Will Anyone End Up In Hell?

In Robert Speaight’s The Unbroken Heart, a novel sadly neglected in the long years following its publication in 1939, a character named Arnaldo has just been told of his beloved wife’s untimely death.  His reaction, by today’s standards, seems very strange indeed.  “It does not really interest me,” he confesses, “to know by what accident Rhoda died.  All our lives are an accident and we must all die somehow.”

So what does interest him?  The answer, to his interlocutor at least, sounds almost incomprehensible.  “I want to know how she died, what was in her mind, what her soul said to God when she fell from the rampart.  Nothing else is of the least importance whatsoever.  Our life is directed to that moment when we fall from the rampart, and our eternal destiny is decided by that.  But I see that you don’t believe that.”

Nor, would it appear, does anyone else.  Certainly not anyone these days, i.e., people anxious to appear hip and stylish, their opinions plugged into the usual circuits of secularity.  People for whom the parameters of life are far more plausibly found between the covers of, say, Time or Newsweek or People Magazine, are not interested in tracing the soul’s trajectory at the moment of death.   A huge eruption in sensibility having taken place in recent years, the traditional eschatological landscape remains largely unrecognizable.

And not only that, of course, but for those who believe that virtually all souls go straight to Heaven anyway, there to enjoy forever the identical joys they experienced in the flesh, there can’t be much point in fussing about Hell.

Does anyone actually go to Hell anymore?  I mean, leaving aside the usual suspects—Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot—are there really enough reprobates around to justify the existence of such a place?   A place of eternal unending torture no less?  Seriously now, just how wicked does one have to be to get in?  Surely it is not even thinkable that good, respectable Catholics might take themselves there.

What are we to make of Hell?

More to the point, perhaps, what does the Church make of Hell?

In contrast to the mincing multitude unwilling to countenance anyone going there, least of all regular churchgoers, the position of the Catholic Church is refreshingly emphatic.  There is not anyone on the planet, she teaches, however pure the specimen of one’s sanctity, that is not at liberty to take oneself straight to Hell.  In fact, it is a place where, on the strength of even one unshriven mortal sin, one shall languish forever in the most frightful and unimaginably hellish torment.

“Mortal sin,” we are told, “is a radical possibility of human freedom…. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of Hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1861).

In every life, therefore, never mind the brevity of its duration, the essential drama of human existence unfolds against an absolute horizon beckoning each of us to one or another eternal possibility.  To find ourselves thus poised between the hope of Heaven and the fear of Hell, terrifyingly free to choose one or the other, is a good and salutary thing.  As Dr. Johnson famously said about the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight: nothing more wonderfully concentrates the mind.

It is a terrible mistake to so trivialize man’s dignity than in this most awesome discharge of human freedom, in which the human person decides for or against God forever, the full seriousness of what may be undertaken is treated as mere child’s play.  How can we expect our freedom to be respected if God will not honor our right to throw it away?  A human liberty that does not include the right to say no to God—yes, even to the point of rejecting his invitation to commune in his company forever—is no liberty at all.

Accordingly, one could define man as a being free to break the umbilical cord with Being itself, burning his last bridge to God.  Only man possesses so radical a liberty that he may choose—yielding, God knows how, to what pressure of perversity—his own annihilation.  And the temptation to do so stalks even the most self-respecting of Catholics.  “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds / Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds,” as Shakespeare tells us.  This being so, it is the good Catholic especially who will guard against a final fall into one or another failure of hope, i.e., the despair of no longer aspiring to reach Heaven, or the presumption of no longer thinking it necessary to try.   The corruption of the best, it has wisely been said, is the worst corruption of all.

It is precisely the fear of these twin evils, incidentally, that threatens to unhinge the heart and soul of the old man portrayed in John Henry Newman’s dramatic poem, “The Dream of Gerontius,” a masterpiece of lyric beauty and lucidity written in 1865.  The story depicts the journey of a soul to God at the very hour of death, who, despite all the recollected powers of mind and will, of a lifetime steeped in habits of Catholic piety, despite even the presence of dear friends eager to help shepherd him along, remains very much afraid.  Afraid of what?  That God, seeing the real truth of his inner life, the impoverishment of his soul, may simply refuse to admit him into the Company of the Elect; that despite the sheer desperation of his desire to go there, to taste the unending joys of Paradise, God will not at the last allow him to enter in.

And so, moved by charity, the Assistants take up the chant, repeatedly imploring God to show mercy, to impart that virtue of final perseverance of which we all stand in need, particularly those inclined to take salvation for granted.  “Be merciful, be gracious,” they entreat him.  “Lord, deliver him

From the sins that are past;
From thy frown and thine ire;
From the perils of dying;
From any complying
With sin, or denying
His God, or relying
On self, at the last…

The invocations continue in the same rhythmic, resonant way until, finally, his Confessor, marshaling all the forces of Heaven, urges the dying Gerontius to “Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul!

Go from this world!  Go, in the name of God
The omnipotent Father, who created thee!
Go, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord,
Son of the living God, who bled for thee!
Go, in the name of the Holy Spirit, who
Hath been poured out on thee!

What a stirring send-off to accompany the soul home to God!  And when at length the moment of blessed release comes, it is his own Angel Guardian who announces the work is done, “For the crown is won…

My Father gave
In charge to me
This child of earth
E’en from its birth,
To serve and save,
Alleluia,
And saved is he.

This is the basic formula for how Catholics are enjoined both to live and to die. Under the Mercy.  For if salvation depended on us propelling our winsome way along some purely Promethean path to Heaven, the place would be empty.  To remain faithfully Catholic, therefore, right up to the end, is to live and die always as the recipient of a blessing one could never oneself give.

And then to pass it on to others in the spirit of the mendicant whose lively sense of gratitude for the little he has moves him to share it with others.  Unlike, writes Joseph Ratzinger in that wonderful exposition of faith he wrote back in 1968, Introduction To Christianity (on which so many of us first cut out theological teeth), “the calculatingly righteous man, who thinks he can keep his own shirtfront clean and build himself up inside it.”  Beneath the weight of such sanctimony, he warns, the self-satisfied will sink into an abyss of utter unrighteousness.

Shouldn’t this be the constant fear and danger facing the so-called good Catholic?  Knowing how much easier it may prove for grace to move the pagan than the prig, he refuses to preen himself on even the least show of virtue?  “Righteousness,” Ratzinger reminds us, “can only be attained by abandoning one’s own claims and being generous to God.  It is the righteousness of ‘Forgive, as we have forgiven’ … it consists in continuing to forgive, since man lives essentially on the forgiveness he has received himself.”

It is to sear upon the memory the words of the Apostle James, who warns us that God’s “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (2:13).  And for anyone to suffer such exclusion from God’s kingdom, it does not follow that the sins need be satanic in any sort of grand or gaudy way, as if he’d taken out first-class accommodations on an express train bound for Hell.  Hell is not, as the holy curate in Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest informs the old woman whose soul stands in the gravest peril of going there, like anything we might imagine in this world.  “Hell is not to love anymore, Madam.  Not to love anymore!”  We may judge Hell by the standards of this world, but to do so would be a terribly mistake.  It is an altogether other world that only the mitigating exercise of mercy prevents our falling into.

Who among us is not well advised, therefore, always to be mindful lest our poor show of love fall dangerously short of even the most minimal expectation Christ sets for those who claim to love him?  To quote that profound and shrewd Castilian saint, the mystic John of the Cross: “In the evening of our lives, we shall be judged on love.”  God help us if we come up short.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Hell” painted by Hans Memling in 1485.

Regis Martin

By

Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • Marguerite

    Without God we can do nothing. So with the grace of God, even the most reprobate can be saved. We rely totally on the Lord’s mercy and our cooperation with his graces. I’ve always understood charity to mean love of God first (the first three Comandments) and love of neighbor second (the other seven Commandments). The Spiritual and Corporal works of mercy then follow.

  • marbo

    Exceptionally relevant article.. especially in this time of such busyness as Face Book and texting and all the distractions that leave no time for the silences where God is waiting to speak to us and we are to listen. Great article as a reminder that pride as “good Catholics” leaves us as vulnerable as those who we deem “away” from God. Thank you, Regis Martin!!

  • For I stand continually in danger
    although I do not always recognize this,
    and I am the more miserable and wretched
    when I forget that it is so.
    For God always sees me and my sins,
    always his severe judgement threatens
    the sinfulness of my soul,
    always hell gapes and its torments are ready
    to snatch my wretched soul away to that place.
    Thus I am placed when I wake, thus when I sleep;
    I am thus when I smile, thus when I jest;
    thus when I am proud, thus when I am humiliated;
    thus when angry, thus when vindicated;
    thus, thus I am when I miserably love the delights of the flesh.
    Thus am I then always and everywhere.
    (St. Anselm, A Prayer to St-Stephen, Lines 75-87)

    St. Anselm, pray for us.

  • jacobhalo

    I always wondered what it meant that God gives us unconditional love. I say no he does not. If God did there would not be a hell. Unconditional love means there are no conditions for His love. Yes there are. Primarily, the Ten Commandments, and many more conditions to keep His love. We must be absolved from our sins before we regain God’s love. One Modernist theologian said there might not be anyone in hell. I disagree. There are many people in hell. As Jesus said, the gate is narrow.

    • jacobhalo: The gate is indeed narrow for man, but “God is not a man” (Numbers 23:19): “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and in no way subject to conditions of any kind.

      • jacobhalo

        God is also Just. Something we don’t hear from the church today.

        • I appreciate your concern, but I have only recently entered the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, and I find no shortage of teachings concerning God’s perfect justice, or any of God’s infinite perfections, which are all identical because “while truth, goodness, wisdom, holiness and other attributes, as we conceive and define them express perfections that are formally distinct, yet as applied to God they are all ultimately identical in meaning and describe the same ultimate reality — the one infinitely perfect and simple being.”

          I did not enter into full communion with what you refer to as “the Church today” but with the Church, because “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)

          • Frank

            I pray for your continued growth in love with and for the Catholic Church as you take your path through this life and toward Our Savior Jesus Christ. May God bless you and keep you David.

            • Thank you, Frank. Same to you. God bless.

    • Ford Oxaal

      But love is a two way street. This is the whole issue. So God loves us, and yet we are free to not reciprocate. Even though God has unconditional love, there is nothing He will do to force a creature’s will. So much does God love us that He actually condescends to become one of us and die a horrible death to show us literally what it is to have His love rejected. God loves the creatures in Hell, as do all the Saints. But the creatures in Hell do not love back — they are turned inward.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Some of the Fathers, like St Isaac of Syria and St Maximus the Confessor teach that the “fire” that will consume sinners at the coming of the Kingdom of God is the same “fire” that will shine with splendour in the saints. It is the “fire” of God’s love; the “fire” of God Himself who is Love. “For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29) who “dwells in unapproachable light.” (I Timothy 6:16) For those who love God and who love all creation in Him, the “consuming fire” of God will be radiant bliss and unspeakable delight. For those who do not love God, and who do not love at all, this same consuming “fire” will be the cause of their “weeping” and their “gnashing of teeth.”.
      It is the presence of God’s splendid glory and love that is the scourge of those who reject its radiant power and light.

      • Tony

        That insight is consistent with what the poets have to say, like Dante and Milton …

  • la catholic state

    I can never understand how those with a visceral dislike of Jesus Christ and the Crucifix can ever even want to go to Heaven. They wouldn’t like it there…wouldn’t be satisfied with eternal worship of Jesus…and we would all be in danger of another rebellion in Heaven.

    I have no doubt there are many so indifferent not to mention hate-filled to Christ…..that they would rather to go to Hell. They wouldn’t like Heaven anyhow. I don’t wish to sound smug….as the pull of evil can drag us all down if we are not careful and armed with Grace.

    • Ia catholic state: We are all in the same boat. “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind.” (Isaiah 64:6)

      Only God satisfies and there is no doubt that the enemies of Christ who make it to heaven will enjoy God’s company, because “God made us for Himself, and our hearts are restless until they repose in Him.” (St. Augustine, Confessions, Chapter 1)

      If a person prefers hell but seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?

      I myself used to hate Christ and disparage heaven, until I understood who and what Christ is. A little Catholic education goes a long way.

      God help us all.

      • la catholic state

        How can a person prefer Hell if they are seeking God?! Many know Jesus is God…..but don’t care….or don’t like him. We can deny it all we like……but some people just don’t like Christ. Maybe they will change their minds…..before it’s too late.

        • How can a person prefer Hell if they are seeking God? The same way he can prefer sodomy and yet seek God: grace. Everything is grace. We are all in the same boat. We are all called to choose wisely– to choose life–before it’s too late.

          God help us all.

          • la catholic state

            Then that person has not yet decided. But some have already decided. And unless they change their mind……

            • While here on Earth, our feeble human minds are always subject to change, but Christ’s mind is not subject to change. That is why we must “have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:16)

              To consider oneself once-saved-always-saved (because one has “already decided” to return God’s love) would be to fall into the deadly sins of presumption and pride.

              To consider one’s neighbor beyond hope of salvation (because he has “already decided” not to return God’s love) would be to fall into the deadly sins of despair and pride.

              Our only hope is love: “If there is good in you, see more good in others, so that you may remain humble. It does no harm to esteem yourself less than anyone else, but it is very harmful to think yourself better than even one.” (Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Chapter 7)

              God help us all.

              • la catholic state

                I have never considered myself saved once and for all….as I have made clear in my first post. I consider nobody’s fate beyond hope….as I don’t know inside their minds. However…..if I can imagine inside the mind of an imaginary person….then from a logical point of view, I question how they can get to Heaven if on the point of death they remain indifferent to Christ.

                In fact….I have been known to warn people they will go to Hell if they continue to support abortion etc. Maybe warning people is an act of love too.

    • Tony

      This is why Hell is an abode of terrible mercy. What is more unendurable than to be present at a party among people one despises, expressing joys that one can never share? The only place hotter than Hell is Heaven. It is where those who have delivered themselves over to non-being desire to go.

  • john

    I don’t doubt the reality of Hell, but as a parent of young children (to whom I often present the opportunity to make choices for good or bad), I suspect most of us make most of the decisions in our lives that have eternal consequences incompletely understanding both our choices and their consequences (like children, really). Therefore, we do not make them “freely.” This is why “the truth will set you free” is so complicated: Free for what? To know that I have in my power the choice of Hell? Who would want that? Of course I think the REAL freedom is to understand the wonderful good of Heaven and to choose a path toward it, but I hope that God grants the unfree departed the opportunity to grow in virtue in the painful light of His great goodness. I (obviously) don’t know for sure…

  • Fred

    Thank you professor for what I thought was an excellent and thought provoking article. It is hard because no life is without blemish, and though Jesus’s teachings are simple it is hard to live them completely because to varying degrees we all have some attachment to earthly things. I was struck by Tuesday’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles about the growing community of believers selling all their possessions to share with all in accordance with their needs. I know that’s not realistically expected, but if that is the standard then who among us can claim to serve that humbly. I believe all we can do is our best, be humble and forgiving of others as we reflect on our own shortcomings, to give glory to God and know that what happens will be his will, to have joy in knowing his Love for us and share that joy with others whether they are receptive to it at that time or not (we may never see the flowers that bloom from seeds we plant). I do wonder and have had all the thoughts you wrote about, but I prefer not to dwell in wondering about what comes after this earthly life that I have been blessed with as I place my faith in the Lord and do the best I can to please him out of love and not fear. I say prefer because of course I’m only human and I have days my strength is greater than others.

  • Vinnie

    “…poised between the hope of Heaven and the fear of Hell, terrifyingly free to choose one or the other…” GOD IS PRO-CHOICE! Set before us are life and death.

    Also, I believe it was St. John Paul II who said good people don’t get to heaven, holy people do. Prayer, the sacraments and good works should lead to sanctifying grace.

  • ForChristAlone

    I am wondering whether our free will is exercised in heaven. If so, then could a soul saved exercise that will against the Lord? Someone might think that souls, once in the presence of God could not opt for anything but His presence. If that’s the case, did not the angels who rebelled once enjoy this same presence of God and exercise their free will to turn away from God? Just asking…

    • Neihan

      This is my understanding, so if anywhere I contradict what the Church teaches I am in error, and so please correct me.

      Yes, free will is perfectly exercised in the Beatific Vision. I don’t know that it’s an issue of Saints being “unable” to choose against God, but while the Saints are experiencing the Beatific Vision they see evil for what it is and God for who He is – so it is incomprehensible that one with a perfected nature who has been perfectly purified would choose it.

      Hell is, after all, the destination (by choice) of any who do choose something over God. Such a person would never enter into the Beatific Vision to begin with. Just as Hell is the definitive state of those who reject God, Heaven is the definitive state of those who have died saved, purified, and perfected in Christ.

      As for the fallen angels – I’m not sure. My understanding is that the angels were not created in a state of experiencing the Beatific Vision, but had to merit it. Satan and his followers irrevocably rejected God and His grace, and so not only have never experienced the Beatific Vision but will never experience it.

      • Tony

        Saint Augustine makes a nice distinction between the possibility of not sinning (posse non peccare) and the impossibility of sinning (non posse peccare). By the grace of God, souls in heaven are so inundated with bliss that their wills are fixed upon Him, their good, and therefore are most free …

        • Neihan

          That sums up better in two sentences what I fumbled to express in two paragraphs. Thank you, truly. Do you know, off the top of your head, where he made this distinction? I’d like to read more from him about it.

          • sheila

            Do you people do anything other than agonize over every possible consequence to every possible actio”? What a miserable life. No time left to love god.

            • Neihan

              Oh my.

  • hombre111

    Once more, a sterling accomplishment in the usual Regis Martin manner. The only thought that I would add is that we have no idea who is in hell, but we do know that God is Mercy and Compassion. .

  • Nathan

    I don’t like this side of the Church. The concept of Hell terrifies me to no end. The priest and lay Catholics around me know I am terrified of Hell but yet they often tell me things like “I must be in mortal sin.” How nice of them, knowing my anxiety. And how nice of them, knowing my state of mind.

    Luther left the Church because of an over-emphasis on Hell. Yes, he was terribly scrupulous, and yes, he should not have left the Church, but the whole theology of one mortal sin that could wipe out a million good deeds.

    To me, it seems like lots of “devout Catholics” get a lot of glee and pride and condemning others to mortal sin, and possibly to Hell, while they themselves are usually a-okay. They may say they think of Hell a lot, but they do not have the “fear and trembling” of someone who thinks about Hell a lot. And don’t get me started about what some priests told me in the confessional, they practically begged me to go kill myself in despair with their harshness. How good that I avoided the liberal Catholics though, who think nothing of Hell and sin.

    Oh, and as Kierkegaard said, free will is a terrifying thought because all of us can choose evil in the future.

    All right, go tell me how wrong I am and how distorted my thought process is.

    • Desert Sun Art

      The concept of hell terrifies me too. And we cannot take ourselves to Heaven. That is why we must continually admit to God of our own weaknesses and place ourselves in His Mercy. That is what He wants. He doesn’t want self-assured, smug Pharisees, but humble sinners who acknowledge they are sinners and in need of His Mercy.

    • Bob

      “but the whole theology of one mortal sin that could wipe out a million good deeds.”

      Just to possibly clarify, it’s UNREPENTANT mortal sin that blocks us from eternal happiness with God.

      You’re contemplating hell too much, stop it. Be at peace and read prayers and books that put you in God’s light and love. Realize He loves you. Spend your time thanking God for all the wonderful things he has blessed you with. And spend your day doing “small things, with great love” for the glory of God and you will find many graces.

    • Bob

      ……and instead of spending so much time contemplating hell, spend that time contemplating heaven. Christ is with you, right now. My aunt used to say “live your life as if you were already in heaven.” This will help guide your thoughts, words, actions. Satan wants us to look back and focus on all of our past sins and mistakes. Confess those sins, have sorrow for them, repent. God then has forgotten all of those sins, wiping them away with His infinite love and mercy. Keep your eye on the future. Imagine you can see Christ down a long road smiling at you, beckoning you to come to Him. Like Peter stepping out of the boat, keep your eyes on Jesus and you won’t sink.

    • Athelstane

      Yet no figure in Scripture speaks more frequently of hell and the very real danger of going there than Christ himself. Therefore, if we claim to be believers, we have no choice but to take hell – and each of the Four Last Things – seriously. And that is what the Church has tried to do through the ages (albeit less so recent decades alas).

  • BillinJax

    It could be that Hell for those who have led a life deserving of it will be a glimpse of Heaven on their way to know what they could have enjoyed but are forever to be denied.

  • sheila

    Overpopulation will destroy the earth. Angels dancing on the heads of pins of devil’s forks will destroy the joy of contemplating the beauty of the unknown. Stop thinking and procreating so much .

    • thebigdog

      “Stop thinking and procreating so much”

      So your solution is zoning out and having abortions?

      • sheila

        Well, there are two amazing non sequiturs.

        • thebigdog

          The article is about whether or not hell exists, your contribution was about “overpopulation” — and you believe that my response was a non sequitur?

          • sheila

            I guess I’m unusual in that I take both the author and the content into consideration. At the end of the article it states that the author has ten children. He has be a good ultra-right Catholic but this, my friend, is overpopulating the earth and borders on the quiverfull nonsense,.

            • Bob

              Troll……trollllllling……!

              Devout Muslims have large families. Are you on their websites attacking them?

              The good part of the narcissistic, self centered atheistic liberals like yourself is they really don’t have children. Which means they should be gone in a generation.

              • sheila

                No. But I do associate with those LDS who recognize the problem. (You DO know that Heavenly father and Heavenly Mother have continual sex and create billions of spirit children that are waiting for bodies to come to earth to prove their worthiness to return to heaven and start the process all over again, right? That’s why they have large families. ‘Cuz Father and Mother just keep on doing it and they have to get them to earth. Sounds about as reasonable as this discussion about hell, don’t you think?

                • Tony

                  No … because we are relying upon the testimony of Jesus Christ, who we believe to be the Son of God. And we are also relying upon considerations of human freedom, the possibility to deliver oneself wholly over to evil, to the negation of love, to a kind of living death. It is to fix your will unalterably in a state of enmity against the good. It is to say to God, “I wish that You were not,” a kind of spiritual suicide.

                  The poets understood:

                  Horror and doubt distract
                  His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir
                  The hell within him, for within him hell
                  He brings, and round about him, nor from hell
                  One step no more than from himself can fly
                  From change of place; now conscience wakes despair
                  That slumbered, wakes the bitter memory
                  Of what he was, what is, and what must be
                  Worse: of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue.
                  I don’t have to believe in Hell. A frank look at human evil here on earth is enough; it is right here among us.

                  • sheila

                    Oh brother. Over and out.

                    • ForChristAlone

                      You were never in, Sheila. But only you fail to realize this. However, if you’d consider coming “in” you’d be most welcome.

            • Art Deco

              ‘Overpopulation’ is not a coherent concept at current levels of consumption of net primary productivity. That aside, fertility rates are tanking all over the globe, in some places to levels so low that they indicate an incipient social crisis.

            • ForChristAlone

              Are you in favor of suicide as a means to control overpopulation Sheila?

    • ForChristAlone

      Aren’t you now adding to the overpopulation by continuing to use up valuable resources? Are you offering up a solution that applies to your life.

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  • Flannery64

    Hell is the place reserved for one’s enemies. It was not one of the foundational beliefs in the Old Testament, neither is it, or at least its Christian version, held by most Jews today. An overriding concern for justice finds the very idea of permanent punishment for, say, one violation of the Law, no matter how vile, unjust. And God is just.

    For his part, Jesus referred on several occasions to eternal punishment, and yet he also taught his followers to forgive transgressions unconditionally as, he claimed, their heavenly Father does. Eastern Christians have grappled more with the inherent contradictions involved in any unmitigated doctrine of eternal damnation among Christians and come up with a view of hell that puts the entire onus on the sinner without implicating an all-merciful God in condemning anybody to unending torment. In this view, we all meet God face to face at death. But while the just find the experience exhiliarating, sinners suffer, some far worse than others, as each is *burned* clean in the experience. A few may do so “endlessly* or so it would seem. Benedict XVI seemed drawn to this idea, proposing it as a helpful understanding of the Western notion of purgatory at the least. In any case, Catholics should not think their concept of hell is the only way to understand what happens in the World to Come, especially since the traditional idea is so out of whack with the God of unconditional love.

  • Siobhán

    “Even if we have a thousand acts of good merit to our credit, our confidence in being heard must be based on God’s mercy and His love for men. Even if we stand at the very summit of virtue, it is by mercy that we shall be saved.” – St. John Chrysostom

  • Isabel Kilian

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Very grateful for this courageous and excellent article.

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