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Hell and the Bible | Piers Paul Read | An excerpt from "Hell" in Hell and Other Destinations

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Although the laity in the Catholic Church has been encouraged since Vatican II to play a greater part in the life of the Church, it may seem presumptuous for an author who has studied neither theology nor ecclesiology to write a critique of the Church's current eschatological thinking. Even that word 'eschatology' which would trip effortlessly off the tongue of a graduate of Heythrop College I use only after checking in the dictionary to make sure that I know what it means. What knowledge I have of the Catholic faith comes from the religious instruction I received from the Benedictine monks at Ampleforth in the 1950s, supplemented by haphazard reading in later life.

My religious instruction began at Gilling, the Ampleforth Prep school, which I attended from the age of eight to twelve. It followed the Penny Catechism with its numbered questions and answers. To encourage us to remember the answers, we were set a 'stick test': too many wrong answers led to a beating. It was important to get them right not just to avoid being thwacked on the hands by a ferule in this world but to escape a more terrible punishment in the next. 'What are the four last things to be ever remembered?' asked Question 332. 'The four last things to be ever remembered are Death, Judgement, Hell, and Heaven.' What was Hell? Eternal punishment. What would lead to eternal punishment? Dying unrepentant in a state of mortal sin. What sins were mortal? Murder, adultery - and choosing not to go to Mass on a Sunday.

The essay which follows asks why these 'four last things ever to be remembered' appear to have been forgotten in today's Catholic Church. Why in particular are we so rarely warned that we run a real risk of spending eternity in torment? If the Benedictines at Ampleforth believed what they taught us in the 1950s, why was damnation dropped from Catholic preaching in the last few decades of the twentieth century when a monk from Ampleforth, Basil Hume, was Archbishop of Westminster? There has never been, to my knowledge, any clear and unambiguous statement from Archbishop's House, or from the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, that the Church has changed its mind on the question of Hell; yet one searches in vain for any mention of Satan or his domain in the press releases from the Bishops' Conference, in Catholic journals such as The Tablet, in programmes prepared for the teaching of the Catholic faith to Catholic children in Catholic schools such as Weaving the Web, or in booklets published to guide the small groups formed to foster spiritual renewal in the Diocese of Westminster, At Your Word, Lord.

Indeed, it would seem to a dispassionate observer that there is no longer any real belief among contemporary Catholics in the last item of the Nicean Creed, 'life everlasting'. There are calls to conversion and repentance, but no suggestion, explicit or implicit, of what may befall those who are not converted or fail to repent; much talk of salvation but no definition of what it is from which we are to be saved; no warning that while the gospel may be good news for some, it is decidedly bad news for others.

Yet, as Blaise Pascal wrote in the seventeenth century,
The immortality of the soul is a matter of such importance to us; it affects us so deeply that we must have lost our wits completely not to care what it is all about. All our actions and our thoughts must follow such different courses depending on whether there are eternal rewards to hope for or not, that it is impossible to take a single step with sense and judgement unless it is determined by our conception of our final end. (l)
While Pascal's contemporary, René Descartes, made the philosophical observation 'I think therefore I am', Pascal would have us say: 'I believe therefore I am forever'. The last item of the Apostles' Creed, life everlasting, is by no means the least because, as Ronald Knox pointed out, 'once a man or woman has attained the age of reason he is bound for one of two ultimate destinies, fixed and eternal - hell or heaven; and this is true even of those myriads of souls which have never had the opportunity or never had full opportunity, to hear the Christian message preached.' (2)

Knox also warned his readers, in the late 1920s, that 'the prevalent irreligion of the age does exercise a continual unconscious pressure upon the pulpit; it makes preachers hesitate to affirm doctrines whose affirmation would be unpopular. And a doctrine which has ceased to be affirmed is doomed, like a disused organ, to atrophy.' As early as 1915 George Bernard Shaw wrote in the Preface to his play Androcles and the Lion that 'belief in . . . hell is fast vanishing. All the leaders of thoughts have lost it; and even for the rank and file it has fled to those parts of Ireland and Scotland which are still in the XVII century.' 'Even there,' he added, 'it is tacitly reserved for the other fellow.' (3)

To insist that some of us may be damned inevitably makes a Christian apologist unpopular: it is something horrible to contemplate and therefore best pushed to the back of the mind or even out of the mind altogether. A belief in damnation is deemed unsophisticated and 'fundamentalist' - viz. not something that could be taken seriously by a contemporary Christian outside Ireland and Scotland, as Shaw said, or - we might now add - the Bible Belt in the United States. Each man is entitled to his opinion and one is as good as another. To suggest that one set of beliefs or mode of behaviour is better than another is deemed 'judgemental'; and while it is right to warn that smoking will cause the death of the body, it is intolerable to point to sins that might lead to the death of the soul.

The Synoptic Gospels

Are such attitudes justified? Can we dismiss the Hell of the Christian Gospels as a primitive notion that has no meaning in the modern world? Was Jesus merely recycling the assumptions that prevailed in the ancient world? The idea of some kind of posthumous reglement des contes is found both inside and outside the Judeo-Christian tradition prior to the time of Christ. Even among the ancient Greeks, the demands of justice suggested rewards or punishment after death with Plato the earliest author to state categorically that the fate of the extremely wicked is eternal punishment (4) - although it should be noted that this punishment, in Plato's Gorgias, has a corrective function.

In the earliest books of the Old Testament, by contrast, there is no consistent idea of what awaits us after death. The word 'Sheol' is used to describe some kind of vast collective sepulchre and only with the prophet Ezekiel is a section of Sheol assigned to the wicked - a response to Job's complaint that all the dead are treated equally. (5)   A new word, 'Gehenna', came to be used for the part of Sheol where the wicked were punished for their sins - a word derived from 'Ge-Hinnom, the valley of Hinnom', a ravine outside Jerusalem believed to have been the site of human sacrifice, and used as a tip for the bodies of executed criminals, and therefore 'associated with burning, shame, and wickedness'. The prophet Daniel, closer to the time of Christ, tells us that 'many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.' (6)

However, only a few passages in the Old Testament suggest a belief in punishment after death (Psalm 49; Ezekiel 32:18-28; Daniel 12; Isaiah 66:24; Jeremiah 7; and others). (7)   It cannot therefore be said that Jesus' teaching about an afterlife came simply from the intellectual conditioning of his upbringing. Indeed, at the time of Jesus, opinion among the Jews was divided between the Sadducees who denied that there was life after death and the Pharisees who believed not only in life after death, but also that the souls of the just would be rewarded while those of the wicked punished for all eternity.

Thus, while it was, as it were, open to Jesus to reject the notion of an afterlife, we find that both he and John the Baptist subscribed to the Pharisees' belief. Preaching in the wilderness, John warns that 'any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire' and that 'the one who follows me . . . will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will bum in a fire that will never go out.' (8)

Jesus confirms the existence of an afterlife: in answer to a question put by some Pharisees, he tells us that there are no married couples in Heaven where the human condition will be like that of an angel. He also describes, in the most unambiguous terms in some of the Gospels, and by means of vivid parables, the fate that awaits sinners who die unrepentant. After describing how a farmer, when an enemy has sown weeds among his corn, sifts this 'darnel' from the wheat following the harvest and bums it, Jesus spells out its meaning to his disciples:
'The sower of the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world; the good seed is the subjects of the kingdom; the darnel, the subjects of the evil one; the enemy who sowed them, the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; the reapers are the angels. Well then, just as the darnel is gathered up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of time. The Son of Man will send his angels and they will gather out of his kingdom all things that provoke offences and all who do evil. And throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.' (9)
A little later, the image is of a dragnet which brings in a haul of fish after which 'the fishermen. . . sitting down. . . collect the good ones into a basket and throw away those that are no use. This is how it will be at the end of time: the angels will appear and separate the wicked from the just to throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.' (10)

Other images are of the unforgiving steward who is handed over by his master 'to the torturers till he should pay all his debt'; (11)  the wedding guest who fails to dress up for the occasion and is bound hand and foot and thrown out into the dark 'where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth' - with the postscript that 'many are called, but few are chosen; (12)  the foolish bridesmaids who, having failed to fill their lamps, miss the arrival of the bridegroom and so are shut out of the wedding; the man who fails to exploit his single talent and is, like the dressed-down wedding guest, thrown 'out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth'; (13) and, pertinent to our own time as to that of Christ, the punishment of those who have shown themselves indifferent to the plight of the poor and needy.
'''Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you never gave me food; I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, naked and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me . . . I tell you solemnly, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me". And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the virtuous to eternal life.' (14)
A man who blasphemes against another 'will answer for it in hell fire" (15) and, of chilling pertinence to what Pope John Paul II called our 'aphrodisiac civilisation', is the advice Jesus gives us in St Matthew's Gospel:
'You have learnt how it was said: You must not commit adultery. But I say to you: if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body thrown into hell. And if your right hand should cause you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body go to hell.' (16)
In St Luke's Gospel, emphasis is placed by Jesus on social injustice, particularly the hard-hearted indifference of the rich to the suffering of the poor. 'But alas for you who are rich: you are having your consolation now. Alas for you who have your fill now: you shall go hungry. Alas for you who laugh now: you shall mourn and weep.' (17)

In chapter 16, Jesus tells the story of the rich man 'who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast magnificently every day' and the beggar, Lazarus, who had sat starving at his gate. After their death, Lazarus lies happy in the bosom of Abraham while the rich man, Dives, is tormented in Hades. Dives begs Abraham to take pity on him and send Lazarus to 'dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in these flames'; but Abraham tells him to remember
'that during your life good things came your way, just as bad things came the way of Lazarus. Now he is being comforted here while you are in agony. But that is not all: between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours.'
The rich man then begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers of the fate that awaits them. Abraham says that they should listen to Moses and the prophets. 'Ah no, father Abraham, but if someone comes to them from the dead, they will repent.' No, Abraham tells him, 'If they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead' .(18)

It is in the Gospel of St Matthew that we find the largest number of clear and unambiguous warnings of the terrible fate that awaits unrepentant sinners but they are to be found in the other three. St Mark records the advice of Jesus that it is better to take out your eye or lop off a limb that might lead you to sin than go intact into hell 'where their worm does not die nor their fire go out'. (19) At the tail end of Mark's Gospel, which scholars believe may not have been written by Mark himself, salvation and damnation are linked not just to wrong-doing but to belief. 'He who believes and is baptised will be saved; he who does not believe will be condemned. ' (20)   Whether or not belief is a matter of human choice, or an arbitrary gift from God, was a question that would preoccupy many in the centuries which followed. Most sobering for today's optimists was Jesus' warning that we should 'enter by the narrow gate' which 'only a few find', 'since the road that leads to perdition is wide and spacious, and many take it. ' (21)  Or, as he succinctly puts it later in St Matthew's Gospel, 'many are called, but few are chosen. (22)

St John and St Paul

When we come to the Gospel of St John, there is the same final damnation of unrepentant sinners but God's punishment seems to be no more than 'a denial of eternal life'. (23) Damnation means extinction: the soul dies with the body. The same less terrible definition of Hell can be found in the epistles of St Paul which were written prior to the Gospels. In general, St Paul tended to emphasise the positive in Christ's teaching but 'the theme of judgement according to one's deeds is nevertheless clear'. (24)   In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul warns of God's anger incurred by 'all the impiety and depravity of men who keep truth imprisoned in their wickedness' and warns those who stubbornly refuse to repent that God will 'repay each one as his works deserve'. For those who take depravity as their guide 'there will be anger and fury. Pain and suffering will come to every human being who employs himself in evil..., renown, honour and peace will come to everyone who does good.... '(25)

St Paul is more clement towards the rich than St Luke, not damning them simply for being rich but reminding them that 'they are not to look down on other people', nor 'set their hopes on money, which is untrustworthy', to 'be rich in good works' and 'generous and willing to share'. (26)   Clearly, he believed that he himself would be rewarded after his death; that, though he was not yet perfect, he was 'still running, trying. . . racing for the finish, for the prize to which God calls us upwards to receive in Christ Jesus.' (27)   But, as St Augustine and, following St Augustine, Luther, Calvin and the Dutch bishop Jansenius were to conclude, St Paul believed that he would be saved not by good works but by his faith in Christ.

Until now, we have seen only in the postscript to St Mark's Gospel the suggestion that unbelief is itself a sin that merits eternal damnation. But in St John's Gospel, too, we read that there will be 'eternal life for those who believe but judgment, wrath, death for those who do not'. (28) There is in fact a narrowing in St John's Gospel of the criteria for salvation. 'Unless a man is born through water and the Spirit,' Jesus tells Nicodemus, 'he cannot enter the kingdom of God' .(29) Thus baptism becomes a prerequisite to salvation, but also the authentic Eucharist. 'I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever. . . I tell you most solemnly, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you.' (30)

'Nobody, we may be sure, who considered it with a really unbiased mind,' states the 1951 edition of The Catholic Dictionary, 'would doubt Christ's teaching on Hell.'

The fact is, men persuade themselves that the doctrine is untrue and inhuman, and therefore that Christ, being eternal truth, could not have taught it. Their exegesis scarcely finds acceptance either with Christians prepared to accept the doctrine or with non-Christians who come with purely historical interest to the study of the Gospels.


1. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, translated by Martin Turnell (Harvill Press, 1962), p. 103.
2. Ronald Knox, The Belief of Catholics (Sheed & Ward, 1927), p. 205.
3. Bernard Shaw, Androcles and the Lion. Preface on the Prospects of Christianity, p. ciii.
4. See The Formation of Hell by Alan E. Bernstein (DCL Press, 1993), p. 61.
5. ibid., p. 165.
6. Daniel 12:2 (RSV).
7. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, p. 200.
8. Matthew 3:11-12.
9. Matthew 13:38-43.
10. Matthew 13:48-50.
11. Matthew 18:34.
12. Matthew 22:11-14.
13. Matthew 25:30.
14. Matthew 25:41-6.
15. Matthew 5:22.
16. Matthew 5:27-30.
17. Luke 6:24-5.
18. Luke 16:19-21.
19. Mark 9:48.
20. Mark 16:16.
21. Matthew 7:13.
22. Matthew 22:14.
23. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, p. 225.
24. ibid., p. 207.
25. Romans 1:18; 2:6, 8-11.
26. 1 Timothy 6:17-18.
27. Philippians 3:12,14.
28. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, p. 225
29. John 3:5.
30. John 6:51-3.

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The Brighter Side of Hell | James V. Schall, S.J.
Socrates Meets Sartre: In Hell? | Peter Kreeft
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Piers Paul Read (b. 1941) is an English novelist and playwright. He was educated at Ampleforth College and St John's College, Cambridge, where he read History. His first novel, Game in Heaven with Tussy Marx, was published in 1966. His second novel, The Junkers (1968), won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. Monk Dawson (1969), won the Hawthornden Prize. More recent novels include The Free Frenchman (1986), A Season in the West (1988); On the Third Day (1990) and A Patriot in Berlin (1995). His latest novel is Alice in Exile (2001), the story of a young Englishwoman caught up in the Russian Revolution. His non-fiction includes Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (1974), an account of the aftermath of a plane crash in the Andes, later made into a film; Ablaze: The Story of Chernobyl (1993), the story of Russia's nuclear disaster; and The Templars (1999), a history of the Crusades. He is also the author of Alec Guinness (2003), is an authorised biography of the acclaimed late actor. He resides in London.

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