I was thinking about hell the other night.
Does anyone like considering hell? Do you want to try to picture it? I know I don't.
It is very tempting to try to construct a final outcome to history in which hell loses its punch as it were: for example, some will suppose there really isn't a hell. That's untenable, in my judgment; Scripture is clear enough, and the Lord himself, on earth, spoke often enough about it. Thus the Tradition considers it a definite feature of the afterlife.
A less difficult path is the "hell is real but mostly empty" approach. Hell exists, and the danger of going there is real; nonetheless, one can suppose that the final outcome will be that God is so effective in his saving plan, that no one but the condemned spirits ends up there. When one argues this point, one has to deal with support from the Tradition, including Scripture; one avenue would be to say, for example, that much of what Our Incarnate Lord says is warning rather than prediction -- i.e., you will end up there, and it'll be horrible, unless (a) God's grace saves you and (b) you heed my warning -- meaning, if we manage to have options (a) and (b) work for us, we can indeed, avoid hell. Let's agree on this: we can certainly pray that this proves to be true.
Still, that will draw the response that you can't explain away everything in Scripture or the Tradition that way, and that the Lord's warnings in the Gospel seem to suppose a lot of people going to hell. (Some will cite private revelation; but I think you cannot use private revelation to prove any particular theological point; the matter should be proven from the public Deposit of Faith -- i.e., what God has revealed to all, via Scripture and Tradition as interpreted by the Church.)
So, even if you are hopeful, as we might all be so long as we don't absolve ourselves of trying to save people from hell, you have to concede the possibility that the more pessimistic folks are right: a lot of people may end up going to hell.
That is the vision we don't like to contemplate. Human beings, suffering unimaginably in hell...forever. Let's not be glib about it, it is a difficult doctrine.
However, the alternative isn't easy either. Do choices and decisions have consequences?
I thought of this as I contemplated the drift of our society. I alternate between optimism that God's grace will triumph, and what seems pointed toward evil will be turned toward good to the surprise of all, and pessimism that our technology has found even more ways to assault our basic humanity.
My particular reflection considered the trends in "virtual reality." When "Star Trek: the Next Generation" supposed a "holideck" where you could have a virtual experience of reality indistinguishable from actual reality, the pessimist in me considered what that would really be like: and I quickly concluded that it would be easy enough for people to become addicted to something like that, and live a good deal of their lives in such a world--a world of their own creating, remember--indeed, one might even arrange to live entirely in that world.
Now, lest you think that is too fantastic, I can tell you the trends in game technology seem pointed in that direction. It is already possible to immerse oneself in very impressive, life-like games, and become addictive, and more is surely possible.
Contemplating that, I thought: what a fine way to send people to hell! One of the irritating things about real life is that we trip over the consequences of sin pretty often. We risk exposure; people don't like when we lie, we can go to jail for certain behaviors, and so forth. But what if you could "live" in a world where none of those things was true? Oh, "happy" day, eh? As insulated as you can be from anything that would call you back to truth and goodness.
Another consideration came to mind: why be pessimistic? All God has to do, to save hell-bound souls, is to give them a last chance. And without presuming on God's grace, by assuming he will do that, it is true that he can do that, and that would, indeed, be an opportunity for salvation. It is a happy thought that God will do so for each and every determined sinner, to catch them up to heaven at the last moment. Were I God, I'd want to do that . . .
Ah, but consider this:
Sinner: "What? Huh? What's that? Who are you?"
Jesus: "I'm Jesus. You will die within moments. This moment of clarity is given to all, as a last chance."
Sinner: "What, you're saying I could go to heaven?"
Jesus: "Absolutely. All you have to do is accept the offer.
Sinner: "Wow, this is unbelievable. I see it all now, in an instant..."
Jesus: "Repent and believe and be saved."
Sinner: "Yes, but..."
Jesus: "But what? It's heaven or hell. You see all clearly now."
Sinner: "Yes I do. And I like what I like! I don't want heaven!"
You see, in this life, we don't just choose sinful things; the things we choose shape who we are -- we are, with our choices, in the process of becoming. I don't mean to say a sinner, so enlightened by the Lord, cannot or will not repent and believe; but I do mean to say that it seems very reasonable to me that the sinner won't want to -- in that moment when God's grace enables him to make a truly free choice, his choice can still be...sin, because that is who he has become.
C.S. Lewis expressed this idea rather well, several places: Screwtape Letters, his Science Fiction Trilogy, and above all, The Great Divorce.
No, I don't particularly like considering hell. I have no solution to the problem, other than to refer to what Our Lord taught us, including to pray and work for the salvation of souls; and to remember that He does so infinitely more than we do.
Gives new meaning to the prayer in the Rosary: "O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell; lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of they mercy."