One of the constant challenges I get from my classes regarding the Church’s teaching on the existence of hell is that this doctrine is incompatible with their idea of a merciful God. “My God is a God of Mercy, Troy, and He wants all to be saved. That’s in the Bible!” Which is true, God does will all men to be saved, but under certain conditions. Ah, there’s the rub! Not abiding by these conditions may cause some souls, perhaps even many souls, to end up going to hell forever. This brings us back to the problem of Divine Mercy. Many Catholics believe that there is a contradiction between Divine Mercy and the existence of hell.
When Luke recounts the episode in his Gospel where Jesus is approached by someone from the crowd who asks Him a direct question regarding the number of those saved, Jesus, in His typical mystifying fashion, responds by saying, “Strive to enter by the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” (Lk 13: 24 NAB. See also Mt 7:14.) I recognize the difficulty in Jesus’ response. If God wills that all men be saved (1 Tim 2:4,) then why would He make the door to salvation so difficult to open for so many? There could only be three possible answers: God makes it difficult despite willing all to be saved, Satan makes it difficult, or we make it difficult. Which answer is implied by Jesus?
The first answer is simply implausible based on what we know about God. As stated earlier, God wishes all men to be saved. Further, He sent His only begotten Son to save us, not to condemn us, even though that is what we deserve. Thus, in sending His Infinite Son, God offers the most magnificent and powerful gift He can give to get us all into heaven. Since He is infinite, His gift—namely, His own Son—lacks nothing. Therefore, we can conclude that God can’t be the cause of difficulty for souls getting into heaven.
Satan is certainly a likely culprit. The problem with this possibility, however, is that he is defeated by the blood of the Lamb of God who is Jesus, and his power is vanquished. (Rev. 12: 11, 20:10; 1 Jn 3:8; Lk 11: 21,22, Mt 16: 18; et al.) Therefore, Satan is incapable of barring the doors of heaven since God became incarnate precisely to defeat him and to despoil him of his goods and power. It would make no sense to still leave him the power to prevent persons from entering heaven (see Lk 11: 22.) This can’t be the answer, either.
This leaves only one final option: that the door is narrow and heavy because we have made it so. Yet, this understanding is not without its problems. Christ came to save us, and this includes making us strong (see Eph 6:10-11; 2 Cor. 12:10.) How, then, do we make the door to heaven heavy if Christ came to make us strong? The answer is sadly very simple: through our pride, we compromise our ability in Christ to make our way through the narrow gate. Part of the message of Christ is to repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. This repentance entails overcoming our pride (cf. Mt 18:3-5; Lk 9:48, 1 Jn 2:15-16.) Simply believing that He is the Lord is not enough. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father” (Mt 7:21.) We must also display the fruits of repentance (Lk 3:8.) We don’t always do this.
Thus, the objection that the teaching on hell is incompatible with God’s Divine Mercy possesses a fatal flaw. It assumes that the souls of the damned are damned due to some defect of God. It overlooks the obvious reason implied by our Lord: the problem is with us! The door is heavy and we lack the strength due to a deficiency on our part, not God’s. God doesn’t send us to hell because he lacks love for us sinners, but because we refuse to change according to His grace.
This, too, is a bit perplexing and ironic. Doesn’t everyone want to be happy? And isn’t that the same as saying everyone wants heaven? Everyone, no matter how devout a Christian or atheist, chooses based on his desire to be happy. No one makes a decision based on the fact that he or she knows that this choice will lead them to utter ruin and pain. There is some good that they think that they are gaining, otherwise they would not make that particular choice. So, why then, does our Lord say that the way to hell wide and easy?
Christ does reveal a price-tag for gaining entrance in His Kingdom, however. “Whoever would come after me must deny himself, pick up his cross daily, and follow me, or he is not worthy of me.” (Mt 16:24.) A prerequisite for following him into heaven therefore is self-denial. This is the condition for gaining heaven. He offers us His mercy for the times when we fail; provided that we don’t give up, we have His promise for final victory. “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22; 24:13.) And this is why the path to hell is wide and many are they who find it: it has nothing to do with God or His expectations, but with our willingness or unwillingness to live a life of self-denial. Do we want heaven bad enough to deny ourselves instant gratification in order to make it through the narrow gate of heaven?
Perhaps a brief examination of conscience will help us identify which way we are seeking, the wide and easy one, or the narrow and difficult one that leads to heaven:
Do I set aside time (like 30 minutes) daily in order to watch my favorite TV program? Do I set aside time daily to make sure I get to the gym? Do I set aside time daily to get on the internet, Facebook, Buzzfeed, etc.? Do I set aside time (like 30 minutes) daily to pray?
Is my sports involvement (either watching or participating) sacrosanct for me? Is going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation more sacrosanct?
How much time a day do I spend focused on finances, relationships, my physical appearance, my material goods? How much time a day do I spend focused on pleasing God and my spiritual appearance?
How much time a day do I spend thinking about sex or my own sex appeal? How much time do I spend a day begging God to purify my heart?
If we answer the bold questions in these sentences with ‘none’ or ‘very little,’ then we know that our hearts are firmly attached to this world instead of heaven. This is why to gain heaven our Lord told us to deny ourselves. This is what Jesus means when he tells us to strive for the narrow gate. We must be willing to part with anything that gets in the way of our relationship with Him. Divine Mercy is His gift to help us let go of those things because He corrects us with compassion and not harsh judgment. Mercy does not mean to excuse our defects and allow them to remain by giving us a free pass. This would mean that He doesn’t love us at all!
So, to sum up: God won’t force us into Heaven unless we want to go there. But we won’t want to go there if we’re attached to things of this world. So God, in His Infinite Mercy, gives us all the graces necessary to detach ourselves from this world through self-denial, making us desire Heaven and so getting us through that narrow gate. So God won’t force us into Heaven if we don’t want to go, because He’s merciful. And God will do everything He can to enable us to want to go to Heaven, because He’s merciful.