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Authentic religion: Not what we want, what God has revealed

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 10, 2018

In my recent foray into weird emails (Mercy vs. Truth: The mark of hypocrisy), I said I wanted to illustrate “the most important problem with religious belief in the modern West”, which is that “people very frequently make up their own religion to suit their own predilections”. Just in case you don’t believe me, I have another stellar example for you.

Not long ago, a correspondent insisted that Pope Francis had “spoken brilliantly” when he said that damnation consisted in going out of existence rather than being punished for all eternity. “Why,” the writer asked, “should a non-believer be punished if it’s a free will choice? What other expectation could a free will non-believer expect or desire?” Despite my repeated initial attempts to make it clear that we had no real evidence that the Pope had actually said this, it was firmly stuck in the correspondent’s mind as the “brilliant” teaching of Pope Francis, since it seemed to be so fitting.

But that’s the rub. Reality is not about what seems fitting to us. It is about how God created everything to be. We should also note that one of the things about God is that He doesn’t contradict Himself. It is logical, therefore, that God does not create immortal souls only to change his mind later and snuff them out. This may seem like a digression, but it is part of what makes it a heresy to assert the contrary.

Anyway, in the course of our discussion, this correspondent said, “If you can show me a quote of Jesus that contradicts the Pope, I will thank you profusely and change my views.” I reiterated that we did not know exactly what the Pope had said about this, but that I was happy to provide the evidence for eternal punishment for damned souls from Our Lord’s own words. I won’t repeat the quotations here, but you can look them up easily enough. I cited Lk 13:27-28; Mt 25:31-46; and Mk 9:42-48.

I also pointed out that the Church had several times condemned the idea that souls go out of existence, insisting (for example at the Council of Lyons) that “if anyone without repentance dies in mortal sin, without a doubt he is tortured forever by the flames of eternal hell.”

And so, of course, I expected the promised thanks and the resulting change in views.

Making up our own religion

But it was not to be. Instead, I received this answer: “I don’t believe that my God would say such things as you quote—remember His last command, ‘Love your enemies and those that would do evil to you, as yourself’.”

Surprised, I replied as follows:

So much for being grateful if I could point you to the relevant Scriptural citations!
Either God has revealed Himself through Jesus Christ and the Church He founded, or we don’t have any idea what is true or false about the afterlife.
Since God did reveal Himself, we ought not to make our religion up for ourselves. If you do not believe that Jesus Christ is God and the fullest Revelation of the of the Father, then why are we having this discussion, and why do you care what Pope Francis is alleged to have said or not to have said?

To this, my correspondent responded: “Jesus is my Lord and I believe everything he commands. I just don’t fully trust the reporters of what he has said.”

Now, do you see the utter futility of this position? It totally destroys any possibility of knowing what God has revealed. It is the position of a person who approaches religion as something that must suit his own tastes, not as something which accurately conveys ultimate reality as God has revealed it to us. It is incoherent to claim, at one and the same time, that we believe everything Jesus taught and that we have no accurate record of what that is.

Only Catholicism passes this test

Actually, only Catholicism passes the test of logical coherence because, just as revelation is absolutely essential to authentic religion, so too is an authority principle absolutely essential to revelation; and only Catholicism has an authority principle. It is this and this alone which prevents us from making up our own myths about Who God is and what He has to say.

We can know from reason that there must be a God, that there can be only one God, and that God must have certain qualities (the fullness of being, perfect goodness, omniscience, and so on), but the rational arguments are difficult for most people to follow and, in any case, they do not enable us to know God or His will in any personal sense. For this, God must reveal Himself to us. But His Revelation cannot be conveyed through some merely human claim; it requires a claim that is certified through signs and wonders such as only God can possibly perform.

Now only Judaism and Christianity can point to anything that remotely resembles these necessary conditions for the acceptance of an authentic Divine revelation. But this is not the end of what is necessary. For it would be useless for God to reveal something yet fail to institute some sort of guaranteed arrangement by which that revelation can be preserved accurately beyond the lifetime of the generation which experienced it. Consequently, an authentic revelation must contain as part of it a principle of authority that continues over time—until the end of the world, or until God comes to visit His people again, with similar attestations and guarantees.

But it is precisely this second necessity that is embodied by the Catholic Church—an ongoing institution created through the original Revelation and containing within it a particular authority that is guaranteed to conserve and spread the original Revelation until God’s subsequent actions make it possible to see Him, not through a glass darkly but face to face. This is what we mean by an “authority principle”.

Not only does no other religion have such an authority principle, no other religion even claims to have one. Absent this, we are all forced in some measure to make up our religion for ourselves, mining (if we are sincere) the best resources we can find. Even in the Christian world, the consequences of the lack of an authority principle are amply illustrated by Protestantism, which expounds a thousand versions of the meaning of Christian Revelation, many of them directly contrary to previous widespread Christian belief and practice.

In the modern West, we are trained to think that one person’s ideas are as good as another (except when those ideas threaten the agendas of our political, economic and social elites). But there is no hope for authentic religious belief until we realize that if we do not learn our religion from God, we have no basis for the certainties we so frequently claim.

One of these things is not like the others. True religion and various forms of wishful thinking are not the same.


Previous in the “illustrative email” series: Mercy vs. Truth: The mark of hypocrisy
Next in the “illustrative email” series: Crosses on public buildings: Yes or No?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - May. 20, 2018 8:25 PM ET USA

    Jeff, to your correspondent: How is it after 2000 years of revelation, all of the sudden the Doctrine, the reality, of Hell is no longer valid? How is it you can change the words of Christ to mean what you want; can we all do this? If you are correct, what is the point of the Paschal Mystery? If there is no Hell, no true eternal loss, why did Jesus give up His life? Do you believe He really rose from the dead - I mean really and truly rose from the dead?

  • Posted by: feedback - May. 12, 2018 10:46 AM ET USA

    Thank you for this reminder of the nature of Divine Revelation and its role in the Catholic Faith. Your correspondent sounds very much like the Cardinals of the Church who talk about "paradigm shifts" in the Catholic Doctrine, according to their own personal feelings.