Famed Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel once quoted a saying from an ancient rabbinical text: the angels weep whenever a soul is condemned to Hell. Our Lord seemed to echo that angelic emotion with His agonized sweat in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before He died. If the angels lament the loss of one soul, how much more does God mourn the loss of one whom He created in His image and likeness to live with Him forever?
The metaphor of weeping at such a loss holds a profound truth that applies to every one of us with regard to our fellow man: we must never desire or rejoice at the loss of any soul. And while there will always some who freely choose to be lost, it is the greatest of all tragedies.
The Soul of Jeffrey Epstein
These sentiments flooded my mind and heart at the first news of Jeffrey Epstein’s death on the morning of August 10. I read a good deal of vitriolic hatred directed toward him on social media in the following hours (and days). The number of people gratuitously condemning him to hellfire was truly appalling.
Believe me, I am not defending Epstein or anything he did. He was not a good man. In fact, he was a very bad man and perhaps in the top tier of the world’s great evildoers. Yet, where does anyone get the moral authority to issue directives on Epstein’s eternal fate?
A not uncommon wish expressed on social media was the hope that “he burns in Hell forever.” One man even relegated Epstein to the ninth (lowest) circle of Hell, where, according to Dante, Judas and Brutus are getting their just desserts. If a 14th Century poet is indicative of the human tendency to consign hateful human beings to everlasting punishment, that spirit is alive and well in the 21st Century.
Same question: what human being has the authority to condemn – or even wish – a soul to be lost eternally?
If God Himself “desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4), the very thought that a soul could spend eternity in Hell should horrify a Christian. St. Paul uses the word “all” to describe God’s salvific desire, not some, and not just those who fit our personal criteria for salvation.
Look at it this way: when we are designating certain categories of people as worthy of Heaven and others as fit for Hell, isn’t it curious that we always seem to find ourselves on the worthy side of the ledger?
That little bit of Freudian self-interest, in itself, should tell us something about the nature of this existential problem. If we would never want to end up in Hell, why should we want anyone else to go there?
Thankfully, God does not follow our category system when dealing out divine justice. Even so, there seems to be good biblical evidence that someone in the “repentant serial pedophile” category could make it into Heaven more readily than someone in the “pharisaical Christian serial condemner of the sins of others” category. At least that’s how I read the “Lord, Lord” passage in Matthew’s Gospel, which ends with the divine pronouncement: “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21). I never want to hear those words addressed to me.
There is an old story about Heaven that goes as follows. If you and I make it to Heaven some day we are likely to get three big surprises. The first will be that all the people we thought were going to be there, aren’t. The second is that all the people we thought were certainly not going to be there, are. And the third surprise is that we are there.
The Demand for Justice
But please don’t misinterpret my stance as being soft on sin either.
Hell is not optional in the Christian worldview. A realm of eternal punishment has been revealed in Scripture in numerous places, both metaphorically (in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31, for example) and literally (in the Book of Revelation, 9:1 and 20:11-15). Christians believe in the concept of justice and, in particular, ultimate justice. This virtue lays a foundation for every nation’s legal system and regulates right relations within society.
In fact, we have a very great obligation to warn serious sinners of the possibility that their hardness of heart will lead to eternal death in Hell. The Prophet Ezekiel has the clearest statement on record of our prophetic duty to admonish sinners about their sin. (Spend some time with Ezekiel’s Chapter 33 to understand this requirement of Christian charity.)
In admitting the reality of Hell, however, we must keep in mind the vast difference between warning people of eternal punishment and the arrogance of consigning people to it.
There were other responses on social media the day Epstein died corresponding more or less to the sentiment that “he got what he deserved.” I am not saying that these sentiments are wrong. They are a natural demand for justice.
The desire to see justice done, however, should never turn into condemnation. This side of Heaven it would be good to withhold all gloating, piling on, and rash efforts to relegate people to the lowest circles of Hell.
Yes, Epstein should have paid for his crimes, but eternal punishment is due only to those who refuse to repent and we are not privy to the secrets of any man’s heart. Eternal Justice remains firmly in Christ’s hands, not ours.
Christians also believe in divine mercy, God’s antidote to the power of sin. For this reason we must hold out hope that Epstein repented at the end and was saved. Do you think this is impossible for such a wicked man? Think again.
The Oklahoma Bomber, mass murderer Timothy McVeigh, was a fallen-away Catholic and went to his execution after having confessed his sins to a priest the night before he died. Remember the vicious serial killer, Ted Bundy? He gave an interview to Dr. James Dobson just before he was executed. In the interview he expressed sincere regret for all he had done, blaming no one but himself for his crimes. Repentance is possible, even for the wickedest of the wicked in this world.
We know that Jeffrey Epstein narrowly avoided death several weeks ago either by his own hand or by treachery. The cause of that incident is not clear, but it is not our purpose to discover it. Something deeper, more consequential, is at issue here.
Epstein knew he was facing a severe sentence for his monstrous crimes. He was surrounded by enemies and deprived of all his worldly power. When death stalked him, his soul must have been filled with mortal anguish, and at one point, he arrived at his do-or-die moment.
As they say, there is nothing like an imminent threat of death to focus one’s mind on God.
How did Epstein respond at the end? Did the wicked pedophile and sex trafficker feel the need for God and turn to Him for mercy? Did he repent of his evil?
We cannot know for sure, but we hope that he did. That is the only and also the final judgment that Christians can make on the matter this side of Heaven.
A Sinner’s Final Minutes
St. Faustina Kowalska, the Polish nun who was given the dreaded vision of Hell in the Divine Mercy apparitions, wrote in her famous Diary of the tenderness with which Jesus approaches a soul in despair offering His infinite mercy to the repentant sinner, even at the very moment of death.
To my mind, a hardened sinner is more likely to repent in his final moments than the man who takes sin oh so casually and eventually dies, sated, of the long-term effects of his prosperity. It is the casual sinner who sees no mortal peril in his sin who is caught by death unawares.
Recall the parable of the morally slothful man who stocked his barn to capacity and told himself to “eat drink and be merry” (Luke 12:13-21) without concern for his immortal soul. “You fool!” said God on the day He took him. I never want to hear those words either.
What is the difference between the wicked man who repents in his final moments and the wicked man who perseveres in the hardness of his heart and ends up in Hell?
Theologians may give a more sophisticated answer to that question, but I think it is this simple: the difference can be found in the sincere prayers of Christians for the souls of the wicked. Our Lady of Fatima said that many souls go to Hell because they have no one to pray for them. In other words, our prayers for sinners tip the balance of God’s scales of justice to the side of mercy.
Does that sound implausible? I don’t think it is. He told Ezekiel that He “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 18:23). Just as Abraham was able to bargain for the lives of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33), God leaves the door open for our prayers to increase the grace of His mercy for those who need it most.
Yes, I do believe that the angels weep at the loss of every soul because they see it for the tragedy it is. The people who are yelling “burn in Hell” have no idea what they are wishing for. If we Christians are too busy assigning the wicked to the various circles of Hell, we will forget about our obligation to pray for the salvation of every soul whom Christ redeemed by His precious Blood. Without prayer everything is lost. With prayer – yours and mine – many of those wicked ones will be saved.
And we should also hope that, in our final moments, someone will be praying for us.
(This article was originally published in August of 2019 at Catholic Stand.)