A Hell of an Argument

One nice thing about being Catholic is that when a dimestore Origenist (who is pretty certain nobody’s going to Hell) goes up against dimestore Calvinists (who are certain they know just exactly who is in Hell), you don’t have to feel as though TIME magazine is arbitrating a dispute that never ever ever occurred to Christians before.

Just because some Christian has, by his self-supposed two-cent papal authority, taken it upon himself to declare that Gandhi is in Hell, that does not anoint another Christian with the two-cent self-supposed papal authority to declare that Hell is, for all intents and purposes, impossible. Jesus talks this way for a reason:

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Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. (Mk 9:42-48)

The reason is because He takes us very seriously, even desperately seriously, as moral agents who really can make choices that have eternal effects. This is a double edged reality: It means that even the greatest saint is always in peril of falling in this life (as Peter was to discover at the cock’s crow). But it also means that even the most desperately hardened heart must be appealed to on the slim chance it might repent. So we find Jesus pleading and shouting at the very engineers of His death with a warning of the curse they were bringing down, not on Him, but on themselves:

You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (Mt23:33)

There are two ways to read that. It might be a rhetorical question about a foregone conclusion. But one can also read it as Ebenezer Scrooge read his own gravestone. Why say these things if the Pharisees were past all hope? It is a question made all the more pointed by the fact that many Pharisees did subsequently come to believe in Jesus, including that Pharisee of Pharisees, Saul of Tarsus.

The point is this: We mortals don’t know the end of the story, so we should stop talking as though we do. Human beings retain the radical freedom to embrace Jesus Christ or to refuse the grace of God and embrace Hell till the moment of death, and we have no idea who has done which. How anyone can survey the charnel house of the 20th and early 21st centuries and conclude that radical evil, the refusal of grace, and Hell is impossible is a wonder only for somebody who can plumb the shallows of the suburban American mind. The gospel of Comfy is simply not the gospel of Christ and the apostles. It is, like all Latest Real Jesuses, a reflection of our own cultural priorities (which is why it is on the cover of a MSM mag whose priorities, as ever, are to sell beer and shampoo).


So do I side, then, with those who damn Gandhi and anyone else who did not perform the magic ritual of “asking Jesus into their heart as their personal Lord and Savior,” as Evangelicals demand? Of course not. I leave the judging up to God and believe (along with von Balthasar) that we are commanded to hope (not know) that the judgment will be favorable, since (unlike both Universalists and Calvinists) I do not have the hubris to claim I know the end of the story. Only God knows the end. We puny humans who are under, not over, judgment, are taught to hope, not to arrogantly claim to know. And the twin enemies of Hope are presumption (a.k.a. Universalism) and despair (a.k.a. Calvinism).

Some will claim that my insistence on Hope is indistinguishable f ro m Universalism. But it is not, precisely because Universalism is the claim to see and know, and “hope that is seen is not hope” (Rom 8:24). My position merely involves taking the Church seriously when she prays, as she always has, for the salvation of all, both in the liturgy and in her popular piety (“Lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy”). These prayers teach us to hope for the salvation of all, but do not instill the hubris of playing Almighty God and claiming to know the end of a story we do not know, even in our own case. For, of course, I don’t even know if I’m going to be saved (since I can only hope, not know, that I will remain faithful to Christ to the end).

Indeed, I don’t even know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I am faithful now. So I pray, with St. Joan of Arc, “If I am not in a state of grace I pray God put me there, and if I am in a state of grace I pray God keep me there.” The tradition urges us to direct our eyes not to the future, nor to our own hearts, but to Jesus. For the truth of my interior life — and yours — was spoken by Jeremiah long ago: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (17:9). Because of this, I do not think my heart a particularly reliable guide to knowing my own destiny, much less that of Gandhi’s. Likewise, I do not think Rob Bell’s heart trumps the teaching of the Catholic Church, which tells us:

We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated f ro m him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated f ro m him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion f ro m communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”

Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,” and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart f ro m me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”

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.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where “men will weep and gnash their teeth.”

God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance”:

Father, accept this offering
from your whole family.
Grant us your peace in this life,
save us from final damnation,
and count us among those you have chosen. (CCC 1033-37)

Just a refresher on the basics — since, as the TIME piece demonstrates, even the most elementary truths of the Faith are up for grabs in our theologically illiterate culture.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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