Part 6: Whatever Happened to the Doctrine of Hell?

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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