Geoffrey reminded us to reflect what it means to say that ‘God is love’. That is not a topic missing from our sermons and homilies – unlike sin, which is not a fashionable topic. Sin is the most popular hobby mankind has. There could be a connection between the two phenomena; who wants to condemn what everyone does? I certainly can’t recall the last time I heard a sermon on the subject of sin. It smacks of judging others, and the whiff of hell-fire invites a counter-charge of bigotry; there is something profoundly distasteful about the notion that unless I love God, He will consign me to Hell.
But, however much we might dislike it, Christ talks frequently about judgement and Hell; His whole message is the urgent one of repent and be saved. That is an invitation to abandon our sinful ways and to follow Him. No one ever liked being called a sinner, and in the modern West we simply have life-style choices, some of which are firmly classed as sinful by the Church. This presents Christians with a dilemma: do they simply pass by on the other side and say nothing when they know that, according to the teaching of the Church, their friends are in mortal peril?
Perhaps one way to approach this is from the point of view expressed by St. Isaac of Syria. He comes pretty close to believing that Hell ought to be empty, but turns away from universalism by acknowledging that individuals endowed with free-will can make the choice to reject God’s love. His emphasis is on God’s love, and it is the individual who, by rejecting it, consigns him or herself to Hell.
That would certainly explain the urgency of Our Lord’s summons. The choice belongs to us. We judge ourselves. Christ taught us to call God ‘Abba’, which is not just ‘Father’ but closer to the familar ‘dad’. This is because we are His children. But like all children, we grow up, and we can reject our parents. That does not (usually) stop them loving us – but if we go astray, they cannot stop us.
That is why the parable of the Prodigal is so important. There Christ tells us that God’s love remains constant. He is always there, wherever we are. If we will but repent and turn to Him, He is there, waiting, and comes out to meet us. How far is that from the image, preferred by some, of the stern Judge. He is the only Just Judge, and He judges us with love and mercy. He does not condemn us to Hell and separation from Him – we do that to ourselves.