If you had a friend who was oblivious to the fact that he was dying of an easily-treatable disease, would you warn him? Would you, perhaps, do even better than that, and tell him how to get treatment? Certainly, I’d hope so. Otherwise, what sort of friend are you? And ideally, you could even bring yourself to tell a stranger, if you knew that their life depended on it. Hopefully, it wouldn’t matter to you if society viewed it as “bad manners” to bring up the topic of disease or medicine.
An “easily-treated disease” is how William Lane Craig suggests we look at the disease of sin, and I think he’s absolutely right. All of us know people we think might be dead and dying in their sins, people we love, and don’t want to see end up in Hell. (Hopefully, we don’t even want to see our enemies end up in Hell). But for a number of reasons — cowardice, a false sense of humility (Oh, what do I know about the Gospel?), and a false sense of charity — too many of us refrain. Without much effort, I can think of situations, and particular people who I wish I would have told about the Gospel or confronted about their sins. I imagine with a moment’s hesitation, most of you reading this could think of a similar list.
We’re told it’s bad manners to talk about sin and Hell – so be it. We’ll just have bad manners, then. Christ tells us to take up our Cross daily and follow Him (Luke 9:23), and that “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). If the worst thing we face is being frowned upon by society, that’s a tiny Cross and a pitiful persecution. The Fathers who brought us the Gospel endured torture, death, and public humiliation. We can’t endure bad manners?
Or, like the devil in Matthew 4:1-11, those who oppose talking about sin and Hell will misuse Scripture. Particularly, they’ll cite to Matthew 7:1-5, which famously says:
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
People frequently distort this passage to say that we shouldn’t judge right from wrong, or those doing good from those doing evil. But only a few verses later, Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Mt. 7:15-16a). How are we to determine good fruits from bad, and true men of God from the wolves in sheep’s clothing without some form of judgment? Quite simply, we can’t.
Certainly, it’s not our place to condemn anyone to Hell, or to decide that we’re better than our neighbor. That’s the sort of judgment to which we’re not permitted. And even when confronting others about sin, it’s true that we should assume the best — assume, for example, that they’re not aware that what they’re doing displeases God. Even Matthew 7:5 talks about the need to “cast out the mote of thy brother’s eye,” just not at the expense of spiritual self-examination.
Amongst Catholics, I find that the hardest people to talk about judgment and Hell with are Protestants. A Catholic might feel quite comfortable warning an atheist, or some other non-Catholic, that they need to believe in Christ and become Catholic to save their souls. But to suggest to a Protestant that his salvation is insecure seems like an offense against basic Christian charity. It’s not. Instead, the uncharitable thing to do would be to stay quiet.
In 256 A.D., when St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote, “He cannot have God as a father who does not have the Church as a mother,” he wasn’t talking about non-Christians, but about those who left the Catholic Church for the various Christian sects. He accused them of abandoning the Bride of Christ for an adulteress. And in saying this, he’s merely repeating what we know from Scripture:
- Christ, while on Earth, established a single Church, His Church, upon the rock, Peter (Matthew 16:17-19).
- This Church alone is described as the Body of Christ, and as the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:25-31).
- To persecute this Church (Acts 8:3) is to persecute Christ (Acts 9:4).
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.