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What in Hell can we believe?

30 November, 1999

Hell, for many people, is a fiery place full of horned creatures wielding pitchforks. Theologian Lawrence Cunningham explains what the church really teaches.

“Their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.” (Rev. 21:8).

As a child I have a vivid memory of thumbing through a large book owned by my grandfather that rivetted my attention. It was a collection of the illustrations done by the 19th-century artist and illustrator Gustave Dore for an edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I would love to report that Dore’s depiction of paradise enthralled me, but the truth is I spent most of my time looking at the punishments suffered by those in hell. Dante, of course, imagined sinners punished with tortures appropriate to their sins: flatterers lived in streams of excrement (Dante used a more common term in his original Italian!); schismatics had amputated limbs; suicides hung from trees; gluttons were seated on mounds of fetid garbage; and so on. To my juvenile mind, Dore’s violent imagination was much more fascinating than the comic books that I also read with keen interest.

Popular imagery about hell

It is precisely that visual store that has made it very difficult for contemporary people to speak about hell in any meaningful fashion. It does not seem credible that there would be a place of fire peopled by creatures complete with horns and pitchforks. The notion that there is a place where sinners are punished in marathon sessions (we always imagine eternity as being a long time when eternity, in fact, means no time) with an array of instruments and teams of devils seems like a repugnant notion. Such an idea seems even more distasteful when one tries to think of a God who is described as a God of love and mercy sending someone into such a place forever.

When life is hell

It is interesting that the Catechism of the Catholic Church, judged to be an authoritative articulation of Catholic faith, shows a great deal of restraint when discussing the subjects of hell. The catechism has five relatively short paragraphs (Nos. 1033-1037) devoted directly to the subject.

Those paragraphs state:

  • that to die in unrepented sin results in a separation from God;
  • that hell is spoken of by Jesus;
  • that the church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity;
  • that the very fact of hell calls upon people to use their freedom with responsibility;
  • and, finally, as a rebuke to those who hold a theory of double predestination, that God does not predestine anyone to eternal damnation.

Those short assertions seem to summarize what the catechism wishes to say on the subject.

When one looks closely at those brief affirmations, a number of things, easily missed, come into sharp focus. First, hell is described as a state of separation from God or, in its words, the “definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.”

Second, hell is described as a state of being or a condition of existence but not as a particular geographical place.

Third, the pain of hell is not described in the lurid language of fire and worms but a pain of separation and loss, unlike in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, where there is a scene of the Last Judgement in which the “sheep” and the “goats” are separated, with the latter hearing the ominous words: “Depart from me… into the eternal fires prepared for the devil and all his angels.”

Finally, the existence of such a state should be a salutary warning to seek conversion, to implore the mercy of God, and ask for the grace of perseverance. In other words, the catechism’s final words on eternal damnation are not words of condemnation but words of conversion and hope. They point beyond the condition of damnation to the hope of eternal life.

What exactly is being said?

When Dante, in The Divine Comedy, asks Virgil who all those people are who are in the Inferno, Virgil says that they are the ones who “have lost the good of intellect.” In the mouth of Virgil, Dante articulates the notion that we are intended, in will and spirit, toward God, but the damned have lost that capacity through their own choice. The finality of their lives has been thwarted. The damned chose against God, and they got their desire. That fact explains why Dante depicts Satan not as a persuasively evil intellect but as a great slobbering grotesque beast.

Who the hell knows?

Catholics of an older generation had such a keen sense of “mortal sin” that many believed that committing such a sin would damn them if they did not get to Confession or make an act of contrition. By preaching a very mechanical view of sin it was easy to overlook that many people do wrong things but they do so without any accompanying notion that they desire to turn away from God or reject God’s mercy. Such a simplistic view of the connection between sinful acts and eternal destiny had the unhappy result of jaunting certain people with fear of damnation or, worse, trivializing the concept of sin.

Fear of damnation

The first thing I told her, in a lighthearted way, was that I very much doubted she was capable of committing any sin so new or so horrible that it was beyond the mercy of God. Most of us are rather pedestrian sinners (try to even imagine a new sin!) in the eyes of God. Second, I further remarked that it is at the core of Christian faith that Christ redeemed all of us, gave up his life for all of us, and that, as Saint Paul writes, God desires all to be saved.

In other words, God’s mercy is greater than our sinfulness. To believe that sin and evil are as powerful or more powerful than God is an ancient heresy and a perfidious one at that. Confessors will admit that most people sin through weakness, clouded intelligence, impulse, or thoughtlessness rather than from malice or a clear intention to reject God. That’s why even the catechism stresses not God’s punishment but God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Eternal damnation

However, in our century at least one very prominent (and very traditional) theologian has asked (as Origen did in the third century) whether, in the final consummation of history, everyone will be saved – that all will be summed into the saving mystery of Christ. Hans Urs von Balthasar has noted tension in parts of the Christian tradition. The New Testament speaks of damnation for eternity but also speaks of the salvation of all through the power of Christ. The Christian tradition prays for the dead and excludes no person from their prayers. It is perfectly possible to list the worst sinners we know in our prayers for the dead. Even when we wish to exclude this or that sinner (he notes sarcastically) we almost always omit our own name from the list! In his analysis, then, von Balthasar tenders an observation: In the end, it is possible to entertain the possibility that hell is vacant.

The title of the book that explicates this thesis tells us clearly how much of an hypothesis this is for the Swiss theologian: Dare We Hope? There are faint echoes of this hope in John Paul II’s book Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994), with its emphasis on Christ who holds the keys to death and the netherworld.

What to do?

First, we must not put the doctrine of eternal damnation at the top of our doctrinal concerns. If there ever was a place for what Vatican II called a “hierarchy of truths,” this is the place. At the core of our faith is a fundamental conviction that Christ died for our sins and, in so doing, redeemed us by making us children of God by adoption. It is faith in Christ and hope in his promises that are the centre of our faith.

Second, we understand that we are all sinners who, in the words of Paul, have “fallen short.” As such, we must pray for conversion of heart and hope for final perseverance with a prayerful hope that God does not renege on God’s promises. The Christian life demands a delicate balance between taking the human capacity for evil very seriously (both in ourselves and in the world) while holding onto the sheer graciousness of God who overcomes evil. In keeping this balance we must make allowances for human weakness while resisting the worst kind of evil: that which springs from sheer malice and total self-absorption.

Third, the twin bulwarks against the power of evil are the two great commandments: love of God and love of neighbour. These cannot be separated. Both love of God and love of the other presuppose that we are not bound up with our own egos. To love God is to affirm Someone who is not us; to love our neighbour is to recognise obligations outside the narrow confines of our own ego. To be totally bound to the self is, after all, the deepest meaning of damnation, which is to say, a state of being frozen in our own egos incapable of loving God or others. Hell is not fire but, as Dante recognised, absolute frigidity. If there is to be any shorthand description of eternal damnation it is this: a condition where both the capacity and the actuality of love are totally absent.

Finally, the best source for our faith in God’s promises and our hope of being with God as the final meaning of our life is found in the constant witness of the prayer life of the church. If we listen to and become a participant in the liturgy, we never find reason to lose faith in the redeeming work of Christ. Indeed, the contrary is true. There is no instance in the liturgical life of the church where we are forbidden to pray for the salvation of the whole world. The entire thrust of the liturgy is to petition God through Christ in the Spirit to grant grace to all, to hope in the Resurrection, and to give evidence of our faith in the redeeming power of Christ’s Paschal Mystery – his Passion, death, and Resurrection. This sentiment of hope is perfectly summed up in a prayer used on All Souls Day:

Merciful Father, hear our prayers and console us.
As we renew our faith in your Son
Whom you raised from the dead,
Strengthen our hope that all (my emphasis) our brothers and sisters
Will share in your Resurrection,
Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
One God, forever and ever. Amen.

Hell and justice

At the same time, the urge to make everything a deadly sin worthy of condemnation somehow trivialises the radical evil of sin. For that reason we need to name radical evil when we see it, that is, evil becoming a way of life. To have ill feelings toward a person is a failure in Christian perfection; to turn one’s life over to hatred of the other (think of hard-core racists) is radical evil. To fall into sensuality is wrong; to be a systematic abuser of the young is more radically evil. Radical evil can only be overcome by radical conversion that demands, in turn, a hope for divine mercy.

Finally, we should not mistake the popular image of damnation and hell with the reality of the doctrine. Saint Thomas Aquinas rightly notes that faith ends not in what is said but what stands behind what is said. To dismiss the concept of damnation because we cannot accept hell as a place described in popular imaginings is just as wrongheaded as accepting the doctrine by an appeal to such imaginings.

Heaven help us

Beyond this choice for or against God is the deeper conviction that we live in a world in which sin has been overcome through the redemptive work of Christ. Karl Rahner writes – and correctly in my opinion – that as Christians we ought to live in that hope as opposed to constantly worrying whether or not we are choosing for or against God. Hope is what puts the fear of damnation into its proper context. As Rahner once wrote in The Content of Faith: “The proclamation of the cross is the preaching of God’s victory over our guilt in and through our responsible freedom, not the moralistic preaching that our freedom is faced with two possibilities of which we have to choose one.”

This article was originally published in U.S. Catholic Magazine, then reprinted with permission in Reality (September 2001), a publication of the Irish Redemptorists.

The reality of hell (maybe we should even avoid the word because it conjures up so many odd images in our heads) or damnation as a doctrine of the church leads us to understand the radical freedom each person possesses to choose God or not to choose God. The doctrine, in short, is an account of how we are to live in a world in which the saving work of God in Christ is freely offered to every person. In the final analysis, God puts before us a choice of saying yes or no. If we say yes it is because God has offered us his love. If we say no it is our choice, but the radically sad thing is that in responding negatively we get exactly what we choose: a life that never finds its finality, a life of love with others and with God.The possibility of eternal damnation is, however, a salutary remedy for those who take a too-sunny attitude in the face of the human capacity for evil and malice. As Peter Berger argued years ago in his little book A Rumor of Angels (Anchor), the doctrine of hell fulfills a deep human need to ensure that those who are most egregious in their exercise of malice will see the scales of justice balanced. There are some crimes so heinous that we feel that human punishment is not just enough. We feel a need to see justice even beyond this life.The issue of eternal damnation is one about which the theologians speculate, and eventually, in God’s good time, the teaching authority of the church will broach. In the interim, what do ordinary believers do as they confront this fearsome doctrine? A number of points seem in order.Which brings us to a crucial point. Is the state of damnation (Notice how I am trying to steer this discussion away from the notion that hell is a place) eternal? Is it true, as Dante says, that those who enter hell must abandon all hope? Damnation, as understood in the common Christian tradition, is eternal.Some years ago an older woman walked unannounced into my office with a “question for a theologian.” She told me that she was haunted by a fear of damnation because of some things that happened in her younger days – what these things were she did not say nor did I inquire. What she suffered from was a sense of overwhelming remorse (remorse is from the Latin remordere – to bite again and again) from which she could not escape. What could she do about this, she asked.Does condemnation to this state of existence happen? Does it happen frequently? We do not know what is in the hearts of people. The tradition of the church affirms that one can be separated from God, which is hell, but it is notoriously reticent about saying who, if anyone, is actually in that state. There is no definitive church statement that places this or that person in hell.When one unpacks the scriptural and doctrinal vocabulary of the catechism’s language, what exactly is being said? Something like this: Every person, made in the image and likeness of God, has an eternal destination, which is to find fulfilment in God. If a person so lives a life that he or she resolutely and definitively rejects the love and mercy of God, that person receives what he or she wills: an eternity with the self but not in God.So what are we to make of the concept of hell? Does the church accept, as an article of faith, that there is a place called hell and that it is the destination of those who die unrepentant? Further, is hell compatible with an all loving and ever-forgiving God? Are the sinners there tortured by fire and the interior pangs of despair?The lurid imaginings of hell are part and parcel of Christian iconography, popular sermons (remember the pains of hell so tellingly preached by the Jesuit retreat master in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), catechetical materials, and so on. The New Testament itself, describing the torments of Gehenna (the name of an actual garbage dump in ancient Jerusalem), uses the language of everlasting fire where the “worm does not die”. In fact, the sheer amount of popular imagery about hell has had a shaping influence on the popular mind. Even clever cartoons in magazines draw on an ancient store of images about hell.

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