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Hell and the Bible | Piers Paul Read | An excerpt from "Hell" in
Hell and Other Destinations
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
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.
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.
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
Yet, as Blaise Pascal wrote in the seventeenth
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
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
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
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:
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.
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
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.
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),
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.
The Formation of Hell by Alan E. Bernstein (DCL Press, 1993),
5. ibid., p. 165.
6. Daniel 12:2 (RSV).
Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, p. 200.
9. Matthew 13:38-43.
10. Matthew 13:48-50.
12. Matthew 22:11-14.
13. Matthew 25:30.
15. Matthew 5:22.
16. Matthew 5:27-30.
18. Luke 16:19-21.
19. Mark 9:48.
21. Matthew 7:13.
22. Matthew 22:14.
The Formation of Hell, p. 225.
24. ibid., p.
25. Romans 1:18; 2:6, 8-11.
26. 1 Timothy 6:17-18.
28. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell,
29. John 3:5.
30. John 6:51-3.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links:
The Brighter Side of Hell | James V. Schall, S.J.
Socrates Meets Sartre: In Hell? | Peter Kreeft
Are God's Ways Fair? | Ralph Martin
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.
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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