Can Anyone Choose Hell?

Is it really true, as Pope Francis said, that "No one can exclude themselves from the Church?"

“Do not speak so that you can be understood; speak so that you cannot be misunderstood.”

Have I the right to take myself to Hell? Am I free to refuse every initiative of grace and thereby frustrate God’s offer of salvation? “The dark door of time, of the future,” Pope Benedict reminds us in his moving encyclical On Christian Hope, “has been thrown open.” But if I am determined not to go through that door, what can anyone do to stop me? 

Is it possible, in other words, to forfeit one’s membership in the Communion of Saints, which is the bond of charity begun in baptism, nurtured over time by a life of grace and virtue, and whose fullest bloom may be found among the blessed in Heaven? If I, a baptized Catholic, were to decide that I no longer wish to spend an eternity in God’s company, may I then return my ticket, the one stamped by the Blood of Jesus Christ, and walk away—telling God in the most unmistakable way that I do not wish to love, or to be loved, but to be left alone, forever?  

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Or is the bond between ourselves and God so unbreakable a seal that not even the most obdurate of sinners can sever the connection?

Until a week ago, when news broke concerning comments made by Pope Francis during his General Audience earlier this month (February 2), I’d have thought that, yes, it is entirely possible to refuse God’s invitation, disdaining to share with Him and all His angels and saints the unending joys of Heaven. That from the very first exercise of a freedom given to me by God, there really does exist the possibility of saying no to Him, of burning every possible bridge to beatitude. How else can I account for “the intolerable compliment,” which God freely pays to each us for taking so seriously our freedom, if it does not include the right to reject God, to spit eternally, as it were, in God’s eye? 

But Pope Francis appears to have scotched that possibility. “No one can exclude themselves from the Church,” he insisted, “we are all saved sinners.” Even those, he adds, “who have denied the faith, who are apostates, who are the persecutors of the Church, who have denied their baptism.  

Yes, these too. All of them. The blasphemers, all of them. We are brothers. This is the communion of saints. The communion of saints holds together the community of believers on earth and in heaven…the saints, the sinners, all.

What are we to make of this? Surely, one asks, he cannot have meant to include unrepentant sinners in the Kingdom of Heaven? That those who deliberately take themselves to Hell, choosing an eternity of loss rather than the joys of Heaven, are nevertheless still members of the Communion of Saints? This is not Catholic doctrine, and no one, not even the Pope of Rome, can make it so by saying so.

The problem, of course, turns on a distinction, and if only the pope had made it, everything would have been fine. Indeed, it seems a great pity that none of his advisors were there to catch it, or, better still, to have vetted his remarks before he delivered them. It is the distinction between the seal of the sacrament received in baptism, which will never go away, not even in the deepest dungeons of Hell, and the bond of love, which, given the shaping influence of grace and virtue, becomes a great and sheltering carapace of sanctity we carry with us into Paradise.

It is that bond of love connecting the soul to Christ that assures one’s Membership in the Communion of Saints. In the absence of which, even were one to retain the character or seal of baptism, it would do one no good unless the bond of charity cementing us to Christ and our neighbor were there as well. Once the pilot light of love goes out, and we control the switch, only the darkness remains.

Of course, the pope must know this. In fact, he has previously said things that confirm his knowing it. In a talk given back in 2016 (November 22, to be exact), he adverted directly to the End, and the sense of urgency that needs to surround it, reminding his audience that, while some might say, “Father, this frightens us,” they need to be told that, notwithstanding their fears, “It is the truth. Because if you do not take care of your heart…and you always live far away from the Lord, perhaps there is the danger, the danger of continuing in this way, far away from the Lord for eternity. This is very bad!” 

It is, of course, very bad indeed. Exceedingly, even hellishly bad, as it leaves one perpetually forlorn. Sartre, in other words, was dead wrong: Hell is not other people, as depicted in No Exit. Hell is being alone, absolutely and forever. It is, as the holy monk Fr. Zossima reveals in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “the suffering of being unable to love.” Not to love the other, whether it be God or one’s neighbor, to anchor all one’s eros upon oneself, this is the philosophy on which Hell depends. And God, taking us finally at our word, will not stop us.

“Hell is what the judging God condemned and cast out of his creation,” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar. “It is filled with all that is irreconcilable with God, from which he turns away for all eternity. It is filled with the reality of all the world’s godlessness, with the sum of the world’s sin; therefore, with precisely all of that from which the Crucified has freed the world.”

But only for those who will freely avail themselves of the gift, who hunger and thirst for the things of God, knowing that anything less leaves them empty and alone. Pope Francis surely knows this, and for that reason it is important that he say so.

[Image: “Pandemonium” by John Martin]


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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