Jesus said: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” John 14: 18
Most of us are, or will one day become, orphans. In Oscar Wilde’s play, “The Importance of Being Earnest” Lady Bracknell says: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.”
To be orphaned is to be cut off by death from the ones who gave you life, loved you, and nurtured you.
This is also a good working definition of what Hell is like: to be cut off from life, love, and nurture: to remain endlessly the same, to stay eternally the same dead, unfulfilled self.
In Dante’s vision of Hell in his book “Inferno”, there is a sign above the gates of Hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. Hell is a place of broken dreams; it is a place of nightmares. To dream you need at least a flicker of hope. Hell is living eternally with the knowledge of what might have been and what has been lost for want of care and love.
Hell is a state of being where nothing will ever grow because there is no life, no nurturing. It’s like being an orphan forever. There is only hopelessness, there is only despair – like the orphaned child continually passed over for adoption.
In life we can get glimpses of Heaven; it stands to reason (reinforced by experience) that we can also get glimpses of Hell. For the Saint, glimpses of Heaven may be longer and more frequent; for the Sinner, glimpses of Hell may recur at length. For most of us, these glimpses of one or the other are usually very short.
We see Heaven when circumstances in our lives combine to give us the eyes to perceive it and long for it; we see Heaven when we apply ourselves with care to discover it. Heaven is the result of good fortune and care. We are recreated by love and nurturing. We are given new life as adopted children of God.
So, is the orphan state that is Hell the result of misfortune or carelessness? It is a combination of both. Being in Hell involves living with the consequences of both the bad things that have happened to us and the poor choices we have made. For some people – perhaps a few of us here today– life right now is a kind of living Hell. We are orphans, bereft of life and nurturing, without love and without hope. Passed over.
In the Epistle today, St. Peter says that Christ after His death went to proclaim to imprisoned souls in Hell what He had done on the Cross even for them. These souls in prison were all those waiting endlessly for life. “He descended into Hell”, as the Apostles’ Creed puts it. He entered into the deepest, darkest place of death and despair. He went as a life-giver and liberator.
Christ entered Hell. The One who cried out from the Cross “My God, why have you forsaken me” went in search of other bereft souls. He went looking for those who did not know Him in order to set them free from Hell. And He still does.
For us, with glimpses of Heaven and hope so rare, and with glimpses of Hell and despair more frequent, this is our great hope. Misfortune and carelessness may have combined to make us orphans, cut off from life, love, and nurture, but Christ descended even into Hell looking for us. We have not been passed over. “I will not leave you orphaned,” He said. “I am coming to you.”