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Hell and other destinations

30 November, 1999

Piers Paul Read is a novelist, biographer and historian who says he is baffled that the Catholic Church in England has abandoned many of its traditional positions. In 29 elegant essays on aspects of the faith, the Church, liberation theology, history, sex and marriage, writers and saints he makes his own persuasive case.

247 pp. Darton Longman and Todd Ltd 2006. If you wish to purchase this book online go to www.darton-longman-todd.co.uk 



1.  Hell
2.  Upon this Rock
3.  The Book of God
4.  Jesus as a Character in Fiction
5.  A Reasonable Man
6.  Two Travellers: St Paul and A.N.Wilson .
7.  Screwtape Returns

The Church
8.  A Time of Trial
9.  Modern Catholicism
10. The Inquisition and Dr Kung
11. The Theology of Benedict XVI .
12. The Worlock Archive
13. Pilgrim Cormac

Liberation Theology 
14. Rich and Poor
15. Catechists and Commissars

16. Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code
17. Christians and Jews
18. Misunderstanding Islam
19. A New Look at the Crusades

Sex and marriage
20. Wine and Kisses
21. Reconciliation
22. Sex, Predestination and the Working Wife
23. Men

24. The Catholic Novelist in a Secular Society
25. Eros Defended
26. The Quest for Graham Greene
27. The Riddle of Greene’s Catholicism

28. St Margaret Clitherow
29. Ignatius of Loyola


When novelist, biographer and historian Piers Paul Read turns his attention to religious affairs he can usually be guaranteed to provoke delight and fury in equal measure. This collection draws together a selection of essays on subjects ranging from liberation theology, The Da Vinci Code and Graham Greene to sexual desire, feminism and Pope Benedict XVI.

Bafflement is the inspiration of these essays, bafflement especially that the age-old Catholic teaching on Hell as the place of punishment for unrepentant sinners has been allowed to fall into desuetude. Contemporary English Catholicism, he says, is in a state not just of denial, but of betrayal and he makes bold to confront what he calls the “alternative magisterium”.  This he finds in the columns of The Tablet under the editorship of John Wilkins, in Catholic agencies such as CAFOD and CIIR, most disturbingly, in catechetical programmes in Catholic schools and “all with the apparently tacit approval of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales”. 

The writing is elegant, the argument is persuasive.  And the point of view is strangely refreshing.



  1. Introduction
  2. Hell in the Bible
  3. Hell in the history of the Church
  4. Hell today

1. Introduction

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.

2. Hell in the Bible

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. (31)

3. Hell in the history of the Church  

St Augustine of Hippo
If we now move on to the Doctors of the Church, we find that St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430), was much preoccupied with the consequences of sin. ‘The God of the African Christians was very much the awe-inspiring Judge,’ We are told by his biographer, Peter Brown. ‘A streak of this primitive terror was strong in Augustine; even when he seemed to be very far from his roots. . . in Milan, he was haunted by “fears of death and judgement'”. (32)   It was not just the actual sins of wicked men of the kind that Jesus castigates in the Gospels that Augustine believed would result In eternal damnation, but the original sin of Adam and Eve whose consequences could only be averted by the waters of baptism. Neither innocence nor virtue sufficed for salvation.
‘There were pagans,’ he wrote to Evodius, Bishop of Uzalis,

‘who… have lived praiseworthy lives by their own lights. Except for the fact that they did not serve God, but erred in worshipping the vanities that were the established religion of their time… they can be justly held up as models of all the other virtues – of frugality, self-denial, chastity, sobriety, courageous in the face of death for their country’s sake, keeping their sworn word to their fellow-citizens and even to their enemies. All these things are… in a sense, worthless and unprofitable; but as signs of a certain character, they please us so much that we would want those in whom they exist to be freed from the pains of Hell: but of course, it may well be that the verdict of human feelings is one thing, and the justice of the Creator, quite another. (33)

For Christians in the twenty-first century, it is precisely this divide between ‘the verdict of human feelings’ and ‘the justice of the Creator’ that is hard to accept. As Lezek Kolakowski puts it in his book on Pascal’s religion,

To contemporary minds nourished on the tradition of the Enlightenment, the Augustinian doctrine appears. . . bizarre. . . How indeed can we believe in a just and benevolent God who rewards and punishes his children according to his incalculable caprice, like a tyrant rather than a loving father? And how can he cast his children into the infernal abyss while knowing that their wrongdoings are performed under compulsion and that they cannot help what they do and what they are ? (34)

Equally obnoxious to the contemporary mind is Augustine’s teaching that ‘knowledge of the punishment of the damned constitutes part of heavenly bliss’ (35) – particularly since he included among the damned unbaptised babies. Paradoxically at the time, Augustine may have seemed more lenient in his outlook than the theological adversaries against whom many of his polemics were directed – the Donatists and Pelagians. ‘I do not  blame you,’ he told his imperfect congregation, I do not criticise you, even if this life is what you love…. You can love this life all you want, as long as you know what to choose.’ He rejected the perfectionism of both the Donatists and the Pelagians: ‘the victory of Augustine over Pelagius’, writes Peter Brown, ‘was also a victory for the average good Catholic layman of the Later Empire, over an austere, reforming ideal.’ (36)

What some today consider the Catholic Church’s ‘obsession’ with sexual sin is often traced back to St Augustine, not just because of his vivid description of his own struggles with unchastity in his Confessions, but also his view that the ‘unspeakable sin’ through which Adam brought down the whole human race was something to do with sex and is transmitted through the sexual act.

When they had disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit, they had been ‘ashamed’; they had covered their genitals with fig-leaves. That was enough for Augustine: ‘Ecce unde. That’s the place! That’s the place from which the first sin is passed on’. This shame at the uncontrollable stirring of the genitals was the fitting punishment of the crime of disobedience. (37)

To counteract the teaching of Pelagius that men could be saved through their own resources, Augustine emphasised the necessity of God’s grace – a teaching that was to preoccupy theologians in the centuries which followed and become the bedrock of the Protestant Reformation. The debate was always about what was required to be saved from Hell, never about Hell itself: however, there were those among the early Church fathers who, though they did not doubt the existence of Hell, took from Plato the idea that the torments of Hell were not eternal, but a smelting that allowed for final salvation. Thus Origen is censured by Augustine in The City of God for suggesting that all might eventually be saved, and St Gregory of Nyssa for extending God’s mercy ultimately to Satan himself; and these ‘universalist’ teachings were formally condemned at the Council of Constantinople in the year 543. ‘If anyone says or holds that the punishment of devils and wicked men is temporary and will eventually cease, that is to say, that devils or the ungodly will be completely restored to their original state: let him be anathema.’ (38)

The Middle Ages
St Augustine lived in a community of celibate clergy but believed that, under his guidance, the frail lay Christians of his diocese might be saved. There were others, however, who decided that perilous temptations could only be resisted by a total withdrawal from the world. Belonging to a generation prior to St Augustine, and living at the other end of the Mediterranean, there was St Antony (251-356) who first became a hermit in the desert of Egypt, then gathered other hermits into a community – the prototype of the monastic community that became so widespread in the Middle Ages. St Benedict of Nursia (480-547), two hundred years later, established the prototype for western monasticism at Monte Casino. The movement he started was constantly renewed by men and women who withdrew from the world to follow his Rule. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), believing that salvation was difficult outside a monastic community, not only persuaded many of his friends among the Burgundian nobility to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and live in community behind closed walls, but also the young women they might have married. The community of Cistercian nuns at Juilly was headed by his sister Humbeline who had left her husband to take the veil.

It was not just the sins of violence and concupiscence that would lead to damnation, but also beliefs that conflicted with the teaching of the Church. St Dominic (1170-1221) founded his Order of Preachers to combat the errors of the Cathars which he believed would condemn those who held them to the eternal torments of Hell. The fire that burned unrepentant heretics gave a foretaste of what was to come.

The Dominican theologian St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) considered such wrong-thinking fatal in both a material and spiritual sense. Catholics might disagree, he wrote in. his Summa Theologiae,

on matters of no consequence to the faith or not yet decided by the church; but when such matters are decided by the authority of the universal church (vested principally in the Pope) anyone who stubbornly resists the decision must be adjudged a heretic. About heretics there are two things to say. Their sin deserves banishment not only from the church by excommunication but also from the world by death. (39)

Though St Thomas does not dwell on the risks of eternal torment, he is in no doubt but that it is the fate that awaits sinners: ‘All sins that turn us away from God by destroying the love of charity are intrinsically liable to an eternal penalty.’ (40)   Such sins he terms ‘fatal’ or ‘mortal’ as opposed to ‘venial’ or ‘excusable’ sins which do not lead to a rupture in our relationship with God.   ‘A non-fatal sin like frivolous chatter can become fatal if we add to it disorder, fatal by nature, directing it toward illicit sex, for instance.’

By and large, St Thomas Aquinas was less preoccupied with sexual sin than was St Augustine: to him, offences against God such as blasphemy were more serious, and those which destroy the reason which distinguishes man from beast. ‘Drunkenness is only non-fatal because of ignorance and weakness, but ignorance can’t excuse frequent drunkenness; the drunk is now choosing to drink too much and returning his sin to its true fatal nature.’ (41)

We find the same ostensibly bleak view of life on earth in The Imitation of Christ, a short work of religious devotion written a hundred years or so after Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. The author, the German monk Thomas à Kempis, is neither a saint nor a doctor of the Church, but his work influenced Christians as disparate as St Thomas More, St Ignatius Loyola, St Francis Xavier, General Gordon, John Wesley and Dr Johnson. ‘After the Bible itself, no other work can compare with its profound wisdom, clarity of thought, and converting power’: (42)  it was found by the bedside of Pope John Paul I after his death.

For à Kempis, there was a causal relationship between self-denial and the provision of grace. ‘My son,’ says Christ in the second half of the book, ‘carefully observe the impulses of nature and grace, for these are opposed one to another, and work in so subtle a manner that even a spiritual, holy and enlightened man can hardly distinguish them.’  Spiritual comfort ‘surpasses all worldly delights and bodily pleasures. All worldly pleasures are either vain or unseemly; spiritual joys alone are pleasant and honourable… ‘(43)    He showed a deep mistrust of human affections: ‘The love of creatures is deceptive and unstable…. Whoever clings to any creature will fall with its falling; but he who holds to Jesus will stand firm for ever.’   The man who seeks salvation must embrace suffering: ‘Be assured of this, that you must live a dying life. And the more completely a man dies to self, the more he begins to live to God.’

The Imitation of Christ holds out the promise that virtue in this life will bring its own reward – an inner serenity and an invulnerability to life’s vicissitudes – but it also tells us, following St Luke, that sin will be punished in the next world with torments specifically tailored to a man’s besetting sins.

In whatever things a man sins, in those will he be the more severely punished. Then will the slothful be spurred by fiery goads, and the gluttonous tormented by dire hunger and thirst. Then will the luxurious and pleasure-loving be plunged into burning pitch and stinking sulphur, while the envious will howl their grief like wild dogs. (44)

The Reformation and Counter-Reformation
It is not within the compass of this essay to explore at any length the 9th the attitude to Hell of the Protestant Reformers. It is enough to say that damnation was a real fear for Martin Luther and we find, say, in the text ofJ .S. Bach’s Cantata 20 an expression of the vivid belief in Hell among German
Protestants at this time. (45) Jean Calvin, believed – as did ther – that men were ‘justified’ – i.e. saved – by faith in Christ, not by ‘good works’. Calvin went further than ther, however, in teaching that man, ‘utterly devoid of goodness’, cannot be saved through the exercise of his own free will but only in response to God’s grace. Why God should choose some – ‘the elect’ – as the recipients of this bounty and consign others to Hell was a mystery beyond human comprehension.

From 1564, Calvin – a native of Picardy – was both the spiritual and temporal ruler of the city-state of Geneva. Anyone who deviated from his teaching was either forced into exile or, like the Spaniard Michael Servetus, burned at the stake. Roman Catholics were included among the damned and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Geneva, St Francis of Sales (1567-1622), was obliged to reside over the border at Annecy in Savoy. The eldest son of a Savoyard nobleman, St Francis had become a priest despite his father’s opposition after ‘doubts about his own hope of salvation’. (46)  Gentle, learned, ‘enisting the Classical learning of the Renaissance in the service of the Christian mind’, St Francis devoted his life to preaching, spiritual direction and pastoral work within his diocese.

St Francis’s best-known work, An Introduction to the Devout Life, was based on his counsel to one of his penitents, Madame de Charmoisy. It is far gentler than Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ – directed not to monks and nuns but to lay men and women – particularly women – showing them how they could be holy in their particular walk of life. However, he was acutely aware of the danger of damnation. ‘Look up to heaven, and do not forget it for earth. Look down to hell, and do not cast yourself into it for the sake of fleeting things.’

For St Francis, some pleasures were innocent. ‘To get out into the open air,’ he wrote, to be entertained by happy, friendly conversation, play the lute or some other musical instrument, sing to a musical accompaniment, and go hunting are all such innocent forms of recreation that to use them properly all that is needed is common prudence that gives due order, time, place, and measure of all things. (47)

He thought games such as tennis, chess and backgammon were ‘by nature good and licit forms of recreation’ but he was wary of dancing.

Balls and dances are forms of recreation that are in themselves morally indifferent but because of the way in which they are conducted lean very much towards evil and are consequently full of risk and danger. Generally held at night in partial or complete darkness, it is easy for many dark and vicious things to take place in them since the situation is itself so favourable to evil.

St Francis advised Philothea, the composite young woman to whom he addressed his Introduction to the Devout Life, to remember, after an evening’s dancing, that ‘while you were at the ball many souls were burning in the flames of hell for sins committed at dances or occasioned by their dancing’. (48)

Unlike the more severe moralists of the Middle Ages such as St Peter Damien   (1007-72), who regarded marriage as ‘a doubtful cover for sin’, St Francis taught that marriage was honourable and ‘a great sacrament’ and that sexual intercourse for married couples was ‘holy, virtuous and praiseworthy in itself. Nevertheless, he enjoined chastity within marriage, and warned against conjugal licentiousness which ‘effectively kills the soul by mortal sin, as when the order
appointed for the procreation of children is violated and perverted.’

In the latter instance, accordingly as one departs more or less from the appointed order, the sins are abominable in greater or less degrees but they are always mortal. Procreation of children is the first and principal end of marriage. Hence no one can ever lawfully depart from the due order that this end requires.(49)

St Francis reminded the married couples among his readers how in her vision of Hell:

St Catherine of Siena saw many souls grievously tormented for having violated the sanctity of marriage. This resulted, she said, not from the enormity of the sin, for murders and blasphemies are even more enormous, but ‘because those who commit it do not make it a matter of conscience’, and hence continue in it for a long time. (50)

Blaise Pascal
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St Francis addresses himself to Catholics who wish to renew their spiritual life. He does not discuss whether or not Muslims or Protestant heretics would be damned or saved. Nor does he consider the fate of those who reject Christian beliefs altogether – a species almost unknown in the Middle Ages but increasingly to be found in intellectual circles in France in the seventeenth century. Was unbelief itself a sin? And what of those who only practise the Catholic religion to conform to convention, and repent not because they are sorry for their sins but simply because they are afraid of damnation?

To the Calvinists of Geneva such questions posed no problem: God had predestined some to be saved and others to be damned. However, for serious minded Catholics in France such as Blaise Pascal, the answer was not so simple. Clearly, Catholics who commit ‘mortal’ sins deserve Hell as St Francis of Sales suggests: but what of those who, after conscientious enquiry, decide that there is no God and no life after death? They are impervious to his admonitions because they believe that there is only one life, however short, and only earthly pleasures, however fleeting.

Now, for the first time since the age of St Augustine, the choice is no longer limited to rival religions such as Judaism or Islam, or to different forms of Christian belief (Pelagianism, Lutheranism, Calvinism): instead, just as St Augustine was obliged to counter or absorb different forms of paganism such as neo-Platonism, Pascal must deal with the scepticism that he sensed in Montaigne, was to become explicit in David Hume and flourish in the philosophers of the Enlightenment. In the realm of politics, the religious rivalries that had led to the Thirty Years War had given way, under Cardinal Richelieu, to the pragmatic raison d’etat Catholic France aiding the Protestant enemies of the Catholic Habsburgs; so, in the realm of ideas, the fissure was not just between Catholic orthodoxy and Protestant heresy, but also between Christian belief and a philosophic rejection of the claims of all religions.

This makes Pascal’s preoccupations particularly relevant to the present day when the Christian’s chief adversary is the atheist or agnostic whose values predominate in the secular world. Pascal’s pessimism might not strike a chord with contemporary readers: those enjoying the fruits of prosperity and good health in the developed world would not accept ‘that there is no true and solid satisfaction to be had in this world, that all our pleasures are only vanity, that our misfortunes are infinite’; but, however much we attempt to conceal it, no one can dispute ‘that death, which dogs us at every moment, must in the space of a few years inevitably bring us face to face with the dreadful necessity of being either eternally annihilated or eternally unhappy. . .’ (51)

It is also undeniable that many of us today show that lack of curiosity about what happens to us after our death that Pascal found so baffling.

I can feel only compassion for those who are sincerely distressed by their doubt, who regard it as the greatest of misfortunes, and who, by sparing no pains to escape from it, make the search one of their main and most serious occupations.

But I take a very different view of those who live their lives without giving a thought to the final end of life, and who solely because they do not discover within themselves the light necessary to convince them of it, neglect to seek elsewhere, and to decide after mature reflection whether belief is one of those ideas that people accept out of mere credulity, or one of those which though obscure in themselves nevertheless possess a solid and unshakable foundation. (52)

Two further observations have a contemporary ring. Pascal remarked on the way people distract themselves from thinking about death with what he called divertissements: ‘Nothing is more intolerable to man than a state of complete repose, without desires, without work, without amusements, without occupation’; (53) and he recognised the limitations of the disciplines of philosophy and mathematics (‘its profundity is useless’) which today are held in such high regard – this judgement being all the more convincing because Pascal was one of the most brilliant physicists and mathematicians of his time. Pascal does not deduce that there must be a God, and subsequently that Jesus of Nazareth was this God incarnate; but rather apprehends, through the distinct faculty of faith and through the reading of the Gospels, that Jesus was who he claimed to be – the Word of God. ‘It is not only impossible, but useless to know God without the intermediary of Jesus Christ.’ (54)

Pascal’s aim in his writing was not just to prove to sceptics that the Catholic religion was true, but also to expose the compromise and corruption that he saw in the Church itself, and for which he blamed the Jesuits. ‘The post-Tridentine reforms,’ writes Leszek Kolakowski in his book on Pascal’s religious beliefs,

may have worked relatively efficiently among the secular and regular clergy, but they could not affect the mentality and the habits of the upper classes, and the royal court was what it was. The Augustinian moral stringency and inflexibility were simply not for ballrooms or comedy-goers. One could not tell the upper
classes that curiosity is a dreadful sin, that theatre is a diabolic contrivance, that flirting with one’s neighbour’s wife is irrevocably a straight path to eternal fire, and that we ought to give our belongings, apart from bare necessities, to the poor. (55)

Pascal wrote his polemical Provincial Letters in defence of the Jansenists whose views on predestination were close to Calvin’s; and against the Jesuits whose laxity in the confessional he satirised to great effect. ‘Men are in these days so corrupt,’ says his imaginary Jesuit,

that, being unable to raise them to our standard, we are obliged to lower the standard to them. But for this, they would forsake us; they would even do worse – they would abandon themselves. . . The main rule of our Society, in order to promote the interests of Religion, is to repel none that none may be discouraged or despair.

A modern reader might side with Pascal in some of the cases raised in the Provincial Letters – for example, Jesuit confessors excused duelling; but on others he would sympathise with the Jesuits – for example, their judgement that for a girl to choose her own husband against her parents’ will is no sin. He will also set against the laxism of some Jesuits the heroism of others who risked and often lost their lives to preach the gospel to the indigenous populations of India, China and North America – all because they were convinced that it was the best, and perhaps only way to ensure the salvation of their souls. There was, after all, one thing upon which Jesuit and Jansenist were agreed: the danger that after their death many men and women might go to Hell.

4. Hell today

From the Thirty Years War to World War II
The treaty of Westphalia in 1646 marked the recognition by Catholics and Protestants alike that neither Reformation nor Counter-Reformation would be achieved by force of arms. The formula cuius regio, eius religio established that political and religious lines of demarcation would now be the same. Having caused so much suffering in the course of the Thirty Years War, religious zeal itself went out of fashion and opened the way for the scepticism that triumphed philosophically in the French Enlightenment, and politically in the French Revolution. From the high point in the Middle Ages when Popes such as Gregory VII (1073-85) had claimed both temporal and spiritual jurisdiction over the entire world, the Church had been reduced to a state of dependency, first on European monarchs, then on Republican institutions and the post-Republican despot, Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Catholic Church’s approach to Liberalism, which was not the Liberalism of Gladstone but anti-clerical and Free Masonic movements in the traditionally Catholic countries of Latin Europe and South America, was adversarial; Pope Pius IX published his Syllabus of Errors in 1864 condemning Liberalism and, it might be noted, the proposition, ‘We should at least have good hopes for the eternal salvation of those who are in no way in the true Church of Christ.’ The Liberal faith in both science and democracy was spurned with the promulgation of the Dogma of Papal Infallibility in 1870. To use a hackneyed but serviceable image, the Catholic Church became a fortress in which the deposit of faith was protected from compromise and contamination behind walls of doctrinal intransigence and tribal exclusivity.

The teaching of the Council of Trent on the eternal torment that awaited those who died unrepentant in mortal sin remained intact and, indeed, was shared by other Christian denominations. John Henry Newman, who converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, and famously defended the rights of conscience against the more extreme ultramontane claims for the authority of the Pope, brought with him a lively fear of eternal damnation. Geoffrey Faber, in
Oxford Apostles, described how ‘the device of fear’ had been the essential element in Newman’s Anglican sermons.

Again and again in his sermons it seems as if he had to force himself to speak of God’s love and mercy. The assurance of these is less real to him than the fear of condemnation and wrath. The fact of sin, its heinousness, its inconceivably ghastly consequences in the world to come – it is when he speaks of such topics as these that he speaks most obviously from the heart and with most effect. ‘Who is there,’ he asked his congregations in 1832, ‘but would be sobered by an actual sight of the flames of hell-fire and the souls therein hopelessly enclosed?’ (56)

In 1913, some eighty years after Newman preached this sermon, such a sight of souls burning in Hell formed part of the visions of four peasant girls at Fatima in Portugal. In her Memoirs, one of these visionaries, Lucia, described how

we saw, as it were, a vast sea of fire. Plunged in this fire, we saw the demons and the souls [of the damned]. The latter were like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, having human forms. They were floating about in that conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames which issued from within themselves, together with great clouds of smoke. Now they fell back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us, tremble with fright….

Catholics are not obliged to believe in the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Fatima but they were deemed genuine by Pope John Paul II. He had a particular devotion to Our Lady of Fatima and believed that it was thanks to her intercession that the bullet fired by the Turkish assassin, Ali Agca, did not kill him: extracted from his body, the Pope sent it to be set in the crown of the statue of the Virgin at the shrine.

In more recent apparitions in other parts of Europe, the Virgin Mary has confirmed to the visionaries that there are souls in Hell. ‘Today’, she told Mirjana Dragicevic at Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, ‘most people go to purgatory, the next greatest number go to Hell, and only a few go to Heaven.’ ‘Souls who go to Hell have ceased thinking favourably of God – have cursed Him, more and more. So they’ve already become part of Hell, and choose not to be
delivered from it.’ Being a Catholic was no guarantee of salvation. ‘Many cardinals, many bishops, and many priests are on the road to perdition,’ the Virgin told the visionaries at Garabandal in northern Spain in the 1960s, ‘and are taking many souls with them.’

The authenticity of these apparitions by the Mother of God is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church, and there are many devout Catholics who treat them with a measure of scepticism. What is beyond dispute, however, is that the prediction by Our Lady of Fatima in 1913 that a terrible fate awaited an unrepentant humanity turned out to be true. Over the next few decades, in the trenches of eastern France, in the Bolshevik gulags, on the plains of Armenia, in the cities of China, in Hiroshima and above all in the Nazi death camps, humankind created a vivid image of Hell for all to see.

Vatican II
Was it, perhaps, the experience of such atrocity in this world that led Christians to lose interest in what awaited them in the next? Was there, indeed, a worry among Christians that their very preoccupation with a spiritual world to come had distracted them from the temporal battle between good and evil during World War II?  Certainly the decline in Catholics’ anxiety about damnation came in the decade which followed the Second Vatican Council (1963-65). Because Vatican II was a pastoral and not a dogmatic Council, no radical changes were made to the Church’s Magisterium: as a Protestant observer, Dr Edward Norman, noted, ‘its reformulations of faith were, in the event, surprisingly unitary and conservative’. (57)  However, there was a change of emphasis from individual virtue and sin and that individual’s consequent condition after death to a collective salvation through the permeation of the world with Christian values.  Particularly in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, we see the world no longer as the principality of the Devil, and mortal life no longer a ‘vale of tears’. The dire effects of Original Sin could now be mitigated by an effective drive for social justice. ‘Ours is a new age of history’ with an enormous potential for both good and bad: a ‘generation of new men, the moulders of a new humanity’ would transform the world. (58)

This was not just a far cry from the pessimism of a Bernard of Clairvaux or Blaise Pascal; it also gave a different meaning to the word ‘world’, changing it from something pejorative as in ‘worldly’ or ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’ into something essentially good. The eternity of the individual’s afterlife seemed now to be subsumed into the destiny of the human race: Catholics, like Communists, now believed in ‘progress’ in this world and seemed to lose interest in what might await us in the next.

There was nothing in the decrees of the Council to suggest that the Church had changed its mind about an afterlife, but they were perhaps implicit in some of the ideas that were, or were said to be, embedded in its decrees. The sovereignty of the individual conscience (a teaching that, it is sometimes forgotten, predates Vatican II (59) appeared to permit Catholics to pick and choose from the Church’s Magisterium; and, in many cases, disregard the Magisterium altogether in favour of their own private judgement on what was right and wrong. Conciliarism suggested a democracy of ‘the People of God’ and, since there can be no democracy without debate and no debate without diversity of opinion, it followed that a Catholic might hold hitherto unorthodox opinions and yet still consider himself in good standing with the Church.

Then there was Liberationism. A ‘hunger and thirst for justice’ in this world – the ‘preferential option for the poor’ led many conscientious Catholics to seek to build Heaven on earth. Like Marx, the Liberationists saw the promise of recompense or punishment in an afterlife as ‘the opium’ that had led the oppressed to accept their fate. A focus on justice in this world, and a complete neglect of the very idea of a world to come, is found in the textbooks approved for catechesis in Catholic schools such as Weaving the Web.

The Ecumenical movement also had its effect on Catholic attitudes towards Hell.  To further the cause of Christian unity, it was thought proper for Catholic priests and bishops to emphasise what the Christian religions had in common and play down the differences. It was not unusual to find Catholic priests who regarded not just Anglican orders as valid but Methodist orders as well and this, as the historian Eamon Duffy has observed, led to ‘the dissolution of inherited Catholic certainties’. Roman Catholicism was nb longer the spes unica – its Eucharist no longer the only true Body and Blood of Christ; its Absolution in the sacrament of Reconciliation no longer the only sure way to avoid damnation. Catholics were told that all that had changed as a result of Vatican II.

The surest way of damning and dismissing any idea, institution or emphasis in those years was to say that it was ‘pre-Conciliar’, as if the Council had invented the Gospel, and as if the test of Christian authenticity was radical discontinuity with the Christian past. Of course, much that was then discarded was indeed worthless or tacky, and much that posed as ‘traditional’ was in fact the product of the quite recent past. It is now possible to see, however, just how wholesale and indiscriminate this communal repudiation of the past was, and in a Church which claims to set a high theological value on tradition and continuity, this is a mystery which needs explanation. (60)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church
Such was the confusion caused by this ‘wholesale and indiscriminate’ repudiation of traditional beliefs that Pope John Paul II commissioned a new Vatican II catechism which would replace that of the Council of Trent. This was published in 1994 as the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Progressive Catholics were dismayed and traditional Catholics reassured to find in it a reaffirmation of the Church’s pre-Conciliar beliefs – in angels and devils, in Heaven and Hell. ‘The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire”.’ (61)  The Catechism talks of mortal sin and venial sins. It states that ‘the Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation. . . Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.’

The Catechism of the Catholic Church was intended to put an end to the arguments that had gone on since the end of Vatican II about what Catholics now believed. However, as the Cambridge academic John Casey wrote in the Sunday Telegraph on 29 May 1994, there was a sense of detachment in the manner in which some traditional teachings were presented.

The new catechism leaves you with the curious impression that modern Catholics may give ‘real’ assent to different things that moved their forebears. The angels and devils, miracles, our First Parents – they are all there in this splendidly orthodox document. There is no trimming of the supernatural element in Christianity…. 

Yet the supernatural seems to have less imaginative reality in this catechism than it does in Trent. . . Take the catechism’s teaching about the next life. It is the same in all essentials as what you find in the Catechism of the Council of Trent – which was written to combat the ‘errors’ of Protestants. Everyone who believes in the resurrection of the body must be quite curious about what it would be like. Trent confidently satisfied this curiosity: ‘The bodies of the risen Saints will be beyond the reach of suffering. . . Neither the piercing severity of cold, nor the glowing intensity of heat, nor the impetuosity of waters can hurt them. . . they shall shine like the sun.’ There is nothing so pithy or vivid in the new version. Nor has Hell quite retained its terrors. It is there all right, but we are not invited to dwell on its tortures as we are in Trent. (62)

Rather, wrote Casey, ‘you feel that the elaborate discussions of sexual and family morality and social justice are closest to the hearts of the authors. . . these are the equivalents of the bitter disputes in the 16th century about grace, free will and predestination.’  Missing Mass on a Sunday, sexual relations outside marriage, the use of artificial means of contraception were all still serious sins; and the Catechism repeated the Church’s traditional teaching that those who died in a state of serious sin would be damned; but there was no sense of urgency – no impression, from the tone in which it was written, that its authors were worried that the Catholic girl on the pill who only went to Mass at Christmas and Easter, and came up to take Communion straight from the bed of her boyfriend, was in grave danger of eternal torment in Hell.

Has the Church changed its mind?
The suspicion therefore arises in the mind of the Catholic layman that somewhere, buried deep in the impenetrable mass of modern theological writing – in the heavy tomes of an Yves-Marie Congar or a Karl Rahner – is a complex exegesis that proves that Jesus did not mean what he said. Is it possible that the Church has changed its mind about Hell? Is it possible that it has changed its mind but cannot say so because to disown a belief that conforms so explicitly to the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, and through its universal acceptance has the qualities of infallibility, would be to undermine the authority of the Church’s Magisterium?

The idea that all men will ultimately be saved – universalism – is not new. It was, as we have seen, put forward by some of the early Church fathers such as St Clement of Alexandria, St Gregory of Nyssa, and above all Origen – only to be condemned by a local Church Council held in Constantinople in 543. It remained quiescent until the middle of the twentieth century when it reappeared in a ‘conjectural essay’ by the French philosopher Jacques Maritain; and later the weighty German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner suggested that the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels on the subject of damnation and eternal torment were admonitory rather than prescriptive like the threats that parents sometimes make to their children but never intend to carry out. Rahner held that it was possible to believe, and therefore to hope, that all might be saved.

The most significant figure in the camp of the universalists, however, was a theologian held in high esteem by Pope John Paul II, Hans Urs von Balthasar. In a book entitled Dare We Hope That All Men be Saved? he suggests that we may hope – even that we should hope – that all will be saved. He refers to the writing of Edith Stein, the Carmelite nun killed in Auschwitz – and recently canonised as St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – who postulated that God’s love is so overwhelming that it finds a way to overcome the resistance of even the most obdurate sinner.

The American Jesuit theologian Avery Cardinal Dulles, in a lecture delivered at Fordham University on 20 November 2002, (63) suggests an influence of Balthasar’s view on Pope John Paul II. In his own book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the pontiff wrote that it was unlikely that God’s infinite justice could allow terrible crimes to go unpunished, and so final punishment ‘would seem to be necessary to reestablish the moral equilibrium in the complex history of humanity’:  but, in a General Audience talk of 28 July 1999, he appeared to have shifted his position. “Eternal damnation remains a
possibility, but we are not granted without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it”. This seemed to suggest that we are entitled to believe that there are none and therefore that the Pope has changed his mind.’

As Cardinal Dulles reported in his lecture, Balthasar’s theory came under attack from other theologians: one wrote that it ‘removes all effectiveness from the warnings issued by Jesus, repeatedly expressed in the Gospels’; another that his theory was ‘tantamount to a rejection of the doctrine of hell and a denial of man’s free will’; a third that von Balthasar was a covert relativist who ‘smuggles into the heart of the Catholic a serious doubt about the truth of the Catholic faith’. The controversy continued in the pages of the American journal of religious opinion, First Things.

Cardinal Dulles’ own conclusion is that there has been a shift in Catholic theology on the question of Hell. The Church no longer teaches that ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’ except in the sense that the Church is the community of the living and the dead so that anyone saved is by definition within the Church. He also thinks it right that Catholic apologists no longer dwell on the torments of Hell, fostering an image of God ‘as an unloving and cruel tyrant’ .
However, he writes that ‘today a kind of thoughtless optimism is the more prevalent error. Quite apart from what theologians teach, popular piety has become saccharine. Unable to grasp the rationale for eternal punishment, many Christians take it for granted that everyone, or practically everyone, must be saved.’ Dulles believes that people should be told that they ought to fear God who, as Jesus taught, ‘can punish soul and body together in hell’.

Who goes to Hell?
One of the chief obstacles in accepting the reality of Hell is the difficulty in knowing who might go there. Certainly, no one would want to usurp the role of Christ as the Judge of the Living and the Dead; we judge not that we be not
judged: but for the doctrine to be coherent, there must be some idea of what sins merit damnation.
The criteria for ‘mortal’ sin put forward by the old catechism now seem unsatisfactory. These were:

  1. The thing that is thought of or said or done must be something very serious…
  2. You must know quite well that it is a serious sin at the time of committing it, and that if you do it, and die with that sin on your soul, you will go to Hell.
  3. You must do it deliberately – that is, you must be free to do it or not as you like.

Therefore a grievous matter, full knowledge, and full consent are necessary to make a sin mortal.

This seems to suggest that only bad Catholics who die unrepentant go to Hell. The parable of the Prodigal Son, or of the Labourers in the Vineyard, are consoling for those of us who never seem to surmount our failings but they mean that those who have led blameless lives must be prepared, after death, to find Myra Hindley lying in the bosom of Abraham.

More problematic is the man or woman – the majority of the human race – who does not believe in God, let alone that Christ was the Son of God, and therefore has no reason to accept the teaching of the Catholic Church. He either makes his own morality or adopts an alternative morality based upon some secular ideology.  He does not share the Catholic’s view of what is sinful and therefore does not fulfil the criteria for a mortal sin. This means, arguing ad absurdum, that the Catholic who dies unrepentant after deliberately choosing to miss Mass on a Sunday will be damned while a sincere National Socialist such as Klaus Schilling who performed medical experiments on the inmates of concentration camps would end up in paradise. (54)

History shows us over and over again that our sense of right and wrong can be distorted by false reasoning as well as self-interest. It is also a common human failing to make excuses for oneself while projecting evil onto alien cultures, different periods of history or impersonal political systems (‘structural sin’); and at the same time making further excuses for the besetting sins of one’s own culture and times. Today we are horrified by the idea of slavery but St Peter Claver, the Jesuit who in the seventeenth century devoted his life to the care of slaves in the Americas, never spoke against the institution as such.

Yet it has always been taught by the Church that some deeds are ‘intrinsically evil’, the term used to describe the use of artificial means of contraception by Pope Paul VI in his Encyclical Humanae Vitae. Is it possible that some thoughts and deeds poison the soul whether or not they offend our conscience as St Catherine of Siena suggests in her vision of married couples suffering in Hell?  Is it possible that the doctor who performs an abortion or the scientist
who experiments on a live embryo does something as ‘evil’ in the eyes of God as Klaus Schilling, the medical researcher at Dachau?  And that all those who are implicated in such sins – the woman who asks for an abortion, the legislator who permits experiments on embryos – are also culpable? And, if it is better to pluck out one’s eye than look lustfully on a woman, what of the voyeurism of the modern moviegoer or the exhibitionism of the Hollywood actress or the complicity of those who enjoy the sexual amorality portrayed in TV series such as Frasier, Friends or Sex and the City?

Two developments, I would suggest, have distorted the consciences of many Catholics today and so put them at risk in the world to come. The first is humanism; the second anthropomorphism.

Few now are able to conceive of a sin that does not in some way injure another human being.  Presenting the Christian ethic in a humanistic light may make it more intelligible and attractive to the modern sceptic but it distorts the teaching of the gospel. All the commandments may be contained in ‘You must love your neighbour as yourself’, as Jesus says in Mark 12:29-30 – but before the commandment to love your neighbour comes ”the first of all the commandments” . . . “you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength”. The first three of the Ten Commandments are about our relations with God, not our fellow man.

But who is God? What is he like? What does he expect of us? I suspect that, just as humanism has infected Christian ethics, so anthropomorphism is found in the idea we have formed of God which leads to that ‘thoughtless optimism’ and saccharine piety described by Cardinal Dulles. Our God may not be a Golden Calf but he often resembles a Disneyesque Father Christmas. Revelation describes some of God’s qualities: he is loving, he is merciful, he is just and he has made us in his image and likeness. We accept from Thomas Aquinas that reason is the divine faculty that distinguishes man from beast and we therefore deduce that he is a reasonable fellow. We feel we can know him as we might know our natural father, and equate his sense of right and wrong with our own. Thus, while it might seem reasonable for God to mete out some severe punishment to genocidal murderers and Islamic terrorists, it seems unlikely that he would take a stern view of sex before marriage or using the pill or having an abortion; and utterly disproportionate to condemn anyone – perhaps even mass murderers – to eternal torment.

Is this confidence in God’s indulgence justified? The present Catholic chaplain to Cambridge University, Fr Alban McCoy, points out in his An Intelligent Person’ s Guide to Catholicism, (65) that it is a mistake to think that God

can be understood and judged and spoken of in the same way as any object within our experience. . . this is to fall into anthropomorphism. The notion of evaluating what God does or is, is unintelligible. God does what he does and is what he is. Against what set of expectations would we measure the source of all expectations? God transcends any reason for acting, other than himself. What he is is his reason for acting as he does. And this is precisely what we cannot know. (66)

For this reason the optimism of today’s lax Catholic, not just about his own ultimate destiny but also that of his non-Catholic friends, may be misplaced. ‘Is it for you to question me about my children and to dictate to me what my hands should do?’ (Isaiah 45:11). We already recognise that there are aspects of Christian revelation that are incomprehensible, among them the central mystery of the Christian religion – why could mankind only be redeemed through the atrocious suffering of the Son of God? It is therefore unreasonable and inconsistent for us to feel so confident, after such clear warnings from Christ himself, and subsequently from the Church’s Magisterium, that no one will go to Hell. To paraphrase Pascal’s most famous dictum: God may have his reasons which our reason cannot comprehend.

Does this mean that many of us are at greater risk of damnation than we might suppose? Many priests, I suspect, are reluctant to suggest this – browbeaten by the vocal Catholics, some prominent in the media, who claim that they were traumatised in their youth by the fear of Hell. The sins they now disavow are invariably sins against the Church’s sexual mores: (67) and few priests now dare to claim, as did St Francis of Sales, that it is chastity that is ‘the lily of virtues and makes men almost equal to the angels’. (68)

However, to minimise or disregard altogether the danger of damnation is surely a grave matter for the Catholic priest and layman alike. ‘If I say to a wicked man, You are to die,’ says the Lord in Ezekiel 3:18, ‘and you do not warn him; if
you do not speak and warn him to renounce his evil ways, and so live, then he shall die for his sin; but I will hold you responsible for his death.’ ‘When St Augustine read from the prophet Ezekiel,’ wrote his biographer Peter
Brown, ‘that “A watchman is absolved if he gives the cry of danger”, he would have rent his clothes in front of his congregation.’ (69)

There is a danger, it seems to me, that the shift among Catholics from a preoccupation with eternity to an engagement in the world has now gone so far that it effaces the very idea of an afterlife and so distorts the teaching of the gospel and endangers the coherence of the Christian religion. I would also suggest that neglect of the Four Last Things is one of the causes for the relative decline of the fortunes of the Catholic Church in the developed world.

In Britain, as in other European nations, there is now a critical scarcity of priests and seminarians and few conversions to the Catholic faith. Many nominal Catholics have ceased to practise their religion: it is estimated that between 1990 and 2005, half a million Catholics in Britain stopped going to Mass. The ‘decade of evangelisation’ that began with such optimism in 1990 failed in its purpose, and contrasts with extraordinary growth and confidence of the Roman Catholic community in England in other periods, most recently in the 1950s when it was, as Eamon Duffy put it, ‘on the crest of a wave of self-confidence and success’. (70)  And, though a comparable decline is found in other mainstream Christian denominations such as the Free Churches and the Church of England, some smaller denominations such as the Evangelical, Pentecostal and Orthodox Churches, which do not hesitate to talk of damnation, have grown in size.

This is not to condemn Vatican II. It is indisputable that Christians should be the leaven in the dough and the light of the world; that they should be judged by the fruits of their good works; and that Christians should work for the unity of their churches. There is no doubt, too, that virtue is its own reward: sanctity brings serenity and a measure of invulnerability from the vicissitudes of life in this world.

But the message proclaimed by the gospel is not principally one of social betterment, or an effective therapy for the individual: there are other groups that offer psychological balms and work for the common good. Any attempt at evangelisation will fail if it ignores man’s anxiety about what awaits him after his death. The contemporary Catholic should recognise that, not just among the impoverished and oppressed in the Third World, but in the developed nations of the First World too, there are men and women who are so lowered by poverty, illness, anxiety or depression that they see little reason to thank God for a life that will in all probability end in agony and degradation. Life, as we pray in the Salve Regina, is ‘a vale of tears’. ‘There is no true and solid satisfaction to be had in this world,’ wrote Pascal. ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,’ wrote Thoreau in Walden. ‘Life is hard and then you die,’ says the hero of William Nicholson’s novel The Society of Others.

Not only does the neglect of the Church’s teaching on Hell remove any meaning from the word ‘salvation’ and make nonsense of our prayer in the Mass, ‘save us from final damnation’, it also removes the most conclusive argument for loving God – the promise of the heavenly banquet that awaits the just. The modern Catholic must rediscover the truth at the heart of his Faith – that there is an afterlife, a world to come, a Heaven and a Hell; and that, in the words of the Fathers of Vatican II, ‘it is through Christ’s Catholic church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of salvation can be obtained’.   (71).

1. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, translated by Martin Turnell (Harvill Press, 1962), p.l03.
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.
31. The Catholic Dictionary (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951), p. 390.
32. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Faber, 1967), p. 196.
33. Quoted in ibid., p. 307.
34. Leszek Kolakowski, God Owes Us Nothing. A Brief Remark on Pascal’s Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism (The University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 33.
35. Brown, Augustine of Hippo, p. 331.
36. ibid., p. 348.
37. ibid., p. 388.
38. See The Church Teaches. Documents of the Church in English Translation (p.345).
39. Summa Theologiae, A Concise Translation, edited by Timothy McDermott (Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1989), p. 342.
40. ibid., p. 272.
41. ibid., p. 275.
42. Thomas a Kempis: The Imitation of Christ, translated and with an Introduction by Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin, 1952), p.11.
43. ibid., p. 81.
44. ibid., p. 61.
45. The words of the cantata come from a hymn by Johann Rist (1606–67):

Eternity, you make me anxious,
Endless, endless is too long!
Ah, for sure, this is no sport.
Flames which are forever burning
Are all fires past comparing;
It alarms and shakes my heart
When I consider the pain
And my thoughts lead to hell.

46. The Saints. A Concise Biographical Dictionary, edited by John Coulson, with an Introduction by C.C. Martindale SJ (Guild Press, 1957),  p. 304.
47. Introduction to the Devout Life, p. 208.
48. ibid., p. 211. 49. ibid., p. 228. 50. ibid., p. 158.
51. Pascal, Pensees.
52. ibid., p. 103. 53. ibid., p. 149. 54. ibid., p. 382.
55. Kolakowski, God Owes Us Nothing, p. 57.
56. Geoffrey Faber, Oxford Apostles (1974), p. 171.
57. Quoted in Modem Catholicism. Vatican II and After, edited by Adrian I
Hastings (SPCK, 1991), p. 349.
58. Gaudium et Spes, 30.
59. See Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism (1924). ‘The Catholic in his moral life has only one subjective law, and that is his conscience. So that if a divine ordinance be not plain and evident to his conscience, or if he be in a state of invincible error, then the Catholic is not bound by the objective law’, p. 195.
60. Eamon Duffy, ‘The Catholic Chmch on the Eve of the Millennium’, talk given on Wednesday 27 October 1999 to the International Conference on
 Benedictine Education. Published on the Internet.
61. Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1035,  p. 236.
62. The Sunday Telegraph, 29 May 1994.
63. Adapted and published in First Things, May 2003.
64. Klaus Schilling, a bacteriologist, was executed for performing experiments
on human beings at Dachau: he was a highly cultivated man with a particular feeling for the paintings of Giorgione.
65. Continuum, 2001. ‘The topics covered,’ writes Fr McCoy, ‘reflect the kinds of questions which. . . intelligent and informed enquirers. . . most frequently ask about Catholicism at the present time’. He does not treat the question of Hell.
66. Alban McCoy, An Intelligent Person s Guide to Catholicism, (Continuum, 2005).
67. A parish priest assured the daughter of a neighbour that sleeping with her boyfriend was no sin because ‘Jesus had said nothing about it’. A homosexual acquaintance told me that he had been assured by two confessors  that having sex with his male lover was no sin.
68. The Saints. A Concise Biographical Dictionary.
69. Brown, Augustine of Hippo, p. 207.
70. Duffy, ‘The Catholic Chmch on the Eve of the Millennium’.
71. Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio, Decree on Ecumenism, par. 3,  p. 456.

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