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The Brighter Side of Hell | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | November 11, 2005
Hell has gotten a bad name. I am sorry to hear it.
If rightly understood, it is rather a positive teaching, even a freeing
one. Hell has too few defenders. We are told, by learned scholars and other
unsympathetic souls, that Hell is "old-fashioned." It is "out-of-date."
No one, especially no one important or smart, is said to hold it any more.
Therefore, it cannot be significant. If anyone has heard a sermon on Hell
in his local parish in recent decades, he probably cannot remember it. No
"fire and brimstone" is to be heard in the land. Or if something
on the topic of Hell was heard, it was undoubtedly some reassuring preachment
guaranteeing that this unpleasant topic was really nothing to worry about,
even if we are inveterate sinners, especially if we are inveterate sinners.
Obviously such inveterate sinners have the most to lose in case this curious
doctrine is true.
All is forgiven, But if anything perchance needs to be forgiven, we are
assured, furthermore, that "all is forgiven" by a compassionate
Maker. Most funerals these days, as far as I can tell, operate on this assumption.
We give eulogies. We do not remind ourselves that we too are to follow.
Not to worry, in any case. Forgiveness in theory becomes not sacramental
but sociological. Poverty, ignorance, prejudice, compassionthese excuses,
these exterior forces, rule our internal order to explain why we must do
what we did. The internal order it not responsible to rule itself, as in
the classical tradition.
Hell has been depopulated by other enterprising thinkers. Terrible place,
no doubt, but no one is in it. Even if it exists, which is improbable, it
is likely that no one is in it actually suffering its famous pains and pangs.
We even find proposals to save those said definitely to be roasting or freezing
there, depending on ones theory of which is worse. Lucifer, for instance.
The famous philosopher Jacques Maritain once wondered (and there is nothing
wrong with speculations) if it would not be possible, in the divine mercy,
to lift Satan out of Hell and deposit him in Limbo. The only trouble with
that thesis is that Limbo is even less believed than Hell. Limbo was a place
for those unbaptized souls who did not sin but who were also not redeemed.
Hell was a place for those redeemed in the blood of the Lamb but who rejected
its dimensions in their personal lives. In any case, it appears that to
put anyone in Hell for whatever reason, however horrendous, is downright
unseemly. It is against "human rights." A "good" God,
it is said, simply would not do such a nasty thing as put someone in Hell.
What are we to make of all of this confused thinking on a doctrine that
is even found in Plato, not to mention rather prominently in divine revelation?
Is it all that absurd or outlandish or unthinkable? Is Hell really a sign
of Gods impotence? Of His cruelty? We love to imagine that if we were
Godwhich, to be sure, we are notwe would certainly not concoct
such a place from which, evidently, no turning back can be discovered, no
possibility of escape. The trouble with this hypothesis is that it is pretty
difficult to find an alternative that is really better than the one we are
given. Every alternative that I have ever seen ends up, finally, by removing
our freedom, our happiness, or our minds.
We like, no doubt, to put ourselves in a position whereby we can judge God
to have been at fault for coming up with such an absurd and cruel position.
Hell, it is said, is a problem of God, not us. Any threat of Hell causes
us all sorts of discomfort, especially now that many of what were formerly
called "sins" are now called "human rights." We presume
to define what was evil to be good. We actually legislate what is good and
evil. The list gets longer daily. Surely, we think, the Divinity could have
figured out a better way? God seems to have had limited imagination not
to have created a world in which Hell was no possibility for anyone actually
existing in it.
The fact, of course, is that God did come up with such a world "in
the beginning." Hell was not first invented by God and then, later
on, seeing the mess human beings made of things, He decided to send human
beings and angels there for safe keeping. It was the other way around. God
first intended and created a world in which Hell did not exist, except maybe
potentially. But He did intend a world in which real, finite human beings
and angels existed and were destined for eternal happiness if they so chose.
This situation of initially creating man for eternal life is that from whence
Gods problems with human beings arose. He could not create free creatures
who were called to participate in His inner life unless they were, at the
same time, actually free so to choose Him. Otherwise, they would have beennot
free human beings or angelsbut automata. Heaven, if it existed (or
Hell for that matter) was not designed as a place for robots. Such latter
beings, for whatever their worth, are not really capable of loving God by
virtue of their own inner understanding and freedom.
Hell is simply the direct and necessary consequence of really free creatures
refusing to choose God rather than themselves. They chose or preferred a
world they thought they could make for themselves. Put in positive way,
the doctrine of Hell is the guarantee of our individual and personal dignity.
Without what it stands fornamely the basic seriousness and importance
of our liveswe evaporate all concrete meaning from our existence.
But before we go into this question, it is first advisable to remind ourselves
of just what the Church itself had historically taught on this often, to
many people, unsettling doctrine. Various doctrines are emphasized or sometimes
overemphasized in given eras of Church history. We can certainly say that
Hell has been "under-emphasized" in the past century or so; probably
overemphasized at other times. But there is a difference between what Christianity
universally holds on a subject it finds in its sources of revelation and
those doctrines that are popularly attended to or emphasized. What is ignored
or neglected still remains within the doctrinal deposit of things to be
known and held.
First, then, I want simply to recall the brief paragraphs that the General
Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes to Hell (#1033-37). These paragraphs
in turn recall the passages in Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium
in which this doctrine is indicated and explained. The discussion begins
with the point made above, that is, "We cannot be united with God unless
we freely choose to love him." The doctrine of Hell, like the New Testament
itself, is primarily an aspect of love, not of justice. The question of
justice comes in only after the question of love has failed. Hell is directly
related to our own choices, to the choices of what we choose to love in
the concrete decisions of our lives.
"To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting Gods merciful
love means remaining separated from Him forever by our own free choice."
In this sense, we create or put ourselves in Hell. Mortal "sins"
do exist. They must be acknowledged as our own acts put into effect against
the rightness of our own natures. "This state of definitive self-exclusion
from community with God and the blesses is called Hell."
Thus, initially, we cannot really understand Hell if we cannot or will not
understand love, including divine love. God Himself is, as it were, bound
to what this reality of love is, since He is bound by what He is. We would
not have it otherwise.
Recalling what is known as the "Last Judgment," the Catechism
refers to the fires and punishments for those who persistently do evil.
While Hell may be primarily a spiritual thing, it is depicted also in terms
of physical punishment, almost out of respect to the wholeness that we are,
body and soul. We may not like this physical description, but it is not
simply made up by the Church. Rather what Christ actually said on this topic
is preserved in the Church, which cannot forget its own foundations. But
the same Church never doubts that whatever physical punishment there may
be, the spiritual sufferingthe realization that we have rejected what
we areis always more serious.
But just knowing what Hell is does incite us to ask, "Why are we told
these things?" Obviously, we are told these things for our own good
and for our own aid, indeed for our own illumination about what is.
Thus man is asked to "make use of his freedom in view of his eternal
destiny." We often neglect to think of Hell or live as if it existed.
Still it seems merciful on the part of God to let us know as best He can,
that is, within the limits both of our freedom and of His, what happiness
or punishment is in store for us as a result of our choices. God is not
Himself, as some religious and philosophic theories hold, pure will who
cam make right wrong and wrong right. He follows the goodness of what He
is. Thus, this teaching on Hell becomes a "call to conversion,"
if we need it, as we often do. We are reminded again that "we know
not the day nor the hour," so that this very uncertainty is an incentive
to prepare ourselves for what we as mortals are about in this world.
Finally, the much misunderstood teaching about "predestination"
is mentioned. "God predestines no one to go to Hell." Predestination
does not make us do what we do by some necessity outside ourselves. It is
not a denial but an affirmation of free will, both Gods and ours.
Simply because God knows our free acts, it does not follow that He is doing
the acting, not ourselves. If I see someone get up and walk away, my knowledge
of his getting up does not make him determined to do so. Knowledge of a
free action and cause of that free action are not the same. My knowledge
of a free act includes the awareness of its freedom, otherwise, I do not
know what really is.
Moreover, we are to "persist" to the end. The fact that we sin
is not fatal unless we choose to make it fatal. That is, it is our whole
life and its orientation that interests God. Sinners can repent. Many do.
The whole point of the Incarnation was the divine awareness that men sin
but cannot save themselves by their own efforts because sin itself reaches
the Godheads love of us and others. That some pretty horrendous things
happen among us by our own choices means that we need, at all times, a way
to save ourselves from ourselves. This is the whole purpose of our redemption,
to restore to us the possibility. But once a way of redemption is given
to us, we still must avail ourselves of it. We still must choose to use
it. Our personal salvation cannot take place without our freedom. Even God
cannot make it otherwise because God too respects the dignity of His own
creation of a free being.
Let us grant that, in its origins, Hell is a teaching of both philosophy
and religion. It is something we are not merely asked to know but also to
think about. What positive meaning can it have? I would say, paradoxically,
that no doctrine more vividly states or restates the importance of our daily
lives and the choices therein than this doctrine. Ironically, its denial
is not a formula for human liberation but a guarantee of ultimate human
meaninglessness and insignificance. Why?
We can learn much about what is at issue from Plato, that is, from a pre-Christian
philosopher, in many ways the greatest. Platos whole philosophy was
designed to direct our love and actions to the Good for its own sake, not
for any motivation of reward and punishment. There is nothing wrong with
doing many things for a motivation of reward or avoiding them for a motivation
of fear or punishment. On the other hand, as Socrates saw at the end of
The Republic, we did need to talk of rewards and punishments because
it was quite clear that the best men are often killed, even by the state,
and evil men are rewarded with great wealth and honor in the cities of this
world. This situation is simply a fact that disturbs our sense of fairness.
It seems to indicate that the world is very poorly made.
Hell, in other words, is a philosophic response to our sense of violated
justice, a sense we all have on the hypothesis that the wicked are not really
punished and the good not rewarded. Without an ultimate reckoning, beyond
this life, many, if not most, evils and crimes performed in this world by
individuals on others would go unpunished. Rewards would be wrongly distributed.
If this ultimate reestablishment of order, in the form of a Hell or a Heaven,
is not in effect, the world is made in vain. It is clear that there is a
contradiction at the very heart of the world between what is right and what
is carried out. So, without ever going into the question of religion on
this topic, there is a case for Hell that flows from any basic insight into
the human condition and its actual record over time. Not all crimes are
punished, not all good deeds rewarded. The world, on this view, is simply
unjust at its core.
Let us take this argument a step further. Let us, for the sake of discussion,
accept the proposition that there is no Hell. What follows from this denial?
First, no ultimate requital of rewards and punishments in terms of deeds
done takes place. What is wrong is not punished and what is right is not
rewarded. Secondly, what follows, on the basis of this hypothesis that Hell
does not exist, is that no human action really makes any difference for
good or bad. The acts of the worst sinner or tyrant and the greatest saint
become equivalent. Both end up the same way no matter what anyone does.
Any effort to distinguish a noble and ignoble life falls apart if ultimately
it makes no difference what we do. To be sure, we can introduce some taste
criterion that would say that I prefer what are now called just deeds. But
no ultimate reason exists why my deed or yours are preferable. Thus, in
logic, the denial of Hell is not at all a neutral proposition.
It is this consequence that inclines me to affirm that Hell is a very positive
doctrine. More almost than any other teaching, it, indirectly perhaps, established
the worth of my daily actions. At any moment, I can perform an act worthy
of damnation, or one worthy of transcendent dignity. These actions do not
take place in the clouds, but right here in my daily relationship with others
and with myself. This realization is what it means "when you did this
to the least of my brothers..." And this consequence is both for good
and for evil. The ultimate dramas of existence take place everywhere, among
the rich, the poor, the ordinary, the unusual. No one is in a privileged
place where this drama, with its consequences, does not regularly take place.
Obviously, this is not to maintain that such ultimate things happen every
day as we brush our teeth or greet our neighbor. But they can and often
do take on, through what the Catechism calls "mortal sins"
or through acts of charity, transcendent meaning, They become a part of
the free life and character we make of ourselves. Thus, Hell has the paradoxical
function of enhancing our awareness of the meaning of our daily lives. This
effect is not something morbid or upsetting, but something reassuring. Our
lives are so ultimately important that we can lose them. But this possibility
is placed before us so that we do not lose them. And we are not supposed
to lose them. Hell exists to help us achieve what we are given in the first
place, the promise of eternal life. But this life cannot just be automatically
structured into our being so that we have nothing to do with its coming
In the end, Hell too exists that we might be free, free of what is most
likely to prevent us from achieving the purpose of our existence. But freedom
itself does not exist for its own sake. We are not free just to be free.
We are free so that what we choose is something that is really worthy, really
good, really existing. In short, we are free to reject what we are created
for. That is, we are free to make ourselves the definition of our own happiness.
If we do this, we are, by definition, in Hellthat is, we reject, by
our own freedom, the purpose of our being. We can reject this. Both reason
and revelation exist to advise and direct us to that end which is more glorious
than any we might choose or make for ourselves.
Thus, Hell is not such a bad doctrine. It has a lot of positive things about
it if we take the trouble to think about it. Like all Christian truths,
it is given to us to think about. In so doing, we can come to see that these
doctrines contain a core understanding that directs us to what is Truth
in itself. "The road to Hell," it is said, "is paved with
good intentions." It is also paved with many insights into the very
nature of our being that guide us to the truth of things and the importance
of our existence.
Other IgnatiusInsight.com articles by Fr. Schall:
Dialogue Is Never
On Praise and
and Suicide Bombers
On Learning and
Education: An Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 1 of 3
On Writing and
Reading: Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 2 of 3
and Politics: Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 3 of 3
the Delight of Truth
The One War, The
On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly)
Had a "Liberal" Pope
On Being Neither
Liberal nor Conservative
Is Heresy Heretical?
Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored
On The Sternness
On Teaching the
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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