Some people speak of hell as something that can “befall” you–like a safe out of a third story window. You’re just walking along, being a nice person and boom! You go to hell!
“I missed mass this morning because I overslept and then had to work. Am I going to hell?” “Is so and so going to hell because he never heard the gospel?” “What if I don’t remember something at confession? Will God judge me more harshly?” These and similar questions trouble the minds of many people. Christian theology is, among other things, aimed at attacking such notions with a very simple point: nobody goes to hell by accident.
Hell is a choice, a deliberate and sustained choice, to reject grace. Both Amos and Jesus make this point in today’s readings. Amos attacks people who have chosen, day by day, year by year, to ignore the promptings of conscience. He comes, as Samuel Johnson tells us all true teachers of ethics come, not to instruct, but to remind. Amos is not telling the callous fat heartless brutes in Israel something they’ve never heard before. He’s telling them something they’ve been ignoring since they were in Sunday School. The punishment he foretells for them is not an accident. It is the logical outcome of the accumulation of their choices.
The same point is made with even greater force by our Lord in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. The Rich Man, finding himself in hell after a lifetime of steadfastly ignoring God’s call to grace (in the person of Lazarus who had sat outside his door with running sores), does something curious. He asks to be allowed to go and warn his brothers. Since the Rich Man is in Hell (that is, in a state of complete and total imprisonment in himself) his apparent care for his brothers is cannot be what it looks like. The damned do not care about anyone but themselves. So the Rich Man’s seeming care for his brothers is understood to be simply another way of trying to justify himself.
To see this we need only contemplate Abraham’s reply to the Rich Man. It is what we noted above: nobody goes to hell by accident. And if they are bound and determined to go, no special effects such as apparitions from the dead will head them off from that chosen and doggedly willed path. No, they have Moses and the prophets, let them listen to them (as you should have, Rich Man). Their lack of excuse is the Rich Man’s. He knew what he was doing.
It is important to step back from this story (lest it sound as though Jesus comes to condemn and not to save) and remember that this is a story within a story. Though the Rich Man does not get to return to life and warn his brothers, the One telling his story did. And in rising, he showed that he spoke the simple truth: there were, are, and will always be those in this life who will not believe, though One rose from the dead. But that, now as then, will not be an accident that “befalls” them. It will be a choice.
So don’t fall for bafflegab about how we aren’t responsible for our choices. Jesus has not left that door open to us, and especially not to us who have been graced with baptism and all the riches of the Faith. We are not helpless. We can respond to grace and be saved. It’s our choice.