Part 7: Is There Really 'Hell to Pay'?
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jan 27, 2015)
The following is the seventh installment of a 15-part series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice. Read the series to date.
The doctrine of Hell has been challenged on numerous grounds over the past three centuries. In order to be clear about how the doctrine of eternal loss manifests both the mercy and the justice of God, we need to look closely at each of these objections.
For example, some theologians question the fairness of everlasting punishment for temporal crimes. Is it really just for God to punish souls forever for their evil deeds?
We could respond, however, that God is infinite perfection, and therefore His love for us is infinite. A grievous betrayal of that kind of love, without repentance, is surely a relatively infinite crime, justifying an everlasting sentence. Moreover, many of the worst mortal sins have everlasting effects on their victims. A murder, for example, takes away the only earthly life a person ever has. Without subsequent contrition and confession, it is not hard to see how such misdeeds — with such irrevocable effects on their victims — justify the everlasting punishment of their perpetrators.
In addition, we must not confuse the reality of everlasting punishment with a personal experience of everlasting duration by the damned. Time, as we know it in our universe, is a process of change. But arguably there's no change in Hell. Souls are frozen, as it were, in their chosen state of cold-hearted rebellion and hatred for God. There's no longer any possibility for growth, no longer any possibility of repentance. Where there is no change, there can be no subjective experience of duration, such as we know it on earth. The damned are not unconscious (Scripture and Tradition certainly do not indicate that), but they are in some ways like everlasting statues in the White Witch's ice-castle in Narnia, by their own stubborn refusal to repent. Their hardness of heart was fashioned by the continual misuse of their own free will, until they no longer had any freedom left to do otherwise.
Some have challenged the doctrine of Hell on the grounds that it allegedly contradicts divine omnipotence: Cannot divine love conquer all resistance in the end? The metaphor of conquest is not a very apt one, I think, since the one thing that divine love will never do is coerce our souls into repentance. In the Disney film of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, the famous quote is, "True love conquers all," but it did not conquer the frozen heart of Maleficent — and the same is true of those souls who remain stubbornly unrepentant of mortal sin, without remorse for acts of murder, cruelty, apostasy, rape, adultery, and so on. God really does respect our free will to the bitter end, if we insist on bitterness and hatred in the end. In that sense, we might say, He limits the exercise of His own omnipotence over us, for He does not want to force us to love and trust in Him (coercion would not result in real love and trust anyway, which, to be authentic, must always be freely given. As we said last week: Robots and puppets on a string cannot love!). That self-limitation on God's part is an act of His respect for us and love for us.
The heart of the believer goes out to the lost in torment in Hell, and that sentiment is certainly an admirable one. Some may ask: "Can Jesus, who proved how passionately He loved us by suffering and dying for us, ignore forever the cries of anguish of those who are lost?" But I think we must be careful not to romanticize the cries of the damned. They are not cries of anguish in the sense one might imagine; that is, 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" — gnashing of teeth: a metaphor for ferocious hatred. Try gnashing your teeth in front of a mirror someday, and you'll see what He means! The damned certainly do not weep for their sins, nor do they weep at all for those whom they abused and tormented on earth, and whose earthly lives they shattered. They weep only for themselves. Their cries, as St. Faustina heard in a vision, are cries "of horrible despair, hatred of God, vile words, curses, and blasphemies" (Diary of St. Faustina, 741). Above all, they blame God for everything. If Jesus were to reach down to the pit of hell to pull them out, they would spit on His hand. Our Lord must surely ignore their curses and their blasphemies, for such cries have no right to be heard.
As we discussed in the fifth installment of this series, in his book Catholicism, Fr. Robert Barron offered his own set of objections to the reality of souls being damned. Since we do not know for sure that any particular person was eternally lost, he said, not even Judas or Hitler, and since as Catholics we pray for all of the departed, and since Christ's love for sinners is so great that He plumbed the very depths of God-forsakenness itself in order to rescue them, therefore, Fr. Barron claimed, we can "reasonably hope" that all will [ultimately] find salvation. I just questioned the logic of Fr. Barron's arguments.
Here, sadly, I have to go further — "sadly" because I do not relish the task of openly disagreeing with one of the best writers in the Church today! But it cannot be helped. It seems to me that the indications of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason — all three — make it true beyond any reasonable doubt that some souls are eternally lost, that they irrevocably turn their backs on God's love.
First, the witness of reason. It is reasonable to believe that all souls are truly free to turn their backs on the light of God and that God always respects that created freedom He gave us. If all the roughly 15-billion people who have lived on this earth so far definitively chose to embrace His light in the end, and none have ultimately chosen to reject Him, wouldn't that make it pretty difficult to believe that people are really free to do otherwise?
Granted that union with God's light and love is our deepest heart's desire, and that His grace is always near at hand to help us, throughout this life we still struggle with (a) the inherited wound of original sin, which leaves every one of us burdened with disordered passions and desires; (b) the constant spiritual assaults and temptations of Satan; and (c) the corrosive after-effects of our own sins and those of others. For example, most people grow up in a cultural environment that is at least non-Christian, if not downright anti-Christian; the false values and peer pressure that our society imposes upon us from early childhood immensely influences each one of us to wander from the path of Christ. Given all this, it seems highly unlikely that human freedom, operating in this overall context, is invariably going to choose to embrace the Light. The doctrine of a "reasonable hope" for universal salvation, therefore, runs up against the reality of human free will in a fallen world.
Second, from divine Revelation in Holy Scripture, we have our Lord's own repeated warnings in the gospels about the dangers of eternal loss. In fact, no one in the Bible spoke more often or more emphatically about the danger of eternal damnation than Jesus Christ. Some have argued that these teachings (which mostly occur in the form of parables) can be interpreted as mere "cautionary tales" (i.e., they describe what could happen to people if they do not repent, without saying that anyone will ever suffer that fate). But it is hard to interpret our Lord's parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 in that way, since He expresses the fate both of the blessed and the damned by using the very same Greek word for both: aionis ("everlasting"). In other words, the everlasting reward of the righteous and the everlasting punishment of the wicked are comparable to each other — no indication that one of these two destinies is an empty possibility that will never be chosen by anyone, or a mere temporary state.
We also have statements in Scripture from apocalyptic prophecy. One of the characteristics of the "apocalyptic" kind of prophecy is that it usually tells us not what may happen, conditionally, if people repent or fail to repent, but what God will certainly do. It is often a visionary glimpse of the future, certain acts of God. These passages make it clear that some people will remain stubbornly impenitent to the very end of their lives, and as a result they will be eternally lost. While filled with symbolism and metaphor, apocalyptic prophecy is not devoid of doctrinal content, which in some cases is fairly easy to discern. For example (with my emphases added):
• Daniel 12: 2: "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine ... like the stars forever and ever."
• II Thessalonians 1:7-10: " ... when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His might. ..."
• Revelation 14: 9-12 (see also 20:7-10): "If anyone worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also shall drink the wine of God's wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of His anger, and he shall be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest day or night, these worshippers of the beast and his image ... ."
Finally, Sacred Tradition tells us that some souls will in fact choose "definitive self-exclusion from communion with God" (as the Catechism puts it in entry 1453). Many saints of the Church down through the ages have been granted visions of Hell. For example, we have the visions of St. Faustina (discussed in article five of this series). There is also the famous vision of the children of Fatima:
A few moments after arriving at the Cova da Iria, near the holmoak, where a large number of people were praying the Rosary, we saw the flash of light once more, and a moment later our Lady appeared. ...
She opened her hands once more, as she had done during the two previous months. The rays of light seemed to penetrate the earth, and we saw, as it were, a sea of fire. Plunged in the fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. ...
Terrified and as if to plead for succor, we looked up to Our Lady, who said to us kindly and sadly:
"You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. ...
"When you pray the Rosary, say after each mystery: O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are most in need of Thy mercy."
The private revelations given to any particular saint, of course, are not infallible. Indeed, even saints can misinterpret what they believe they have received from God or can color them with their own psychological projections. However, given that "saints" are persons who are full to overflowing with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, when you have similar revelations received by numerous saints, from many different times and places, it strains credulity to believe that this is all fantasy. I know of no category in Catholic theology entitled "the concurrent delusions of the saints."
In short, in the light of the witness of Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and Reason, it would be rash and imprudent — or so it seems to me — to hold out a "reasonable hope" that all souls will, in the end, be saved.
Next week: "This Doctrine Makes 'a Hell of a Difference'"
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.