Can a Person Go to Hell for What He Thinks?
For the Sunday:
For the Apostles:
1 Corinthians 4:9-16;
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost.
The Synaxis of the Twleve Apostles.
The Passing of the Blessed Confessor Basil Velychkovsky, Secret Bishop, in 1973.
The Passing of the Martyr & Priest Zenon Kovalyk in 1941.
Return to ByzantineCatholicPriest.com.
4:05 PM 6/30/2013 — The cure that St. Matthew describes today is similar to one described in both Mark's Gospel and Luke's with only one difference: Mark and Luke include the detail about the paralyzed man's friends taking him up onto the roof of the house and lowering him on his cot through a hole in the roof. St. Matthew leaves out that detail, saying simply that they brought him and laid him before our Lord. The event is not recorded in St. John's Gospel at all.
But there is one detail about this event that all three of the Evangelists who report it make a point of including, and that is the fact that Jesus, after He tells the paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven, does this mind-reading trick with the Scribes. Matthew, Mark and Luke all say the same thing: that the Scribes “said to themselves, 'This man blasphemes!' But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, 'Why do you think evil in your hearts?'”
“They said to themselves...,' meaning, they didn't say it out loud, they simply thought it; and, Jesus knew what they were thinking. St. John Chrysostom says that this may be the most significant aspect of this event in the life of our Lord: not the fact that He is able to manipulate nature by performing an impossible cure, and not the fact that He has the power to forgive sins, as important as they may be, but the fact that He is able to read and publish the secrets of the heart.* St. Cyprian of Carthage, in his treatise on the Lord's Prayer, makes specific mention of this event when discussing what we need and do not need to say to God in prayer; he says, “God listens, not to our voice, but to our heart. He does not need to be prodded with shouts, since He sees our thoughts, as the Lord proved when He asked, 'Why do you think evil in your hearts?' And elsewhere He stated: 'All the churches shall know that I am He who searches minds and hearts.'”**
When you look at the thoughts of these two Fathers of the Church, it becomes apparent that this ability of our Lord is a two-edged sword, isn't it? On the one hand, it's comforting to know that our Lord is able to discern the desires of our hearts even if we have trouble putting them into words; on the other hand, it's somewhat frightening to realize that we've got no secrets from Him. It raises a very interesting question: are we held responsible by God for what we think?
Let me put the problem to you in a concrete form with an example. Everyone knows that abortion is a mortal sin. It's a mortal sin because it's murder. In the Code of Canon Law, it's one of only six things a Catholic can do which results in an automatic excommunication from the Catholic Church: anyone who has an abortion, performs an abortion or provides material assistance to someone which enables her to have an abortion is automatically excommunicated. No bishop or pope has to declare it; it happens automatically. And unless he's been given special faculties by his bishop, the priest in the parish cannot absolve someone from the sin of abortion; a person who has or performs an abortion, or provides material assistance for the same, can only be absolved by his or her bishop. Many Catholics are not aware of that. But here's the question I wish to put to you: What if a person has never had an abortion and never helped anyone to have one, but simply believes in his or her heart that abortion is and ought to be a woman's right? Does that person commit a sin simply by reason of what he or she thinks? Most moral theologians would say "no," that you actually have to do something wrong to be guilty of some sort of sin. But is that consistent with what we read today in the Gospel and what the Fathers of the Church have to say about it?
Not being a moral theologian myself, I will not venture an answer to that question; but, being a priest who knows how to read, and having some concern for the souls entrusted to my care, I will say that what we harbor secretly in our thoughts and hearts, even if never acted upon or even spoken, does have some baring on our eternal salvation.
In the last few months—even in the last few years—we've been bombarded with all kinds of bad news, the latest of which being the Defense of Marriage Act being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The blow is even harder to take in light of the fact that the deciding vote, so it seems, was cast by a member of the court who is a Catholic. The Affordable Health Care Act requires Catholic institutions to provide services which are immoral, and is being promoted and enforced by a Cabinet secretary who claims to be a Catholic. The President of the United States went to Germany where he declared Catholic Schools to be a blight upon society. The list goes on and on. But none of these things could possibly happen without Catholics voting for the wrong people. If our Lord can hold someone accountable for how he thinks, doesn't it stand to reason that he can also hold someone accoutable for how he votes? I'm not answering that question; I'm just asking it?
Back when I preached to you about the parable of the Foolish Rich Man, I asked a provocative question: I can say to myself that the Christ I believe in would not allow anyone to go to Hell; but, is the Christ I believe in real? Is He the Christ of the Gospel? Last year, when we were speaking about Paul's Epistle to the Romans, I pointed out that we can't pick and choose among the teachings of the Church as if the Deposit of Faith was some kind of salad bar, taking what we like and leaving what we don't; that when we do that what is it we believe in other than ourselves? And here we are confronted with an event in the life of our Lord in which He said something the Scribes didn't like, and they didn't even open their mouths to say a word about it; He condemns them just for thinking it.
I will be with you next week, but I am not promising a homily on that Sunday. So, as I get ready to leave you for the three weeks following in Father Jerome's capable hands, I would like to leave you with one more provocative question to ponder, which I am not going to answer for you: we know that we will one day be judged according to our deeds; but, as St. Cyprian points out, “God listens, not to our voice, but to our hearts.” To what extent will we also be judged according to our thoughts?
* Homily XXIX on Matthew IX, 1, 2.
** The Lord's Prayer, 4.