Thursday, July 19, 2007


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."


Anonymous said...

Holo-addiction: It's no laughing matter.

Daddio said...

We read The Great Divorce in a men's group at our parish, and I didn't care for it at all. It was weird, and maybe I didn't try hard enough (I got turned off early so I skipped most of the meetings during that read), but I didn't understand the whole idea of choosing hell. The way you describe "becoming sin" makes a lot of sense. And it kind of scares me! Thanks for the dose of reality.

Anonymous said...

After watching this evening's news featuring a mother who killed her helpless infant in a microwave oven, and thugs who profit from the sadistic practice of dog fighting, I found myself hoping there was a hell, while realising this is not a Christian attitude.
Fortunately for some people, I am not God.

Anonymous said...

"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."

This, especially, struck me; an astute observation, and worth pondering.

Megan Elizabeth said...

A C. S. Lewis quote that really summed it up for me (and I think helped my father get over this particular hurdle during his conversion):

"The door of Hell is locked from the inside."

--C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

beez said...

I was asked about my return to the Church and my reflection on what brought me back (and what drives me to my vocation) and I said that I was concerned about a world wherein people simply declare, "I believe in God and I'm basically a good person, so I have nothing to worry about."

The problem with this attitude is that it's basically saying, "God's rules, laws and wishes don't really matter. I have the power to decide for myself what makes a person good."

For a long time I have been trying to resolve that. How can a person who rejects God all his life be accepted by God into Heaven? How can God, who loves us all, reject us at the time of our death? If God's mercy is so perfect that Hell is empty, what's the point of life on Earth? of the commandments? Of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross.

Then, Father, I read your "Dialog with a Sinner," a brief but perfectly plausible end of the life of someone who has spent his entire life designing a "morality of his own choosing."

The only thing I think lacking in the conversation is the Sinner, when he says "Yes, but..." should say, "that's not the way I want Heaven to be."

Father Martin Fox said...


I agree. Daddio's comments notwithstanding, I think C.S. Lewis captures this well in Great Divorce.

About hell being empty: I am not claiming it will be. But should we find that it is (mostly -- the devil and his followers are there), then we will discover that that was the point of Christ's self-sacrifice, and the commandments.

Fr. Ron Williams said...

Just out of curiosity -- did your rating change because now you have that suspicious word "Hell" on your blog?

Father Martin Fox said...

Father Williams:

Well, my prior post was sufficient to change my rating from "G" to "NC-17"; but after this descent into HELL, the rating site was not happy . . .

So I'm in the doghouse for awhile, I guess...

Don R said...

I offer to you a post done my a good friend of mine:
Preaching Like Hell
The fascination with eternal punishment -- otherwise unfortunately known as "hell" -- is completely understandable. It seems obvious, doesn't it? Consider the following:

1) Jesus spoke a lot about Gahenna.
2) A sense of justice demands that bad people be punished.
3) The Bible talks about a lake of fire.
4) How can God let the wicked go unpunished?
5) Doesn't the idea of "salvation" demand a hell to be saved from?

Yes. It all sounds pretty obvious. But what if there are other ways to understand all of this? Is it possible that we can find another way to read all of this? I'm not asking anyone to think about it differently or to agree with me. I'm just asking if you think it is possible to understand what we normally call "hell" in a way other than the way it has traditionally been portrayed as unending torture for people who do not hold the right thoughts about God or who do actions that God somehow finds offensive. Is it possible?

I worked in church ministry for the better part of two decades. I started young, and like young Elihu I styled myself as an on-fire spokesman for God. A young Turk who understood little about life, less about people, and even less about God--and less yet about myself!

Once, a very good friend of mine (someone that I've been friends with since my childhood) approached me and said, "Kevin, you can't preach a sermon without talking about hell." He was trying to gently prod me. However for me, I thought it was the most important message anyone could hear. "There is an eternal place where you will be tortured if you do not obey the Gospel and behave poorly. Do everything you can to avoid burning."

My message was based on a real love for people. How could I in good conscious not tell people to get away while they can? Repent, sinners!

A lot of study and experience has cause me (obviously) to rethink all of this. Including, but not limited to, this. Am I more loving than God? Do I care about people more than God does? Could I possibly be more generous than God? I want people to be saved yet have no power to achieve their salvation. God (I believed) wanted people to be saved, and he has the power to make it happen. Should I believe that God wants people to be saved and has the power to save them, but refuses to? That's similar to Luther's question over indulgences. "The papacy has the power to release people from purgatory, so why doesn't it? If it does, the only moral thing for it to do is to wield that power to release souls from their fiery trial. To require a donation to do this grand spiritual work is unthinkable." Does not the same hold for God? Will God free only the people who perform the right actions in the right ways? Is God so insecure in himself that he has to destroy all people who don't think "correctly?"

Besides all that, "correct thinking" (known in religious circles as "sound doctrine") varies from sect to sect. Does God require you to be immersed in water in order to obtain forgiveness? Are you saved first and then get baptized? Must you speak in tongues or have those gifts ceased? Do you have to recognize a certain religious authority? Must you say a specific prayer? Are you Clavinist or can you be Arminian? Do you drink alcohol? How often do you take communion? Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation, or a Memorial? Organ, Guitar, a capella? Apocrypha?

What if sound doctrine is not so much about what we know, but about what (who) God knows.

I will put my laws in their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach one another
or say to each other, “Know the Lord”,
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful towards their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.
Thank you for your consideration.

Paul T. McCain said...

Father, thank you for this excellent post. I appreciate your words on this subject and the way you expressed yourself on this point.

Cordially in Christ,
Rev. Paul T. McCain

Paxchristi said...

Truly, one of the great books is The Great Divorce. It forces us to examine that God does not consign us to hell; rather, we do not choose Him; we turn our backs on Him, and, in essence, choose hell for ourselves.

Teachers and parents well know this. Despite passionate, loving, kind, repeated efforts to reach some children, they remain unreachable, unteachable.

It is heartbreaking to realize no amount of effort and prayer seems to break into this young person's mind. How can this be? We who are made in the image and likeness of God. We who have the natural law on our hearts. How can we turn away from the love and efforts of others? More to the point - how can we turn away from the pure love that is God - we who are so needy?

But of course we have all been granted the greatest gift of all - free will - a gift that makes us like unto God. We can choose to reject Him. We can quench the burning fire in our hearts and choose to exist in the cold dead ashes of the world, the flesh and the devil.

God so loved us He gave us this free will.

MMajor Fan said...

Remember that even the crassest sinning unbeliever is still existing within the Body of God while he is still alive. He is swimming in God's grace even if he ignores it, and people he does not know pray for him and his soul, and the Holy Spirit attempts to speak to him. Once in hell it is by definition the complete absence of God because a life of total denial does lock the door upon oneself in hell, where God truly is absent.

Anonymous said...

If more people knew what hell looks like; there would be fewer in a hurry to get there!

Anonymous said...

I think the simple solution to the dilemma above is to recognize that we humans do not have absolute free will--that free will, however free (and I do not deny it), is nevertheless created.

Thus, like a father crossing the street with my two year-old, I would never allow him to go whatever way he wants. I might allow him the "freedom" of his own legs and forbid him running off with a threatening, "If you bolt, a big truck will kill you," but I would never, never, never let go of his hand (whether or not he recognizes my own holding him securely).

The other possibility is to take free will absolutely seriously. In other words, that we can, like God, create ex nihilo. That he has left a bit of reality entirely to us. And thus, our will becomes either a point of creation--toward unity with God's will, or anti-creation--toward our own/nothingness.

But why would God, who is love, allow this when I as a father (far less than perfect) wouldn't?

God is love. Our "free" will is a relative freedom. Relative to what? To his love. Period.

Paxchristi said...

Why would God, who is love, allow this when I as a father (far less than perfect)wouldn't?

So we can choose Him freely.