What is the population of heaven? Of hell?

What is the population of heaven? Here is a more loaded question: what is the population of hell?  In today’s gospel Jesus is asked a similar question: “Lord, will many be saved”? Some of you may have grown up with “fire and brimstone” sermons that emphasized the difficulty of winning a place in heaven.  Such sermons warned strongly about the risk of going to hell and described the situation there so vividly that we would never want to go there.  Today, on the other hand, we seem to hear less about Hell.  The idea seems outdated.  Many Catholics assume that everyone goes automatically to heaven as though all humanity is on some big conveyor belt up to God. Some assume that Hell doesn't exist. Will many be saved? Today’s gospel sheds light on this issue.

First, we need to make one point crystal clear: God wants all people to be saved.  Our heavenly Father created us in order that we could spend eternity with Him in heaven.  This is God’s desire and He has done everything to make it a reality.  When Jesus came to the earth, He died to save every human being.  It is as though each human being has been given a plane ticket.  On this plane ticket, under location it reads: “heaven”.  God wants everyone to be with Him forever in Heaven.

This being said, it is not automatic that everyone will go to heaven.  It is the teaching of the Church, and Jesus Himself, that Hell is real and that some people may go there.  This is a teaching I have found hard to accept. How could a loving God allow people to go to Hell? I once heard an explanation that helped me begin to understand. The teaching that Hell exists and that people can go there follows logically from two fundamental Christian beliefs.  The first is our belief about who God is. We believe that God is all love, goodness and beauty. The second belief is that God has given us our free will. Free will is one of the greatest gifts we have been given because means that we can imitate God: we are able to love. We must have freedom in order to love. But, the fact that we have been given free will means that we have the ability to choose not to be with God. We have the freedom not to use that ticket to heaven we have been given; in essence, we have the freedom to send ourselves to Hell.  People in Hell have separated themselves from God. Since God is love, goodness and beauty, hell is a place where there is no love, goodness or beauty.  In today’s gospel and elsewhere in the scriptures Jesus talks about the possibility of people not going to heaven. Today we hear of people who are cast out of the kingdom of God amidst wailing and gnashing of teeth. Jesus spoke often about Gehenna, a place of burning. Hell was not something the Church invented during the “Dark Ages”; we get the idea from Jesus.  Christ tells that we cannot assume that everyone automatically goes to heaven.

We need to accept God’s offer of salvation. Though we have been given a ticket to heaven, we need to take steps to claim it.  In the gospel Jesus makes it clear that this acceptance of God’s offer of salvation is not a casual thing.  Just saying that we are Catholic is not enough. When I was living in Rome I used to visit an elderly couple. In their house I saw so many pictures saints, including Padre Pio... this is Italy after-all.  I said to them once that they must be fervent Catholics.  They said of course, they were 100% Catholic! Then the old lady would come close to me, point her finger in my face, and say,“listen we are more Catholic than you!”. So I asked what Church they went to.  Their response was `oh, we haven`t been to mass in 20 years`. This way of thinking is not uncommon. In the gospel we find people demanding that the lord open the door to them because they “ate and drank” in his company.  But the lord refused to open the door.  He says he does not recognize them.  Claiming to be a follower of Jesus is not enough to get into heaven.  Accepting God’s offer of salvation is a serious and demanding choice. Jesus calls it the “narrow gate”.  The fact that we follow Jesus must transform our lives.  People should recognize that we are His follower; Jesus should see something of Himself in us. This is the way in which we claim the ticket to heaven we have been given.

In addition to ourselves, we need to encourage others to accept God’s offer of salvation. The Church in fact exists to help as many people as possible reach heaven.  As you know, this is the “Year of Faith”. During this our diocese has been promoting initiatives to evangelize, bringing people to know and follow Jesus and enter the Church.  Specific attention has been paid to “fallen-away Catholics”, which is one of the largest and fastest growing religious groups in the West. For example our Diocese launched the “Catholics Come Home” campaign. You probably saw the commercials on TV. This has born definite fruit. I myself have met people who have come back to the faith after watching the commercials.  This is a great blessing. You’ll remember that we were also encouraged to pray that God show us one or two people close to us - a family member, friend or co-worker - we could encourage to come back to the practice of their faith in a welcoming and non-judgemental way. Imagine the impact if each of us could bring one person back to Church. We still have time to make this a reality. There are many possibilities coming up in the near future that will be opportunities for us to welcome Catholics back home. On the diocesan level you will hear soon about the upcoming men’s conference on October 5 called “Man-alive”. One month later, on November 23, there will be a similar event for women. Why not consider going to one of these events and inviting someone to come with you? Here in our own parish there are many other opportunities to invite people back. You could invite them to join a parish group: RCIA, bible study, soup kitchen, CWL, Knights of Columbus, Legion of Mary – the list is long.  In this way we can encourage others to accept God’s offer of salvation.

So, what is the population of heaven? Of hell?  Will many be saved? The answer in the end depends a lot on us. Certainly we should trust in God’s love and mercy, we should hope and pray that all are saved. This is God’s own desire. On the other hand we should be filled with a sense of urgency to work with God in ensuring that people – starting with ourselves – accept this offer of salvation. During this year of Faith let us do this by taking advantage of the many events in the diocese and our parish by going ourselves and inviting a friend, family member or co-worker along with us.