Thinking Twice about Hell

I still vividly remember the nuns who taught my elementary CCD classes, and the impression they made on me and my fellow students. They hammered the implications of the Ten Commandments into us, as well as the consequences for disobedience, with a heavy seriousness that made its mark on my memory. Our pastor, Father (now Monsignor) William Carr, was likely surprised to hear the confessions of so many 8-year-olds begging forgiveness for the sin of adultery. After our lesson on the 6th commandment, I’m sure we all believed ourselves to be in violation of Jesus’s teaching about adultery delivered during the Sermon on the Mount, and, though we might have been a little fuzzy about what lust really was, we were made sensitive to the fact that through it we were doomed to incur guilt in one way or another. While scrupulosity is a real disorder, which for some may be rooted in the hyper-rigidity of their formative catechesis, I suspect that many more suffer from a lethargic view towards sin and judgment, perhaps caused in part by the hyper-laxity (or non-existence) of religious instruction.

The thought of Sister Cletus, the teacher of my 2nd grade First Communion/First Reconciliation preparatory class, still strikes the fear of God into me. I do not mean this in a negative sense to insinuate that she was a mean person, though perhaps she did have a certain healthy amount of harshness about her. I mean it in a positive sense, because of the simple but important fact that I remember her teaching me about the fear of God, and doing her duty of helping to instill it in me in a way that would help to properly form my faith. While many feel that catechetical emphasis on sin, judgment, and the real possibility of eternal damnation turns people off to the faith, it may be wise to consider why we assume that to be so. If the desire to reduce our chances of heart attack can encourage healthiness, or the desire to reduce our chances of poverty can promote education and a work ethic, why shouldn’t the desire to avoid everlasting punishment be used as a pedagogical method to encourage faithfulness?

One reason, at least, that we don’t talk much about hell anymore is that we have built a culture around avoiding such troubling questions. Our contemporary culture is expressly oriented towards comfort. Say what you will about our modern tendency towards decadence and luxury—at least those vices are limited to some degree by means, and are therefore naturally restricted to a privileged few (relatively speaking, of course—what is considered to be decadent and luxurious varies greatly among cultures and socioeconomic demographics). What seems to be more universal is the tendency towards comfort, which can be attained by most anyone who makes it a top priority. In a positive sense, a tendency towards comfort can be considered the natural and good desire by which we seek peaceful security in the core areas of our lives. In a negative sense, however, a tendency towards comfort often takes the form of avoiding difficulty (physical, mental, social, or emotional) at all costs, which often means sacrificing truth and responsibility.

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In his book, The God that Did not Fail, Robert Royal points out that ancient Roman culture, otherwise largely shaped by religious belief and a commitment to virtues such as courage and honor, was eroded by the influence of Epicureanism—a philosophy that was originally focused more on comfort than it was on sensual pleasure per se, as it is commonly portrayed today. “In its ancient form,” said Royal, “Epicureanism was not a philosophy of hedonism in the modern sense. The Epicureans valued above all else what they called ataraxia, an untroubled spirit.” According to Royal, among those troubles Epicurus desired to eliminate, he chiefly “sought to relieve the human race of fears of hell.” Modern devotees of Epicurus might be those who overindulge in worldly delights, but more likely might be those who seek after shallow tranquility by avoiding the troubling questions of life or, as it were, death.

Earlier this year, the Holy Father announced that our new liturgical year would bring with it a celebration of an extraordinary Jubilee—a “Holy Year of Mercy.” We all ought to rejoice constantly in the mercy of God, of which we are in such great need. I hope that proclaiming God’s mercy to the world will serve as a tremendous vehicle for evangelization. I hope that many will be drawn to faithfulness by reflecting on the merciful nature of God.

Others, though, might have a greater need to hear about the other component of God’s nature—his perfect justice. Theologians remind us that in a perfectly simple God, there can be no difference between one aspect and another; God is consistent and unchanging—homogenous, if you will. Hans Urs Von Balthasar described the wrath of God as the “reverse side of his love,” stating “it is that wrath which the Son must face in his Passion” and “bring to its eschatological end” (Mysterium Paschale, 139). In other words, there is no difference between wrath and justice—they are both consistent responses of a God who is love, manifested differently based on the different dispositions of those individuals who encounter him. The day of the Lord, according to the prophet Malachi, will come “blazing like an oven,” which for some “will set them on fire,” but for others “there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays” (Malachi 3:19-20). On our behalf, Jesus encountered a divine wrath and a divine judgment that is real, unrelenting, and inescapable. It was only in his willful obedience that he achieved victory, and only through our communion with him that we can hope to do likewise.

Authentic mercy does not end with the pardoning of the guilty—it is always aimed, in the end, at righteousness. Commenting on the story of Abraham’s attempt to dissuade God from destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, Benedict XVI suggested that Abraham sought “divine justice that seeks goodness and creates it through forgiveness” (Wednesday audience, May 18, 2011). Abraham did not simply want the wicked people of Sodom to be spared, he wanted them to repent, and recognized that forgiveness is the way God “transforms the sinner, converts, and saves him.” According to Benedict, “If evildoers accept God’s pardon and confess their sin, letting themselves be saved, they will no longer continue to do wicked deeds, they too will become righteous and will no longer deserve punishment.” For example, Jesus showed this kind of mercy to the woman caught in adultery—a mercy that would implore her to “go forth and sin no more.” The forgiveness of God is not a relaxing of demands, it is the way by which those demands are made manifest, intensified, and intimately bound to us.

One byproduct of the Church’s evangelical character is that, by necessity, efforts in evangelization are carried out by those who have already been initiated into the Church, i.e., those who have had an encounter with Christ, have come to know him through Revelation and Tradition, and have made an explicit statement of that faith via acceptance of the Creed. For these mature Christians, reflecting on God’s mercy helps us come to know and love him more intimately, and to seek him out for forgiveness (i.e., sacramental reconciliation). But does the topic of divine mercy have the same effect on those willfully outside the Church? The joyful message of divine mercy must be fully considered, in its proper theological context, before it can be properly appreciated. Will a message of mercy, particularly one that is insufficiently understood, make someone more inclined to radically change their life, particularly when it comes to the difficult questions of morality that face us every day?

In his letter Adversus Marcionem, Tertullian convincingly argued that if God did not take offense at evil and did not punish it, he could not be considered just (see Book I, Chapter 26). The secular world seems to have a fairly high view of mercy, acceptance, and non-judgment (as inconsistent as it may be in its application of these attributes). But should the Gospel be proclaimed in a way so palatable to modern secular society? The Barbarians of central Europe were not converted by a message that was similar to their own cultural rhetoric. They were converted through the evangelical efforts of medieval monks who brought them a message of a new power, which was stronger and more demanding than anything their pagan folklore could offer them.

Perhaps a message of justice and wrath would do more to spur change than a message of mercy—though we know they are two sides of the same coin, that we depend on both, and that we rejoice always in the God who is both just and merciful. As Avery Cardinal Dulles warned, misguided teaching overly focused on divine punishment can put forth an “image of God as an unloving and cruel tyrant, and in some cases leads to a complete denial of hell or even to atheism.” However, Dulles contended:

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 almost for granted that everyone, or practically everyone, must be saved… More education is needed to convince people that they ought to fear God who, as Jesus taught, can punish soul and body together in hell.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “Children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.” Scripture teaches us that the former path is required in order to inherit eternal life. Each person among us ought to look in the mirror and determine to which category he belongs.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Confession of an Italian Woman” was painted by Karl Brulloff in 1827-30.


  • Dusty Gates

    Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and three children.

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