Cormac Murphyoconnor

We need to be saved

Hell exists, says Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, but so does hope. Choices have consequences, and by making the right choices we move towards God

Text settings

Hell exists, says Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, but so does hope. Choices have consequences, and by making the right choices we move towards God

Before very long, I would imagine, together with my fellow-Cardinals, I will be going to the Vatican for the election of the successor to Pope John Paul II. The election takes place in the most precious jewel of the Vatican Museum, the 15th-century domestic chapel of Pope Sixtus IV, known as the Sistine Chapel. Here, twice a day, the Cardinals assemble and one by one place their vote in a silver urn for the one whom they truly believe is the best person to assume the mantle of Peter. The event itself is dramatic, but made more so by the surroundings. Thirty years after painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was asked to paint the Last Judgment. At that time, Rome had been sacked by invaders and Christendom had been split in two at the Reformation. So Michelangelo portrays Christ as a threatening judge with arm up-raised as if ready to strike. On the left, the dead are raised from the cloddish earth and hauled up to heaven by friends. On the right, the damned are pushed down to the corner of the painting where hell yawns to receive them.

These images appear forbidding, even alien, to the modern imagination. We should not however dismiss them out of hand. The 20th century has given us more than enough images of a man-made Hell-on-earth — the trenches of the Somme, the atrocities of Auschwitz and the Gulag, the apparently endless saga of international terror and private horror. The notion of the Last Judgment is rooted not in some arbitrary divine whimsy, but in the awful realities of human behaviour. Human cruelty, alienation and despair are the result of moral decisions made both by individuals and by whole societies. Christian teaching about the Four Last Things — Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell — represents a profoundly serious response to the reality, and to the consequences, of human moral behaviour.

William Blake talked about the ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell’. I am not sure precisely what he meant, but I do believe there is an attempt on the part of our society, perhaps unconsciously, to ‘marry’ heaven and hell. This arises from an increasingly widespread belief that none of us is faced with an absolute choice, an either/or, but that somehow or other we can choose both evil and good, or that we can choose good without rejecting evil. But is that really so?

In his book, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis puts it well. ‘You cannot take all luggage with you on all journeys. On one journey, even your right hand and your right eye may be among the things you have to leave behind. We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre; rather, in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two and each of those into two again and at each fork you must make a decision.... I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. I suppose all this has to do with choices.’

In all of our lives we have constantly to choose between right and wrong, good and evil, this road or that road — heaven or hell. As we get older we are bound to realise more and more clearly that we cannot have it both ways. The consequences of not making the clear moral choice are cumulative and deleterious, just as the consequences of making sound moral choices are cumulative and virtuous.

There is a wonderful passage in the Book of Deuteronomy, when Moses is giving his last profound teaching to his people. He tells them that they should obey the Commandments of the Lord, loving the Lord and walking in his ways and observing his commandments; and that if they do, they will live and the Lord will bless them. But Moses warns they will perish ‘If your heart turns away and you do not hear and are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them’. And he ends by saying, ‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.’ For Moses the fruit of choice is either life or death.

Accepting that the images of Michelangelo (or of Dante and Milton) are in some senses too archaic for the modern mind, we do well nevertheless to contemplate those equivalent contemporary images, some of which I have mentioned. Together these images convey the same inescapable truth, which is that moral choices have serious consequences. Judaeo-Christian belief hinges on the conviction that we are both responsible, and accountable, for our actions. We may choose what is good, thereby inviting the Divine Presence into our lives. We may also choose what is evil, thereby affirming our preference for His absence. Hell is no more, and no less, than the definitive option for the Divine Absence.

It is only within the context of this high moral seriousness that the Christian view of Incarnation/Redemption makes any sense. Julian of Norwich’s famous affirmation that ‘all manner of thing shall be well’ is the very opposite of the suggestion that moral behaviour does not matter very much. It is, rather, an affirmation that, in the high drama of the battle between good and evil, the decisive factor is the ever-mysterious intervention of Divine Mercy. The Catholic liturgy of Holy Saturday, which celebrates the mysterious pause between the death and the resurrection of Christ, still refers to the old image of the Harrowing of Hell. This is an image, not of judgment but of mercy: by sharing in the human condition ‘even to his death on the cross’ God has (again the words of Julian of Norwich) ‘reached down to the lowest depths of our need’.

Choices matter and no one could seriously suggest otherwise. If, as is said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then the road to heaven is paved with good actions. ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, naked and clothe you, sick or in prison and go to see you?’ The Lord will answer, ‘I tell you solemnly, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me. And they will go away to eternal punishment and the virtuous to eternal life.’ (Matthew, XXV).

Yes, there is heaven and hell, and we all face judgment at the time of our death. Christmas may not appear at first sight to be the best time to be speaking about such things. But if I am to be judged by God, I am happy that I should be judged by One who came among us and lived our life just as it is — short, bitter, mysterious, and yet wonderful. It is as the Son of Man that God will examine us about our life. He has lived our life with sympathetic understanding of its fragility and unsolved enigmas. He did not merely enter into it by virtue of Divine understanding but by living it for real. He himself became flesh. Which is why every human face is, in a mysterious and powerful sense, the human face of God Himself: the pure face of the child, the faces of the poor, the tear-stained faces of sinners, even the embittered faces, those who are enemies and hate us.

Jesus came amongst us as Saviour and, God help us, we do need to be saved — from our selfishness, and our sin, and our poverty. Christmas is an occasion to ponder more deeply the consequences of our choices and actions while giving thanks for that most wondrous event in human history — the coming of Emmanuel: God with us.

The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster was invited by The Spectator to mark the Incarnation by reflecting on the doctrine of hell.