If God is so Merciful, Why Is There a Hell? (Part Two)

The following is a response to a response. Let me clarify. I wrote a column on Feb. 3, titled "If God is So Merciful, Why is There a Hell?" In the reader comment section beneath it, a man named Mike responded with concerns regarding the doctrine of hell. The following is my response to Mike:

Dear Mike,

I certainly appreciate your compassion for those in hell. No doubt, our Savior, in one sense, shares it. But while I am sure it was unintentional, I think several of the points you made were misinformed.

First of all, you write of the Greek word "aionis" in Matthew 25:46, and also of the Hebrew word "olam" as ambiguous in meaning, and therefore as leaving the door open to the possibility that the Bible might allow us to believe that hell is of limited duration. But Jesus generally did not speak Hebrew: He spoke Aramaic. And even if Matthew 25:46 is unclear, there are a dozen or more passages that refer to the truth that hell is everlasting, and many do not contain the word "aionis" at all (see Mt 3:12, Mk 9:43-48, and Rev 19:3 and 20:10). Even in Matthew 25:46, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, if "aionis" does not refer to "everlasting punishment" for the wicked, then it would not refer to "everlasting life" either for the righteous in the very same verse!

As for the Church Fathers you mention, only very few theorized that perhaps all would be saved in the end and that hell was only a temporary, remedial state for the worst sinners. This view first appears in the writings of Origen in Egypt in the late 2nd-to-early 3rd centuries. But Origen is not a Church "Father" according to the Catholic Church. He taught many strange doctrines (including the doctrine that all souls were sent to earth by God to inhabit physical bodies as punishment for sins we committed in heaven!).

Origen's views on hell were condemned by a synod in Constantinople in 543 AD. In the 4th century, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Didymus the Blind followed Origen's opinions on the limited duration of hell, but the overwhelming majority of the ancient Fathers of the Church disagreed, including the unanimous consent of the earliest Church Fathers who wrote on this matter (2nd century): e.g., St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Justin Martyr, St. Polycarp, and St. Irenaeus of Lyons.

Saint Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and just about all the saints of the Church down through St. Faustina, have taught the same thing. The Church has always believed that even a great saint or Father of the Church is not infallible, but that a general consensus of the Fathers and saints on a given doctrine is trustworthy. Indeed, the Church believes that a general consensus among the Fathers and saints is a result of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, bringing the Church to a common mind on the mysteries of the Faith.

And this is where I am most concerned about what you wrote, Mike. For if what you suggest is true, then the Church's saints have been teaching error for almost 2,000 years on this important matter. And the New Testament is in error, too. And so is the ecumenical Council of the Lateran (IV), which proclaimed that the stubbornly unrepentant will, in the end, "receive a perpetual punishment with the devil." And so is the The Profession of Faith of Pope St. Pius V, which proclaimed the same thing. And so is the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see entries 1033-1037). Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would guide his Church into all the truth (Jn 16:13), and St. Paul called the Church "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (I Tim 3:15). How then can the Church have led us into error about this mystery of the faith?

Your question about the fairness of everlasting punishment for temporal crimes is one that has been taken up by many Catholic theologians in the past. Some argue that because God is Infinite Perfection and His love for us is infinite, a grievous betrayal of that love, without repentance, is an infinite crime, justifying an everlasting sentence. Others argue that we must not confuse the reality of "everlasting" and irrevocable loss with a subjective experience of everlasting duration by the damned. Time, as we know it in our universe, is a process of change. But, arguably, there is no change in hell: souls are "frozen," as it were in their self-chosen state of cold-hearted rebellion and hatred for God. There is no longer any possibility for growth, no longer any possibility for repentance. Where there is no change, there can be no experience of "duration" on earth, such as we know it. The damned are, if you will, everlasting statues in the White Witch's castle in Narnia, by their own stubborn, unrepentant free choice.

In your letter you ask if Divine Love cannot "conquer all." The metaphor of "conquest" is not a very apt one, since the one thing that Divine Love will not do is coerce souls into repentance. In the Disney film of the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty," the famous theme song refrain is "True Love Conquers All." But it could not conquer the frozen heart of Queen Maleficent. And the same is true of the souls of those stubbornly unrepentant of mortal sin: murder, cruelty, apostasy, rape, and adultery, and so on. God really does respect our free will, to the bitter end (if we insist on bitterness and hatred to the end), and that, in itself, is an act of respect for us and love for us, as I tried to explain in my column of Feb. 3.

In your letter, your heart goes out to the lost, in torment in hell, and in one sense that sentiment is an admirable one: "Can Jesus, who proved how passionately He loves us all, by suffering, dying, and rising for us, ignore forever the cries of anguish of those He 'will not forget'?'"

But Mike, with respect, you are romanticizing the cries of the damned. They are not cries of anguish in the sense you imagine: pleas of poor sufferers who are calling to heaven for relief and compassion. On the contrary, as our Lord says repeatedly, in hell there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (a metaphor for ferocious hatred: try gnashing your teeth in the mirror some day and you will see what He means!). And they certainly do not weep for their sins, or for those whom they have abused and tormented on earth: only for themselves.

Their cries, as St. Faustina heard (see Diary of St. Faustina, 741), are cries of "horrible despair, hatred of God, vile words, curses, and blasphemies." Above all, they blame God for everything. If Jesus were to reach down into the pit of Hell to pull them out, they would spit on His hand.

Hence the cry of the damned in Milton's "Paradise Lost": "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven!" and C.S. Lewis's famous words: "The gates of hell are locked from the inside."

Thus, in another sense, our Lord must surely ignore their cries, their curses, and their blasphemies. They have no right to be heard.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.

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