Going to Hell

Botticelli's Map of Hell: La Mappa dell'Inferno
One of the most enduring theological debates that has coloured my Catholic perspective has been the one that considers who will go to hell. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from 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 from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell." ~ CCC 1033
My dear brother-in-law is a deeply intelligent man and someone who I think has been largely put off Christianity because of what he has perceived as an inherent threat in the doctrine, i.e. if you don't believe and do what we say, you will burn in hell for all eternity. He was, if I recall correctly, pleasantly surprised to discover that unbelievers burning in hell is not quite as much of an inherent dimension of Christian (or certainly Catholic) theology as he had been led to believe. Certainly in explaining what the Church believes on hell, I would be inclined to cite the CCC (as above) with respect to choosing to be separated from love.

That said, there can be no quibbling: the idea of eternal damnation, which had taken ever clearer shape in the Judaism of the century or two before Christ, has a firm place in the teaching of Jesus as well as the apostolic writings (Mt 25, 41; 5, 29, 13, 42, 50, 22, 13;18, 8, Lk 13, 28, 2 Thess 5, 3; Rom 9, 22; Phil 3, 19; 1 Cor 1, 18, 2 Cor 2, 15; 21, 8.). Dogma takes its stand on solid ground when it speaks of the existence of hell (DS 72; 76; 801; 858; 1351). We have to start here if we believe in God and His revelation to us, there's no getting away from it. Yet this teaching instinctively seems so contrary to our ideas about God and his interaction with humanity.

This problem vexed me greatly (perhaps more than anything else) early on in my journey of faith. I recall a meeting with a Baptist Pastor in London when I was 17 or 18 years old, who told me I was going to hell because I wasn't a Baptist. This despite my insistence that I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour. Not only did I find this man's insistence that I, someone who shared his faith in the saving nature of the person and mission of Jesus Christ, could not share in the joy of the beatific vision unless I recited a particular formula of words and/ or subscribe to his particular interpretation of Christian eschatology. Even the most fundamental sense of reason informed me that my eternal destiny had much more to do with what was in my heart than what words I said.

Apart from this inter-faith perspective on the problem, I was troubled reflecting on the millions upon millions of people in Africa, Asia and the Americas who have not heard the Gospel message, or who quite reasonably, grew up in a culture or society which normalised another belief. Would they certainly be condemned if explicit faith in Christ was truly requisite for salvation?

Let me explain. If you are born in a Country where the religion is not Christianity, you might be aware of Christianity in some vague sense, but you will have been told that Jesus is not relevant or important and nor is Christianity. Christianity becomes just one choice among various others. See for an example, this video of Israelis responding to the question "Who is Jesus to you?"

Now, to me it seems extremely illogical that God would condemn human beings for not believing doctrine they have not even heard. In some Muslim Countries, for example, it could cost you your life to question the prevailing religious climate let alone investigate Christianity.

From the first, Universalism (the belief that, at the end of the day, all people would be gathered to the Lord). has been a theological position within the Church. Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Didymus of Alexandria, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Evagrius Ponticus and St. Maximus the Confessor all held to some form of Universalism. Origen (184/185 – 253/254 AD), considered the Church's first theologian by many, was never canonised as a saint because some of his teachings directly contradicted the teachings attributed to the apostles, notably the Apostles Paul and John. His teachings on the pre-existence of souls, the final reconciliation of all creatures, including perhaps even the devil (the apokatastasis), and the subordination of the Son of God to God the Father, were extremely controversial. Origen undertook an ambitious attempt to systemise Christianity (the Peri Archon) and proposed the idea that given the logic of God's relationship with history, there must be a universal reconciliation at the End. Even for Origen, however, this amounted to nothing more than a hypothesis, a hypthesis which over-utilised neo-platonic ideas to the effect that evil's reality was nullified completely.

The dying echo of Origen's ideas has lingered through the centuries in the many variants of the so-called doctrine of misericordia. These either except Christians completely from the possibility of damnation, or else concede to all the lost some kind of relief from suffering (in comparison, that is, with what they really deserve).

The last century saw some real endorsement of the Universalist position, especially through the work of Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Along with Henri de Lubac, and Yves Congar, these two are considered the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century.

Rahner held that every human being is endowed with what he termed a “supernatural existential,” which is to say, a fundamental orientation toward God. This spiritual potentiality is fully realised through explicit faith in Christ, but it can be realised to varying degrees even in those non-Christians who follow their consciences sincerely. The supernatural existential makes of everyone – to use Rahner’s controversial phrase – an “anonymous Christian” and provides the basis for hoping that universal salvation is possible. Basing his argument on the sheer extravagance of God’s saving act in Christ, Balthasar taught as well that we may reasonably hope that all people will be brought to heaven. A good part of Balthasar’s argument is grounded in the Church’s liturgy, which demands that we pray for the salvation of all. 

Barron seems to me to go with von Balthasar and say that it is reasonable, in the light of the incredible act of love undertaken by God in Christ Jesus, that we can hope that it is a possibility that all men will ultimately be drawn to God. Barron sees the imagery of the Bible as a metaphor for the utter loneliness of the existential possibility of hell. Barron uses C.S. Lewis' description of hell as a place where the door is locked from the inside. God does not so much send people to hell as they choose hell themselves. If we have free will, we have to admit the reality of hell. If we are free to choose God for all eternity we must equally admit the possibility of not choosing him. You can hear Fr. Robert Barron explain his position fully here:

Now, I really like and get Fr. Robert's position here. To my ear, he is approaching the question with erudition and using all the theological tools at his disposal not to reject the reality of hell, or to presume who, or how many souls are in hell, but rather to paint a picture in the context of the revelation of God's loving plan for mankind. This also resonates with the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II on hell:
The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God. More than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy. This is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarises the truths of faith on this subject...
"Eternal damnation", therefore, is not attributed to God's initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created. In reality, it is the creature who closes himself to his love. Damnation consists precisely in definitive separation from God, freely chosen by the human person and confirmed with death that seals his choice for ever. God's judgement ratifies this state.
(My emphasis).

For me, where I find myself slightly at variance with Fr. Robert's articulation, is the jump from Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus the Confessor, to the 20th Century theologians, Rahner and von Balthasar. This huge temporal leap seems to miss out huge swathes of held Catholic teaching and praxis.

In search for answer to my dilemma, I recently read Dr. Ralph Martin's excellent book, Will Many be Saved. Dr. Martin is Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and in his book, he attempts to address the notion of Universalism which seems most prevelant in the Church today and is much bemoaned by the likes of Michael Voris (see for example this Vortex). Voris with some merit, in my estimation, draws a line from Universalism to the relativism and apathy we see manifest today:
When Hell is ignored then so is sin, because simply put, if there’s no serious chance of going to Hell, then sin doesn't really have any serious consequence beyond this life. If there's no sin, there's no real need for the sacrament of confession — because, put simply, what exactly would you be confessing? And additionally, why would you be confessing it?
If the sacrament of confession is unneeded, deemed not a necessity, then there's no real reason to worry all that much about people in a state of mortal sin receiving Holy Communion, or for that fact, even non-Catholics. In fact, since the disposition of one's soul is an immaterial consideration, then it also follows that the teaching that the Blessed Sacrament is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ really, truly and substantially present under the appearance of bread and wine doesn't really matter that much.
After all, if the point of reception of Holy Communion is to join one's self to Our Blessed Lord to increase in sanctity and prepare for full communion with Him in the next life — well, if Hell is not a serious consideration, then it doesn't really matter what state our souls are in, because, after all, there's no serious everlasting consequences for living in sin.
And if the sacraments of confession and Holy Communion are not all that serious, then it naturally follows that the priesthood, which is how these sacraments are conferred on the laity, isn't all that important either.
These are excellent points, but I think, whereas Fr. Robert is addressing the epistemological theology, and Michael Voris is concerned with the existential repercussions for one position the another, Dr. Martin's book perhaps presents us with the via media between these two positions. In his own words, his main purpose in writing the book was to draw attention to the actual teaching of Lumen Gentium 16, both as to the possibility of being saved without hearing the Gospel with its precise requirements as contained in both the text of LG 16 and its footnote 2, and its estimation that “very often” these conditions aren’t fulfilled and therefore, for the sake of people in this situation of salvation, the Gospel must urgently be preached.

Dr. Martin is not speculating or offering any opinion in the book about the relative numbers of the saved and lost. He is not claiming to know that there are more people in hell than heaven, or vice versa. I am not claiming hell is “densely populated” although it very well may be. All he claims, with Vatican II, is that “very often” people find themselves in a perilous situation regarding salvation and we can’t presume they will be saved without coming to explicit faith, repentance and baptism.

Also he indicates that the teaching of LG 16 specifically locates itself in continuity with the scripture and doctrinal tradition of the Church and needs to be interpreted within the hermeneutic of continuity.

Dr. Martin's point is to reveal the urgency of evangelisation—to invite people who may currently be on the broad way leading to destruction, to leave it and find the source of life, Christ and the Church. People who may be on the broad way don’t need to stay on it and I think more Catholics will be willing to take the risk to “give a reason” for the hope that is within them if they realise that something ultimate is really at stake – heaven or hell. In this way, Dr. Martin unites Michael Voris' position with the evangelising zeal of Fr. Robert Barron and announces with St. Paul that we cannot have an unrealistic expectation of heaven, but rather need to take action to ensure that we are on the side of righteousness.


  1. I see hell like this. When we die the dispositions of our heart remain fixed forever because their is no movement in eternity and therefore no possibility of change: If we hate God or love Him at death, we will do so for ever in the next life. To my mind we hate God by loving anything in preference to Him, and since anything less than God cannot bring true peace or happiness, we will hate what we love and burn with it.

  2. I'll stick with Christ's horrifying warnings and the sermon on the Doctrine of the Fewness of the Saved by Saint Leonard of Port Maurice, with a steady reading and rereading of St. Alphonsus Ligouri's "Preparation for Death." I don't like any of the namby-pamby stuff at all and find it very suspect.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Pope Francis: we planned it all before the conclave

Pope Francis: Dismantling Marriage

Establishing a New Object of Worship