – the type of self-interest that understands that what is good for God’s creation is also good for us. In other words, our desires merge with God’s.
I find it interesting to look at what has been called the unpardonable sin, found in Matthew 12 (see above). Essentially, the unpardonable sin is a refusal to acknowledge the presence of God’s animating Spirit in our lives. We can only refuse God’s presence because of our God-given free will to do so. The unpardonable sin is not unpardonable because it makes God mad enough to punish us for all eternity. It is unpardonable because by our refusal, the flow of love and care from God to us is blocked from our side. It is the integration of God’s presence into our lives that frees us from living a shallow, self-centered, hellish life focused only the temporal things of the earth. Earthly matter that is not animated by Spirit is inert. When we refuse to acknowledge God’s life-enriching Spirit in our lives, we, too, become lifeless. We enter a hell on earth that will almost certainly become a hell after earth – at least until we finally use our free will to allow ourselves to be drawn back into God’s inclusive circle of love. Unfortunately, this Bible passage is often misinterpreted to imply that if we speak against the Spirit now, we will pay for that transgression by spending eternity in hell. The Christian mystic, Teresa of Avila, is rumored to have said that she believed in hell, but she didn’t believe anyone was there.
A good example of our choices determining our present states is in those who chose to work long hours at the expense of being intimately involved in family life. We fall out of balance and not only miss the blessings a family can bring, but the family experiences we do have may become hellish because of our erratic presence. When we ignore or deny the spiritual side of our existence and the material side of life degrades, as it always does, we are left with nothing of substance from which to recover.
As author Richard Rohr writes, “God condemns no one to hell, unless they choose to live in hatred, evil, and disharmony. Then they are basically living in hell here and now. It’s always our choice.” Denying our spiritual nature by denying God’s Spirit within us casts us into a hellish outer darkness, where we are isolated and alone. Once we awaken to our spiritual center, however, and act from the knowledge that we are physical and spiritual beings, we are lovingly welcomed back into the fold.
This is the 16th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.
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 Richard Rohr, Essential Teachings on Love. Orbis Books. 2018, p. 250.