Of Hell and Heaven

Bernard Madoff was fortunate that he had a chance to repent



Christians don’t believe in Hell as much as they did 50 years ago. The number of Americans who believe in it has dropped, whereas Heaven has fared much better. People can’t accept that God would be so cruel as to condemn souls to eternal punishment just for behaving badly. They argue that everybody sins, and a loving father would limit his punishment for his children.

When I was about 13, my father, a marine electrician, asked me to accompany him on a job to fix a tugboat generator. While he laid on his back beneath a diesel engine, trying to diagnose the problem, I got bored and roamed about. All but the captain of the Navy crew had left on shore leave. I walked the deck and found an open door to a pine-paneled cabin. Making sure no one saw me, I entered and scanned for anything interesting. What caught my eye atop a dresser drawer was a bright brass padlock engraved with the Navy’s anchor symbol. Enticed by its charm and polish, sitting in the shaft of a porthole sunbeam, I pocketed the lock without even finding its key.

Two days later, my dad asked me if I took a lock from the Navy tugboat. Of course, I lied. I lied repeatedly, even while he walloped my butt with his hand. I wept and howled, for it seemed he was going to beat me to death. I knew, however, that my worried mother stood in the threshold, anxiously watching to make sure he didn’t kill me. Just by being there, my mother had a consoling effect on me.

Somehow he’d been convinced I stole it, likely because only its owner was on board, and locks don’t just vanish without a helping hand. The boat captain said it was stolen and that was enough for Dad. His honest reputation was at stake, and the moral integrity of his son. I knew how determined Dad could be, so in self-defense against the corporal punishment I confessed. He ordered me to fetch the lock. I did and handed it to him. Then I secluded myself in my room and wondered: How did he know I stole it? Why was I so stupid to steal a useless lock? Why was Dad so harsh with me over an insignificant item?

In that childhood experience, my dad impressed on me that our heavenly Father is always watching and recording every little thing we think, say, or do. He knows if we’ve been good or bad, and keeps track of it all somehow. I was budding into a petty thief, but Dad fortunately caught and punished me within two days. Both petty and grand theft were the same in his view. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” (cf. Proverbs 13:24). In my case he applied ancient wisdom with his bare hand. He didn’t coddle me to make us friends.

Years later in 2008, the largest grand theft in US history was headline news: Bernard Madoff was arrested for his $50 billion Ponzi scheme. I wondered how he became a thief, and why it took so long for his thievery to go undetected. This was a man who claimed he helped start the Nasdaq stock exchange. He was on several prestigious corporate boards and was highly respected in the financial world. At his zenith, his brokerage was the sixth largest US stock dealer, managing over $60 billion in assets.

One former employee reported the scam started in the early 70s for the usual reasons con artists dupe us: pride and greed. He got away with this for decades. His false reputation for high investment returns in the early stages fed on itself. Both large and small investors believed that he was like no other in achieving profits. They in turn boasted to others who then got drawn into his sticky web. Positive referrals were legion: foundations, banks, other brokers — all wanted to believe that they were as brilliant as he for investing with him.

Madoff immediately pleaded guilty to all charges and was sentenced to 150 years in federal prison. Hedge funds invested with him had lost billions, dragging down over 16,000 victims, such as director Stephen Spielberg, actor Kevin Bacon, and L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. One prestigious European fund manager had committed suicide over losing so much of his clients’ money.

I learned early not to steal. Madoff was lucky to have been caught at all, at age 70. He spent twelve years in jail where he could reflect on the evil reach of his scam, then died at age 82 on April 14, 2021. While in prison, he was paid the humiliating sum of $40 a month to clean prison cells.

He told of being crushed to learn in 2010 that his son Mark at age 46 hung himself, being ashamed of his unwitting role in his dad’s Ponzi scheme. His wife Ruth left him and then failed at an attempted suicide. His second son and last child, Andrew, died of cancer in 2014. It was determined that none of his family except his brother Peter were involved.

Who can fathom the degree of Madoff’s suffering over what he had done, his many sleepless nights of terrifying heart arrhythmias and a consequent heart attack?

“As difficult as it is for me to live with the pain I have inflicted on so many, there is nothing to compare with the degree of pain I endure with the loss of my sons, Mark and Andy,” he wrote.

Was he fully punished after losing everything: his esteemed reputation, his great wealth, his loving wife, and two devoted sons? Blindfolded Lady Justice disregarded his race, education, power, and privilege to determine the exact punishment due. She then weighed whatever good he had done in his life and saw that it was grossly outweighed by his violations of The Golden Rule. So severe were his lies, he likely is working off his punishment in purgatory.

Some of his former clients who otherwise would have said that there is no Hell, might now believe he deserves to be tortured there forever. But if he sincerely repented during his Eleventh Hour, the Catholic Church teaches that Christ would then fully forgive him. Bernie Madoff might just make it into Heaven, because Hades is reserved for those who relish their evil legacy and die unrepentant. God reluctantly permits self-condemnation to the everlasting fires, knowing the cursed do it to themselves.

Many make the mistake of presuming Heaven alone exists, and not Hell also. God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil (Eccl. 12:14).


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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