The brouhaha that erupted last month over the latest Scalfari interview with Pope Francis concerned whether the Holy Father really believes in the existence of hell. The Vatican press office was quick to deny Scalfari’s claim. Yet the controversy overshadowed only briefly a more contentious and longstanding debate in theological circles over eternal punishment.
Since Pope Francis’s October 11, 2017 remarks on capital punishment the Catholic blogosphere has seen a flurry of articles either defending or opposing the traditional teaching of the Church that the death penalty is sometimes licit. One of the ablest defenders of that traditional teaching has been Dr. Edward Feser, who has written several articles on the topic along with a recent book co-authored by Joseph Bessette. In his latest reply to Christopher Tollefsen, he seeks to appeal to the notion of hell as eternal punishment as an a fortiori argument: if a person can merit eternal perdition, all the more can he merit the mere loss of bodily life.
Unfortunately, this method of argumentation will not work against Tollefsen, as he denies that hell is proper punishment: “…a more plausible view is that hell is the separation of the sinning self from God’s presence; so hell is not an imposed punishment, and threats about hell are actually warnings.” Part of the problem with the debate over capital punishment, then, is the increasing prevalence of the view that God does not punish sinners. Feser’s a fortiori is thus turned back on him: if sinners are not punished by God, then all the less should they be punished by mere men. Nevertheless, those holding to this view maintain that hell is a real possibility and everlasting, and so they need some explanation for the doctrine. Does their view hold up?
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The Problematic of Divine Punishment
The possibility of eternal damnation is often explained by focusing on the sinner’s ultimate rejection of his own happiness, who can be likened to a partygoer who refuses to join the fun. This sinner has freely chosen to turn from his last end, and God respects that sinner’s freedom, allowing him to “go his own way.” Damnation is thus conceived as a natural consequence of the sinner’s turning away from God and should not be viewed as God’s action of condemning or sending a person to Hell. This view finds some support in recent magisterial teaching, such as Pope Benedict XVI’s Spe salvi (#45) as well as in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1033) which says: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’” (my emphasis). Further, Hans Urs Von Balthasar claims that this view is so amply illustrated in the works of the fathers that he thinks himself able to conclude “that we cannot say that God has ‘created hell’; no one but man can be blamed for its existence.” Curiously, not a single patristic or biblical source he cites warrants that conclusion.
While there is certainly much truth in this approach, emphasizing as it does the sinner’s freedom in rejecting the offer of God’s grace, it does not seem to do justice to the traditional language employed by many other saints and doctors of the Church, in accordance with Sacred Scripture, that hell is a punishment. As punishment is meted out by the Judge, God is on this other view seen as willing the damnation of the wicked, and thus as governing the order of both salvation and damnation in his providence.
Further, it is my contention that to reject altogether the view that God properly punishes the wicked in accordance with their demerits in favor of this more “humane” approach to damnation creates certain problems that lead to a disruption of the internal coherence of Catholic doctrine. Let us suppose, then, for the sake of argument, that God cannot properly be said to punish or condemn sinners to hell. Let us say that, strictly speaking, punishment or condemnation is always self-inflicted, and see what follows.
The Twisting of Texts
First, let us apply this supposition as a hermeneutical key to Scriptural affirmations that God punishes sinners. All passages in which God is said to judge, condemn, or punish, sinners by “rewarding them according to their works” (Rom. 2:6; 2 Tim: 4:14; Rev. 2:23) must then be understood as so many roundabout ways of saying that the sinners judge, condemn, or punish themselves, rewarding themselves according to their works. This hermeneutic should also apply, then, to passages in which God is said to reward the just, for if punishment is said metaphorically, there is no reason why its correlative should not be. Two possibilities emerge from the application of this hermeneutic, both of which are heretical.
The first possibility is that the just are properly said to reward themselves. This approach reduces supernatural beatitude, like eternal damnation, to a merely natural consequence of our own efforts, and is thus properly Pelagian. The second possibility is to say that beatitude is a reward, improperly speaking, for it is not given in accordance with merit, which belongs properly to the notion of reward and punishment, but as a pure grace. This latter approach, however, is ruled out by the Council of Trent’s decree on justification: “If anyone shall say that the good works of the man justified are in such a way the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him who is justified, or that the one justified by the good works, which are done by him through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ (whose living member he is), does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life (if he should die in grace), and also an increase of glory: let him be anathema.” So if we do not want to end up as either Pelagians or Lutherans, we must hold that God properly rewards the just with beatitude in accordance with their merits.
Now let us say that God properly rewards the just, but only improperly punishes the wicked. The just are thus properly under the order of his mercy and justice, for they have been elevated and sanctified by his mercy and thus capable of acts that merit the reward of eternal life in accordance with his justice. The wicked, then, are only improperly under the order of God’s mercy and justice. They properly stand only under the order of their own perverse wills, hermetically sealed off, as it were, from the order of divine providence. This view would seem to accord well with the passage from Gustave Martelet that Von Balthasar cites when he concludes that “we cannot say that God created hell”: “If God is love, as the New Testament teaches us, hell must be impossible. At the least, it represents a supreme anomaly… For hell is the real absurdity. It is no part of a whole in which it might have a meaningful place but is a true outrage that is not able to be affirmed. It is an act of violence that freedom can inflict upon itself but that is not willed by God and never can be willed.”
This entails that something created falls outside the order of divine providence, or that a mere creature can be the creator, properly speaking, of something. But God is properly and uniquely the creator and ruler of all things, who “orders all things sweetly” (Wis. 8:1). A hell strictly conceived as having been created by man (even as a state and not a place) and falling outside the order of providence is contrary to our faith in a Provident Creator that we express in the first article of the Creed. Consequently, we should consider both punishment and beatitude properly as “rewards” meted out in accordance with merit.
The Sources of the Error
It is my belief that those who consider viewing the punishment of hell as self-inflicted the only explanation for hell are led to this one-sided emphasis by two related errors. The first of these is the error of thinking that God cannot will the punishment of the wicked much in the same way that God cannot be the cause of their sins. The other error is to think that eternal punishment is grossly disproportionate to mortal sin.
The first of these errors could arise from thinking of the infliction of punishment as somehow outside the intention of the one doing the punishing. Thus what God is really doing in “punishing the sinner” is merely allowing a natural effect to arise from the sinner’s self-determination, and should be categorized as pertaining to God’s permissive, rather than to his ordaining, will. This approach, however, is both unnecessary and unreasonable. It is unnecessary for it is not wrong to will the punishment of an offender, for this pertains to the virtue of justice, according to which the offender is given what is his due. It is unreasonable because although punishment is not primarily what is aimed at in conferring judgment—but rather, the common good—it is nevertheless the chosen means suited to accomplish that aim, and is thus strictly voluntary. While God cannot be said to cause moral wrong, then, there is no reason to say that he cannot be the cause of punishment.
The second of these errors, namely, the objection that eternal punishment is disproportionate to a finite, temporal, sin is a more serious matter, and seems to be the real driving force of denial that God inflicts on anyone the punishment of hell, for it implies that God would be unjust to inflict such a dire penalty. Unfortunately, the notion of hell as self-inflicted does not defeat this argument but only relocates it, for now it is not God who inflicts a disproportionate punishment, but oneself. Thus we need to confront this objection by different means altogether.
Towards a Resolution
What seems to undergird this objection to hell is a lack of appreciation for the malice of mortal sin. In this connection, what St. John Paul II has said concerning the loss of the sense of sin is still highly relevant: “Even in the field of the thought and life of the church certain trends inevitably favor the decline of the sense of sin. For example, some are inclined to replace exaggerated attitudes of the past with other exaggerations: From seeing sin everywhere they pass to not recognizing it anywhere; from too much emphasis on the fear of eternal punishment they pass to preaching a love of God that excludes any punishment deserved by sin; from severity in trying to correct erroneous consciences they pass to a kind of respect for conscience which excludes the duty of telling the truth.”
Faced with the objection, then, that infinite punishment is not proportionate to our finite sins, we must do two things. First, holding fast to our faith, we should take the advice of the saints and try to conceive a deep horror of sin by meditating on the everlasting pains of hell. Second, we should try to understand why the loss of beatitude is a fitting punishment for mortal sin. The writings of St. Thomas Aquinas are a good place to start, as in several works he takes up the question head on, such as in his Compendium of Theology, the Summa Contra Gentiles, and the Summa Theologiae. The argument I find particularly compelling is from the Summa Contra Gentiles:
Besides, natural equity seems to demand that each person be deprived of the good against which he acts, for by this action he renders himself unworthy of such a good. So it is that, according to civil justice, he who offends against the state is deprived completely of association with the state, either by death or by perpetual exile. Nor is any attention paid to the extent of time involved in his wrongdoing, but only to what he sinned against. There is the same relation between the entirety of our present life and an earthly state that there is between the whole of eternity and the society of the blessed who… share in the ultimate end eternally. So, he who sins against the ultimate end and against charity, whereby the society of the blessed exists and also that of those on the way toward happiness, should be punished eternally, even though he sinned for but a short space of time.
While I do not wish to deny that the punishment of hell is in a meaningful sense self-inflicted, it has been my aim to show that the denial that it is caused or willed by a just God leads to conclusions that threaten the foundation of the faith. To adhere to one of the truths of our faith, and to understand it in such a way that other truths of the faith are thereby denied, is akin to heresy. Thus in expounding and defending the doctrine of hell, it is incumbent on the Catholic to affirm both that hell is self-inflicted and that it is a just punishment for unrepentant mortal sin. To neglect the defense of God’s justice in willing eternal punishment is a failure to “give the reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet.3:15), which is a hope in a God of unfailing goodness “who will come to judge the living and the dead and the world with fire.”
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Pandemonium” painted by John Martin in 1841.