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Part 6: Whatever Happened to the Doctrine of Hell?

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jan 17, 2015)
The following is the sixth installment of a 15-part series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice. Read the series to date.

The most uncomfortable truth of all regarding Divine Justice is, of course, the traditional doctrine of Hell. That Catholics today generally ignore this doctrine is manifestly obvious. (For example, when was the last time you heard a Sunday homily on this subject?) In his otherwise excellent book Catholicism, Fr. Robert Barron certainly did not ignore the doctrine, but unfortunately, what he wrote on hell was just misleading.

He started out with some helpful clarifications. Fr. Barron wrote (p. 257):

We human beings can respond to the divine love or we can reject it. We can bask in its light or we can turn from it. The choice is ours. God wants all people to be saved, which is just another way of saying that He wants them all to share His life. But His life is love freely given, and therefore it can be had only in the measure that it is freely returned. "Hell" is a special metaphor for the state of having freely refused this love, having chosen to live outside its ambit.

But then toward the bottom of the same page he starts to wander:

Though we must accept the possibility of hell (due to the play between divine love and human freedom), we are not committed doctrinally to saying that anyone is actually "in" such a place. We can't see fully to the depths of anyone's heart; only God can. Accordingly, we can't declare with utter certitude that anyone — even Judas, even Hitler — has chosen definitively to lock the door against divine love. Indeed, since the liturgy compels us to pray for all of the dead, and since the law of prayer is the law of belief, we must hold out at least the hope that all people will be saved. Furthermore, since Christ went to the very limits of godforsakeness in order to establish solidarity even with those who are furthest from grace, we may, as Hans Urs von Balthasar insisted, reasonably hope that all will find salvation. Again, this has nothing to do with our perfectibility; it has to do with God's amazing grace.

Sadly, Fr. Barron seems to have stumbled into several failures in logic here.

For example, the fact that we do not know for sure whether any given person is in hell does not necessarily mean that it is likely that no one is in hell at all. We do not have the gift of reading the hearts of individuals, to be sure, but as we shall see, we do know quite a lot about the fate of mankind in general from Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and human reason. Drawing upon these sources, I will endeavor to show over the next few weeks of this series that we can, indeed, know beyond any reasonable doubt that some souls are eternally lost. We just don't know which ones in particular come to that end.

Moreover, we cannot logically conclude from the fact that in the liturgy we pray for the souls of all the departed that we are entitled to cling to a "reasonable hope" that all souls will be saved. Surely, we pray for all the departed indiscriminately because (again) we do not know the secret depths of any human soul, and so we do not know which individuals might have preserved in the hearts even just a tiny spark of faith and love at the moment of their death — enough for God to fan into flame by the Holy Spirit in the life to come. But that anyone in particular might be saved as far as we know, does not necessarily make it likely that everyone will be saved. And again, from Scripture, Tradition, and reason, as we shall see, we can know that everyone will not, in fact, be saved.

Finally, the fact that Jesus on the Cross sought out lost souls into the very depths of their experience of separation from God does not necessarily imply that all souls will ultimately, positively respond to Him. After all, hanging on crosses right beside Jesus were two thieves: one who came to repentance and faith in the end, and one who evidently did not. This Gospel episode formed the basis of the famous saying "Two thieves were crucified alongside our Lord: one was saved — don't despair; one was lost — don't presume."

So it seems that there is considerable confusion on this subject. Perhaps it all stems from seeing God's merciful love and commutative justice as irreconcilable opposites, so that the only way to magnify God's mercy is to minimize His justice as much as possible. The fear that seems to grip Fr. Barron, and so many other Catholic theologians and writers today, is that if Divine Justice sends anyone to hell, then He cannot be the God of merciful love that we long to believe in.

It's interesting that the great modern Catholic saint of Divine Mercy, St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, had a somewhat different perspective on all this. On the one hand, our Lord spoke to her in private revelations and told her of the priority of His Divine Mercy:

I do not want to punish mankind, but I desire to heal it, pressing it to My Merciful Heart. I use punishment when they themselves force Me to do so; My hand is reluctant to take hold of the sword of justice. (Diary of St. Faustina, 1588)

On the other hand, whenever souls do "force" Him to "take hold of the sword of justice," He wields that sword in a way that fully respects human freedom. Jesus said to her:

[When sinful souls] bring all My graces to naught, I begin to be angry with them, leaving them alone and giving them what they want. (Diary, 1728)

These private revelations given to St. Faustina actually fit quite well with what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about hell in entry 1453, calling it a "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God."

As a result, St. Faustina was convinced of the reality of hell and that some souls do indeed "definitively exclude" themselves from communion with God. Like many other saints, she even had a frightening vision of hell and of the miseries of the lost souls there. She wrote: "I am writing this at the command of God, so that no soul may find an excuse by saying there is no hell, or that nobody has ever been there, and so no one can say what it is like." (Diary, 741)

At one point in this vision, St. Faustina says that she saw a "fire that will penetrate the soul and burn without destroying it — a terrible suffering, since it is a purely spiritual fire, lit by God's anger."

We need to remember that God's anger is not an emotion. It's not sheer vindictiveness either, as if it ever could be separated from His love. Rather, His anger is a metaphor for His commutative justice and His total opposition to evil, especially unrepentant evil. Remember that the souls condemned to hell actually deserve their punishment on the scales of Divine Justice: They have betrayed infinite love without remorse or regret. What "burns" these souls in a spiritual way, we may surmise, is to be unavoidably confronted with the full truth about their evil deeds and irrevocable rejection of God's love, and to hear Jesus Christ Himself ratify that truth with the words from His parable, "Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels" (Mt 25:41). In the end, the truth will win out, and God will not be mocked.

Why does St. Faustina tell us about hell? Is it just to frighten us into obeying God? Well, indeed, "the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord," but that's only the beginning. And St. Faustina's main purpose in telling us about all this is actually to magnify God's mercy. For like any loving parent who warns his children about the dangers of playing with matches, or running across the street without checking the traffic, God wants to preserve us from harm. He wants to preserve us from ultimate self-destruction. His warnings are warnings of the very real dangers that we face, and they're given out of love for us. In fact, God is so merciful that He has even assumed our human condition as Jesus Christ and died on the Cross to save us from such eternal dangers.

In addition, we should remember that many of the saints teach us that even hell itself is tempered by, and an expression of, Divine Mercy. For example, St. Faustina, St. Catherine of Sienna, and St. John Eudes taught that, in effect, God is always as merciful to us as we will allow Him to be. Only our own lack of repentance and trust stands in the way. In fact, His mercy reaches right into the depths of hell itself, even for the lost. The tragedy is that the souls of the damned let God love them only in the most minimal way.

First, by allowing souls to reject Him and His love forever, God thereby respects human freedom, the dignity of human free will that He gave to us. He will never take away from us the dignity of being able to choose our own destiny. God will never force people to open their hearts to him and repent. He does not want robots or puppets on a string. The only repentance and love relationship worth having with Him is a freely chosen one. One may ask: "But what about those people who will not freely choose it?" C.S. Lewis summed it up best in his book, The Problem of Pain:

In the long run, the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question. What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and at all costs to give them a fresh start, smoothing over every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not repent and be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I'm afraid, that is what He does."

Second, God knows that for souls who truly despise Him, to have to see Him face to face forever would make them even more miserable than their self-chosen exile from Him in Hell. That is why Cardinal Newman wrote, "Heaven would be hell to the irreligious." In Paradise Lost, the poet John Milton quotes Satan voicing the sentiments of all the damned: "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven."

As C.S. Lewis once wrote, "The gates of hell are locked from the inside." The doctrine of Hell, therefore, though it is disconcerting and sad to us, does not contradict the merciful love of God. It's a manifestation not only of Divine Justice, but also of Divine Mercy.
Next in the series: "Is There Really 'Hell to Pay'?"

Read the series to date.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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Maria - Jan 20, 2015

I have a question. If God who is all knowing and knows the future can foresee that a human will freely choose to go to hell then why God choose to create that person? I hope I have phrased my question politely.

I understand that God respects human freedom and wants us to freely choose to know, love and serve him. I understand that God wants to bring souls to heaven. I understand that God loves and cares for us. I understand that God is both merciful and just.

Robert Stackpole - Jan 21, 2015

Excellent Question, but the answer is not easy because it depends upon a proper understanding, I think, of God's relationship to time. This is a difficult philosophical matter, so please bear with me.

As St. Thomas Aquinas taught (and it was essentially confirmed by the Church at the First Vatican Council, and alluded to in Catechism 600), God is not bound in "linear time" as we are. He is completely outside of time. So he does not have to "remember" the past nor "look ahead" and "foresee" the future. Rather, all times are present before his eyes at once. St. Thomas describes it as like a man looking down from a high citadel on a line of passers-by below. He sees the whole line at once, and which ones are at the head of the line and which ones are toward the back--but again, he also sees the whole line from beginning to end in one simple, constant, eternal gaze.

This means that when God creates the world, and later (in our linear time scale) when he creates you and me, he does not"foresee" or predict whether each person will go to heaven or hell, and then need to decide whether they are worth creating at all. He knows who is finally choosing to go to heaven and who is choosing to go to hell, from all eternity, because HE ACTUALLY SEES US DOING IT: the future is present to his eyes because it is actual for him, not just possible. Similarly, he does not "foresee" what you will do tomorrow-- from all eternity, he actually sees you doing it. Same with the past: he does not 'remember" what you did yesterday: from all eternity, he sees you doing it.

Thus the only way that God knows that someone is going to hell is because they actually choose to go there, in his all-encompassing sight. As the ancient Christian philosopher Boethius pointed out, if God could "foresee" (accurately predict) what you would do in the future, then you would not have real free-will, because you would not be free to do otherwise. But God does not foresee or accurately predict: from all eternity, he just sees you using your free-choice at every moment of your life. That's how he knows who is going to heaven and hell.

So if I understand this matter correctly, the real question is not "why did God create person X if he foresaw that they were going to hell?" but why did he create creatures with free-will at all knowing that some of them would misuse their freedom and go to hell. Was it worth it?

We are not omniscient, so we are probably not in a position to judge. But it would seem that the it was worth it if the solid majority of people will end up in heaven in the end, enjoying and returning His infinite love (see the third article in this series on hell, coming up in a couple of weeks). And it would seem that somehow even damned souls are not completely worthless: that is why God forever respects the dignity of the free-will he gave them and treats them with what compassion he can (see the last four or five paragraphs of the article above). Can we peer any more deeply into this mystery??? I am not sure we can, but I am open to further wisdom and suggestions!

Maria - Jan 24, 2015

Thank you very much for your excellent reply. It was very insightful for me. I have a fuller understanding of God's relationship to time.

The great gifts of God to humanity are life and free will.

I understand that salvation is a two-way street. Humans cannot save themselves without the cooperation of God.

Salvation is a gift. A gift must be freely given and freely received. We can reject God's gift of salvation. St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, wrote, ‘God who created you without you, will not save you without you’ St Augustine, Sermo 169, 13 (PL 38,923)

It reminds me of Saint Augustine's insight that we are solitary creatures. The innermost chamber of our heart is locked. There are two keys. One key is in God's hands. The other key is in our hands. So God cannot force our love. "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." Augustine's Confessions (Lib 1,1-2,2.5: CSEL 33, 1-5). There are also two keys to salvation. One is in God's hands and the other is in our hands.

Saint Thomas Aquinas defined love as willing the good of the other as other. God wants humans to freely choose to love him. God loves goodness and hates evil. God must be ethical. If the price of saving a soul were for God to behave unethically then that would be a bridge too far for God to cross. God has done all that he ethically can to save us.

I looked at Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska's Diary Divine Mercy in My Soul. I remember reading that God calls three times to a dying soul but I could not find the reference. God can save a soul in the millionth of a millionth of a second. The souls in heaven have benefited from the mercy of God. We should trust in the mercy of God but not presume upon the mercy of God. When a soul turns to God then God experiences peace, joy and happiness. When a soul rejects God then God experiences sadness and anguish.

The diary explains that most of the souls in hell disbelieved that there is a hell. Fearing hell can help us grow in virtue and avoid sin. The Catholic church is the church of both and. We believe both that Jesus died for our sins so that all may be saved (in theory) and Jesus died for our sins that some would be saved (in practice).

I understand that God forgives the souls in hell. But God does not pardon the souls in hell. I heard this explanation. When we die there is a vote. God votes for the human to be saved. Satan votes for the human to be damned. Our vote is the decisive vote. Pardoning sin requires cooperation between God and the penitent. The souls in hell have no free will. Thus they cannot ask God for pardon.

The Spiritual Doctrine of Saint Catherine of Genoa

Treatise on Purgatory Chapter IV The difference between the state of the souls in Hell and that of those in Purgatory--Reflections of the saint upon those who neglect their salvation

"It is evident that the revolt of man's will from that of God constitutes sin, and while that revolt continues, man's guilt remains. Those, therefore, that are in Hell, having passed from this life with perverse wills, their guilt is not remitted, nor can it be, since they are no longer capable of change. When this life is ended, the soul remains forever confirmed either in good or evil according as she has here determined. As it is written: Where I find thee, that is, at the hour of death, with the will either fixed on sin or repenting of it, there I will judge thee. From this judgment there is no appeal, for after death the freedom of the will can never return, but the will is confirmed in that state in which it is found at death. The souls in Hell, having been found at that hour with the will to sin, have the guilt and the punishment always with them, and although this punishment is not so great as they deserve, yet it is eternal. Those in Purgatory, on the other hand, suffer the penalty only, for their guilt was cancelled at death, when they were found hating their sins and penitent for having offended the Divine Goodness. And this penalty has an end, for the term of it is ever approaching. O misery beyond all misery, and the greater because in his blindness man regards it not!

"The punishment of the damned is not, it is true, infinite in degree, for the all-lovely goodness of God shines even into Hell. he who dies in mortal sin merits infinite woe for an infinite duration; but the mercy of God has made the time only infinite , and mitigated the intensity of the pain. In justice He might have inflicted much greater punishment than He has done.

"On, what peril attaches to sin willfully committed! For it is so difficult for man to bring himself to penance, and without penance guilt remains and will ever remain, so long as man retains unchanged the will to sin, or is intent upon committing it."

Maria - Jan 25, 2015

I remember hearing that since the soul is created by God and not by nature then the soul is immortal. God cannot bring the damned souls in Hell to heaven. God does not have the option of putting their souls out of existence either.

The Spiritual Doctrine of Saint Catherine of Genoa Spiritual Dialogue Third Part Chapter XIII

"If souls did not then find the places ordained for them by God, their torments would be even greater, for they would have violated the divine order; and as there is no place which His mercy does not visit, when they are within His order, their sufferings are less than they would otherwise be. The soul was created by God for Himself, and is governed by Him, and it can find no repose but in Him alone. The condemned in Hell are in the order of God through justice. Could they be outside of it they would be in a still greater Hell by their violation of the divine order, which gives them the terrible instinct to go directly to their appointed place. Elsewhere their sufferings would be redoubled, and therefore they go hither, not indeed that they may suffer less, but impelled by that supreme and infallible decree of God, which cannot err."

Dante wrote in his Divine Comedy that hell has sign "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."

John - Jan 25, 2015

Great analysis by both of you! I have a few comments and questions too.

First, in Genesis 1:26, God says "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness". Notice "us" and "our": we are the only creation made in the image of the Most Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). So, like God, we were given "Intellect" and "Will". The Intellect (through Faith) needs to be raised to the "Truth" who is Jesus, and the Will (through a power called Grace) needs to be raised to the Good who is also Jesus.

Now, we can freely choose the Truth and the Good, or freely reject it. According to Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 412:

412 But why did God not prevent the first man from sinning? St. Leo the Great responds, "Christ's inexpressible grace gave us blessings better than those the demon's envy had taken away." and St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, "There is nothing to prevent human nature's being raised up to something greater, even after sin; God permits evil in order to draw forth some greater good. Thus St. Paul says, 'Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more'; and the Exsultet sings, 'O happy fault,. . . which gained for us so great a Redeemer!'"

Cross reference St. Leo the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Romans 5:20.

So God won the victory, but we have to journey to the stage and accept the trophy. Those who didn't bother taken the "blessed" (happy) journey will (I hope) repent of it before they perish.

So now the question is: why would someone not repent even at the last hour? We notice in CCC 1033 and 1037:

1033 ...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."

1037 God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want "any to perish, but all to come to repentance"...

Cross reference 2 Peter 3:9.

So now the question is "what is mortal sin"? CCC 1856 & 1857 tell us:

1856 Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us - that is, charity - necessitates a new initiative of God's mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation:

When the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end, then the sin is mortal by its very object . . . whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery.... But when the sinner's will is set upon something that of its nature involves a disorder, but is not opposed to the love of God and neighbor, such as thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter and the like, such sins are venial.130

1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."

So we know Jesus wants "all to come to repentance", but how can Jesus tell us to "Love our enemies" if he doesn't love his enemies himself? (Of course, we know He does! But the point is, some would say that eternal damnation, while justice, certainly isn't love.)

As usual, I think we get at the answer a couple of ways in the Diary of St. Faustina, Divine Mercy in my Soul:

300 ...how much I am hurt by a soul‟s distrust! Such a soul professes that I am Holy and Just, but does not believe that I am Mercy and does not trust in My Goodness. Even the devils glorify My Justice but do not believe in My Goodness. My Heart rejoices in this title of Mercy.

699 ...My mercy is so great that no mind, be it of man or of angel, will be able to fathom it throughout all eternity.


1160 When once I asked the Lord Jesus how He could tolerate so many sins and crimes and not punish them, the Lord answered me, I have eternity for punishing [these], and so I am prolonging the time of mercy for the sake of [sinners].

So there you have it! The time of mercy is always now (before we die); we are called to live pure lives, as well as faith activated by charity, which in St. Faustina's diary (and Sacred Scripture) we are reminded:

742 It is to be a reminded of the demands of My mercy, because even the strongest (163) faith is of no avail without works.

If we refuse this Mercy even up to the last millisecond of our lives, we are turned over to His justice.

I think this is best summed up in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 18, verses 21-35:

21 Then Peter approaching asked him, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?"

22 Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.

23 That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.

24 When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.

25 Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt.

26 At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.'

27 Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.

28 When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, 'Pay back what you owe.'

29 Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'

30 But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt.

31 Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair.

32 His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.

33 Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?'

34 Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.

35 So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart."

So this is just one of many reasons why I love my God! Notice the footnote for verse 19:

19 [22] Seventy-seven times: the Greek corresponds exactly to the LXX of ⇒ Genesis 4:24. There is probably an allusion, by contrast, to the limitless vengeance of Lamech in the Genesis text. In any case, what is demanded of the disciples is limitless forgiveness.

And, of course, if God demand of the disciples "limitless forgiveness", he is not going to be hypocritical: he is going to offer limitless forgiveness Himself!

Plus, in verse 34, notice the phrase "pay back the whole debt". It implies that the debt *IS* payable; otherwise, it would just be "handed him over to the torturers "without end" or "for time unceasing". However, again it is representative of Jesus telling St. Faustina that he has eternity to "punish these"; he doesn't just throw in the towel & let his creatures suffer eternally. Granted, they may not know this - it is probably because they didn't give hope to others that they will (apparently) have no hope themselves. But God, as Love Itself (and even in the time of Justice), *USES* eternity; sounds like to the debt CAN be paid whether we grab onto His Mercy (our first and best option) or His Justice.

Finally, I had the Vicar General of our diocese ask me once (which I had thought about previously), "In the 2000 year history of the Church, has the Church declared *anyone* to definitively be in Hell?". I (happily) admitted that I knew of no one who had been. And this matches up with the CCC:

597 ...the personal sin of the participants (Judas, the Sanhedrin, Pilate) is known to God alone.

So we should love God (Who loved us first) for many reasons, not the least of which is that he warns us about the temptation of - and acting on - "grave matter" with full knowledge & deliberate consent; and, even then, offers us chances for our entire earthly lives to embrace his Loving Mercy, but also always believing in his ultimate Good Justice.

Maria - Jan 26, 2015

I agree that God is the source of all goodness. I agree that God created us in love. I agree that God will make an effort to save every soul.

Our choices have consequences. God wants to help us learn from our mistakes. God wants us to grow in holiness. Since God respects our free will he cannot force us to choose heaven. I believe that there are some damned souls in hell.

The Gnostics were condemned as heretics. They believed that you can save yourself by your own efforts without the help of God.

The damned in hell cannot help themselves or anyone else. The more sinners that go to hell the more evil hell becomes. The more evil hell becomes then the greater the pain and suffering. Once humans become trapped in hell they become absolutely evil. They are beyond redemption. However they still benefit from God's mercy in that they suffer less than what would be demanded by God's justice.

As humans we have a knowledge of good and evil from the Garden of Eden. We have a responsibility to use our freedom well.

The church triumphant is in heaven. The church militant is in purgatory. The church suffering is here on earth. The people in heaven and purgatory pray for us to be saved. They understand how important our salvation is. Luke 15:7 "I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent." (New International Version)

God looks at our good deeds over the course of our lifetime. God allows us to benefit from the prayers of other people. In Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska's Diary Divine Mercy in My Soul Jesus promises that if we recite the chaplet of divine mercy for a dying person then Jesus will come to us as a Merciful Savior and not as a Just Judge.

We do not know of course who is in hell. We will know on The Last Judgment. Then the souls in hell will receive their earthly bodies. Then their sufferings will increase.

We can pray for Judas or anyone we wish. If the person we pray for is in hell then God will use those prayers to help someone else. Prayer is never wasted. The mercy of God is greater than we can imagine.

John - Jan 26, 2015

Thanks, Maria. I agree that we have a responsibility to use our freedom well. I also agree that people in heaven pray for us to be saved. And, furthermore, I agree that God looks at our good deeds over the course of our lifetime.

Honestly - and I say this humbly - I have no idea about God's constraints on Hell. Of course, we have Sacred Scripture (the Bible), which along with Sacred Tradition is interpreted by the Magisterium of the Church. This is what the CCC represents. And if you read CCC, it talks about "definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called Hell". Definitive (as defined in the dictionary) means "done or reached decisively and with authority"; also, "not able to be argued about or changed". But does this mean for "all time" for "forever without end"?

Same thing for the word "eternity". The dictionary defines that as "infinite or unending time". And "infinite" means "having no limits" or "extremely large or great".

So which is it: is the "unchangeable (definitive) condition" for "always even beyond time", or "unchangeable for an extremely large or great period of time"? Again, I think Jesus gives more than just a clue (in "Divine Mercy in my Soul") when he says "I have eternity for punishing [these]" (as I referenced above). I could be wrong, but I take this to mean "if it takes 1000 or a trillion years for the proper punishment, so be it; and if I need to, I'll add another 1000 or trillion years.

My uncle, who was a Catholic priest and just passed away, did say (as did you) that there is no redemption from Hell. I e-mailed him the scripture above from Matthew 18 and asked if that meant "no redemption for eternity/beyond time" or "no redemption for eternity/within time but without any necessary limit". Unfortunately, he never responded.

By the way, Jesus taught us the "Our Father". I am a father myself, and I would do *anything* to save my child from eternal/never-ending damnation. Granted, Jesus Christ *has* already done that. But my point is that if I saw my child do *anything* good - and then knew that the evil he would do would outweigh that, I'd want to "pluck" him from this life in order to save him. Now, in thinking about this though, that wouldn't be fully respecting the life I gave him: to freely *choose* to know the Truth (Jesus) AND do the Good (Jesus); it'd also deny him the opportunity to repent of his ways.

So it makes sense that God looks to find *any* goodness/light in us; and he also gives us the chance - even in the last seconds of our lives - to repent and accept His loving mercy. Now St. Faustina says in her diary how horrible the sight of the obdurate soul who refuses even this last opportunity of the gift of mercy!

So I empathize with you believing that there are souls in Hell. But I would reiterate not only what my diocesan Vicar General said about the Church not declaring anyone being in hell, but also what Pope Benedict said in Spe Salvi: "There *can* be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love..."; but that doesn't mean there is; perhaps there are, but again, we should be humble enough to admit we don't know, assume they are in heaven or purgatory, and pray for them (since, if they're in purgatory, our prayers will benefit them).

Finally, here are the five paragraphs of Spe Salvi that hit home the most for me!:

44. To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope. Is it not also a frightening image? I would say: it is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear of which Saint Hilary spoke when he said that all our fear has its place in love[35]. God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened. Here I would like to quote a passage from Plato which expresses a premonition of just judgement that in many respects remains true and salutary for Christians too. Albeit using mythological images, he expresses the truth with an unambiguous clarity, saying that in the end souls will stand naked before the judge. It no longer matters what they once were in history, but only what they are in truth: “Often, when it is the king or some other monarch or potentate that he (the judge) has to deal with, he finds that there is no soundness in the soul whatever; he finds it scourged and scarred by the various acts of perjury and wrong-doing ...; it is twisted and warped by lies and vanity, and nothing is straight because truth has had no part in its development. Power, luxury, pride, and debauchery have left it so full of disproportion and ugliness that when he has inspected it (he) sends it straight to prison, where on its arrival it will undergo the appropriate punishment ... Sometimes, though, the eye of the judge lights on a different soul which has lived in purity and truth ... then he is struck with admiration and sends him to the isles of the blessed”[36]. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (cf. Lk 16:19-31), Jesus admonishes us through the image of a soul destroyed by arrogance and opulence, who has created an impassable chasm between himself and the poor man; the chasm of being trapped within material pleasures; the chasm of forgetting the other, of incapacity to love, which then becomes a burning and unquenchable thirst. We must note that in this parable Jesus is not referring to the final destiny after the Last Judgement, but is taking up a notion found, inter alia, in early Judaism, namely that of an intermediate state between death and resurrection, a state in which the final sentence is yet to be pronounced.

45. This early Jewish idea of an intermediate state includes the view that these souls are not simply in a sort of temporary custody but, as the parable of the rich man illustrates, are already being punished or are experiencing a provisional form of bliss. There is also the idea that this state can involve purification and healing which mature the soul for communion with God. The early Church took up these concepts, and in the Western Church they gradually developed into the doctrine of Purgatory. We do not need to examine here the complex historical paths of this development; it is enough to ask what it actually means. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell[37]. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are[38].

46. Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God's judgement according to each person's particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.

47. Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart's time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ[39]. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).

48. A further point must be mentioned here, because it is important for the practice of Christian hope. Early Jewish thought includes the idea that one can help the deceased in their intermediate state through prayer (see for example 2 Macc 12:38-45; first century BC). The equivalent practice was readily adopted by Christians and is common to the Eastern and Western Church. The East does not recognize the purifying and expiatory suffering of souls in the afterlife, but it does acknowledge various levels of beatitude and of suffering in the intermediate state. The souls of the departed can, however, receive “solace and refreshment” through the Eucharist, prayer and almsgiving. The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon? Now a further question arises: if “Purgatory” is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Saviour, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God's time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain. In this way we further clarify an important element of the Christian concept of hope. Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too[40]. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.


Maria - Jan 27, 2015

Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I have certainly learned so much from you.

I have heard about near death experiences where people go to a bad place, possibly hell and somehow they get rescued by good angels and resuscitated by doctors. So I think there is a short window of hope. But I think after that short window expires then there is no possibility of redemption. I think hell is a permanent abode. As to your question about Matthew 18 meaning "no redemption for eternity/beyond time" or "no redemption for eternity/within time but without any necessary limit" I am afraid I cannot answer you.

The Oxford English dictionary defines evil the adjective.

1) Profoundly immoral and malevolent: his evil deeds no man is so evil as to be beyond redemption

1.1) (Of a force or spirit embodying or associated with the forces of the devil: we have been driven out of the house by this evil spirit

1.2) Harmful or tending to harm: the evil effects of high taxes

The psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl wrote Man's Search for Meaning about his time in four Nazi concentration camps. He shared this story of redemption.
“Let me cite the case of Dr. J. He was the only man I ever encountered in my whole life that I would dare to call a Mephistophelean being, a satanic figure. At that time he was generally called “the mass murderer of Steinhof” (the large mental hospital in Vienna). When the Nazis started their euthanasia program, he held all the strings in his hands and was so fanatic in the job assigned to him that he tried not to let one single psychotic individual escape the gas chamber. After the war, when I came back to Vienna, I asked what had happened to Dr. J. “He had been imprisoned by the Russians in one of the isolations cells at Steinhof,” they told me. “The next day however, the door of his cell stood open and Dr. J. was never seen again.” Later I was convinced that, like others, he had with the help of his comrades made his way to South America. More recently, however, I was consulted by a former Austrian diplomat who had been imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain for many years, first in Siberia and then in the famous Lubianka prison in Moscow. While I was examining him neurologically, he suddenly asked me whether I happened to know Dr. J. After my affirmative reply he continued: “I made his acquaintance in Lubianka. There he died, at about the age of forty, from cancer of the urinary bladder. Before he died, however, he showed himself to be the best comrade you can imagine! He gave consolation to everybody. He lived up to the highest conceivable moral standard. He was the best friend I ever met during my long years in Prison!”

Maria - Feb 2, 2015

God is the architect of the universe and the Creator of all life. We are his creatures. We are very fortunate that God choose to create human beings. The atheist Richard Dawkins considers it good luck that human beings exist. In his book Unweaving the Rainbow he wrote "We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that here."

I am familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was an Lutheran pastor and theologian. He participated in the failed July 20, 1944 attempt to kill Adolph Hitler. He died an excruciatingly painful death in the Flossenburg concentration camp. He understood the idea of cheap grace. "Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

Let us consider how God's grace can help us make good decisions. Suppose a family living in Nazi Germany hid a Jewish person. I imagine that would be a very scary experience. However they would know that God would be helping them. They would have the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Bonhoeffer explained the idea of costly grace this way. "Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: 'My yoke is easy and my burden is light.'" This Germany family is following the great commandment of Jesus Christ to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as I have loved you. 1 John 4:20 "If anyone says, 'I love God,' but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God* whom he has not seen." The New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE)

How does grace work in our souls? According to Martin Luther “Human nature is like a dung heap covered by snow.” The snow is a metaphor for God's grace. So God sees His grace and saves us even though we remain sinful on the inside. The Catholic viewpoint is that grace transforms us from the inside. Grace is not a superficial covering.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

For an action to be moral the three sources below must be morally licit.

(1) the intention or purpose for which the act is done,

(2) the inherent moral meaning of the act as determined by its moral object,

(3) the circumstances of the act, especially the consequences.

I notice that the emotions that we feel or do not feel are not mentioned. The family hiding the Jews from the Nazis would feel very afraid. But they are still courageous. Just because we do not feel comfortable with a decision we made does not mean that the decision was wrong. We can feel afraid of doing something ethical and proceeding anyway.

God is a complete being. God did not need to create us. But God choose to create humans out of love. Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, is a merciful High Priest. I find comfort in Hebrews 2:14 to 2:18 taken from The New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE)

14 Now since the children share in blood and flesh, he likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,j

15 and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.

16 Surely he did not help angels but rather the descendants of Abraham;

17 therefore, he had to become like his brothers in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate the sins of the people.

18 Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

I also find great comfort and solace in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. There was a a private revelation to Mother Eugenia Elisabetta Ravasio from God the Father, the First Person of the Trinity. This story is taken from The Father Speaks To His Children.

"At last his final day is approaching: I have sent him an illness in order to make him come to his senses and return to Me, his Father. Time passes and My poor son - he is 74 - is at his last hour. I am still there, as always: I talk to him with even more kindness than usual. I persevere, I call my chosen ones and ask them to pray for him, so that he may ask for the forgiveness I am offering him...And now, before breathing his last, he opens his eyes, admits his errors and understands how far he has strayed from the true path that leads to Me. He recovers his senses and in a weak voice, which none of those around him can hear, he says: "My God, I can now see how great Your love for me has been and I have offended You continually with such a bad life. I never thought about You, my Father and Savior. Now You see everything and I beg forgiveness for all this evil which You see in me and which I now discern in my confusion. I love you, my Father and my Savior!"