Anyone who wonders why the Catholic Church is in its present crisis need only read Dr. Scott Bruce’s “Do We Still Need to Believe in Hell?” The Wall Street Journal article (9/15-16/2018) recently appeared in its popular weekend review section.
It was a rather typical yet brutal appraisal of the notion of Hell. The author believes Hell is a medieval invention adapted from the ancient myths that talk about a place of punishment for evildoers in the afterlife.
Dr. Bruce recognizes the sociological value of Hell as “a frightening deterrent for sinful behavior,” however, he claims that Hell was (and no longer is) a cornerstone of Christian doctrine and that it was (and no longer is) something about which priests preached.
The author looks forward to a day “in some, better future,” when the idea of Hell might be retired from use. It would be “an important step in the maturation of human communities that can mete out justice on their own, without supernatural aid.”
A Cause for Concern
Such a sad commentary is to be expected from the Wall Street Journal with its materialistic and secular outlook on life. Light-hearted musings about Hell serve as a curiosity for those intent upon building a material paradise on earth.
However, Dr. Bruce is a Catholic. He is not only a Catholic but a professor of history at a Catholic university. His is not just any university but the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York City.
This is a cause for concern, for Dr. Bruce runs no risk in speaking against Hell. He will not be called to task by Fordham for his critique of Hell in the nation’s leading newspaper; he will never be asked to withdraw the book he has just edited about the same topic; and he will tranquilly continue teaching with the many similarly minded professors at Catholic institutions everywhere.
Such inaction on the part of administrators is not surprising to those who have followed the decadence inside the Church in recent decades. Everyone knows there is a lack of concern for orthodoxy at many of the nation’s Catholic institutions. This example just shows that there is no attempt to hide it.
Hell is Scriptural
The denial of Hell helps explain why the Church is in crisis. The Hell-deniers do irreparable harm to the Church, souls and society. The dogma of Hell is foundational for the Church. Take it away and the whole structure of Church teaching comes crashing down.
The notion of Hell has been held from time immemorial. Even Plato, unenlightened by Revelation, perceived the need for Hell, declaring: “Such is the judgment of the gods who dwell in heaven; the good are reunited with the good, the wicked to the wicked.”
The existence of Hell is clearly defined in the Bible. It is mentioned many times in both the Old and New Testaments. It is also unequivocal. Hell-deniers find little room for doubt in the graphic descriptions of this place of terrible punishment of endless duration. Numerous councils have defined Hell as an article of faith. Countless saints have all consistently spoken of Hell in dramatic terms.
“I am filled with fear and trembling,” says Saint Bernard, “and all my bones are shaken at the thought of that unhappy country of the damned.”
Saint Anthony Mary Claret categorically states, “It is of faith that Heaven exists for the good and Hell for the wicked. Faith teaches that the pains of Hell are eternal, and it also warns us that one single mortal sin suffices to condemn a soul forever because of the infinite malice by which it offends an infinite God.”
The denial of Hell is, therefore, a denial of biblical truth and Church tradition. It would imply there is no Revelation. Hell is reduced to metaphor and folklore as insinuated by Dr. Bruce’s article.
No Need for the Incarnation and Redemption
The deniers of Hell call into question the need for the Church. The dogma of Hell is a crucial piece in the logical narrative of the Faith. Without Hell, Christianity would not make sense.
Indeed, if Hell does not exist, then Original Sin cannot exist. For it was as a consequence of man’s fall from grace that Hell became a punishment for those who die unrepentant and unjustified. If there is no Hell, there is no need for the Incarnation and redemption. Without Hell, sins have no consequences. Thus, Jesus Christ need not have become flesh nor died a terrible death on the Cross. His death would be meaningless and illogical. Likewise, Christians would not be bound by a debt of gratitude and love, for Christ would have neither saved nor redeemed them. Christianity would be a great hoax without the notion of Hell.
No Moral Order Without Hell
Moreover, it is in the moral order that Hell becomes important. If there is no eternal hell, then there can be no moral order. The moral order can only be based on an absolute difference between good and evil. If the eternal reward for good and evil deeds is perceived as equal—whether heaven or nothingness—then vice and virtue become optional.
Unanchored in justice, such societies sweep away all morality, honesty, and public order. Take the fear of eternal punishment away, and Hell will be installed on earth. This was many times proved by the sinister ideologies of the twentieth century.
The deniers of Hell undermine the already crumbling moral order. They deprive justice of its sanctions; virtue of its rewards.
Hell and Fatima
To those who say that Hell has outlived its usefulness in the modern age, one need only recall the message of Fatima in 1917. During the July 13 apparition, Our Lady showed the three children a vision of Hell. In so doing, she affirmed the special relevance of Hell for the present.
She not only confirmed Hell’s existence but tragically warned that untold numbers of souls were going there. To prevent this, she asked for repentance and amendment of life. The denial of Hell is a direct attack upon the Fatima message that was mercifully given by God to guide Catholics in these tragic times of sin and iniquity.
What better lesson for today than a strong awareness of the existence of Hell? How many blasphemies and sins could have been averted had Our Lady’s revelation of Hell been taken to heart! How many of the scandals inside the Church would have been avoided had all Catholics, priests and faithful alike, remembered Hell in all its hideousness.
And yet, there is a danger more insidious than those who ignore the Hell that they know exists; it is the danger of the Hell-deniers, who ridicule the notion and incite others to disbelief. They do incalculable harm to souls and the moral order. They offend a merciful God and Our Blessed Mother who desire the salvation of all.
At Fatima, Our Lady gave the shepherd children a prayer in which they were to call upon Jesus to “forgive us our sins and save us from the fires of Hell.”
Today, this prayer might well be modified to ask Our Lady to “save us from the deniers of Hell.”
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “The Temptation of Christ” painted by Ary Scheffer in 1854.