I have a problem with hell that goes beyond squeamishness. The problem is one of inserting the damned into God’s endgame, his final fix—creation brought to its triumphant completion. Doesn’t the presence of everlasting torment put a damper on the success story?
I went to Aquinas for comfort, only to find the difficulty accentuated. Aquinas describes sin as a disturbance of the divine order, in which “so long as the disturbance of the order remains, the debt of punishment must remain also.” Hell lasts forever because the disturbance of sin lasts forever. Aquinas makes this explicit when he argues that God “is forever unappeased by the punishment of the wicked.” From this we must conclude that the cosmic finale, the perfected universe in which all things are made new, could very well be described as the eternally disturbed order of an eternally unappeased God. However slight the imperfection, it exists. Beyond our feelings of pity for this or that tormented soul, there still lingers the question of whether God is really so victorious if, at the end of the day, his order must endure this perpetual disturbance.
Some claim to answer the question. Paul Macdonald Jr., in a recent essay for the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, argues that “a world populated in the end by saints and sinners is a better cosmic whole than a world that contains only saints, because in the former world, where God brings at least some human beings to glory, and eternally as well as justly punishes the rest, God is able to manifest his goodness the most clearly and fully.” To me, this seems to miss the point. The damned are a “disturbance of the divine order meriting punishment.” What harmony can there be between an order and a disturbance of that same order? How can the problem of hell be resolved by its place in the “cosmic whole” if hell is precisely a disturbance of that cosmic whole? Do we not, rather, have an infinite, agonizing tension of willed evil and divine punishment that triumphs over evil, but does not eliminate it?
Throughout this difficulty, a decidedly unphilosophical voice kept making itself heard. It was a prayer my family would slip between the mysteries of the rosary: “Save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls into heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy.” Say “fires of hell” and “soul” enough, and you’ll have words from the Mass and private prayers ringing through your head, too. But as it repeated itself, something rather obvious entered my troubled mind: We pray that no one will go to hell. The Catholic Church actively petitions for the salvation of all mankind. This is only fitting. The Catholic must hold, under the threat of anathema, that God desires all to be saved, that he creates no being whom he wishes to be damned. While this saving action is the initiative of God alone, he undertakes this saving action in and through his Church, his body of believers on earth. St. Paul argues as much when he says that, by his sufferings, he is “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.”
If these premises are true, then the question of hell always involves the questioner existentially, not simply because it is his eternal destiny that is discussed, but also because he is co-responsible for the eternal destiny of others. A man’s prayers, fastings, and sufferings are effective participations in the cross of Christ. They are the manner in which God has chosen to enact his desire to save all of mankind. One may take this “effective participation” in terms of merit and intercession, as when one prays that a person will not go to hell, but one may also take it in a more practical manner. If I get up from writing this article, cross the hall, and begin speaking with a colleague about Jesus, this action of mine may help him reach heaven. Through that conversation and others, he may develop the courage required to love God rather than reject him. I am, through the practice of charity, “doing the work of Christ,” that is, participating in the salvific plan of God. The question of whether or not souls will suffer eternal torment rebounds upon the questioner, whose free actions join in the divine plan to save all souls from eternal torment. The argument can be summed up as follows:
Q: How can a just God allow souls to suffer hell?
A: I don’t know, how can you?
It is no accident that all supposed “answers” to the problem of hell are also cogent arguments for a lack of effective participation in the salvific work of Christ to save all souls from hell. If we say that hell is not a genuine possibility, that it is not logically possible for a good God to permit it, then we have no need to pray, “Save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven.” Such a prayer would be foolish and vain. If hell is a logical impossibility of a good God, then, assuming that God is good, we have no reason to ask for salvation from it. On the other hand, if we resolve the problem of hell into a finally perfected cosmos, we likewise get rid of the need to pray for the salvation of all the world. We may be motivated out of a personal sense of pity, but we cannot deny that, by this understanding, the eternal punishment of unrepentant souls is a fundamentally tolerable state of affairs.
Aquinas argues that the damned will be useful, providing joy to the blessed and a warning to the living. Macdonald argues that the damned could be described as benefiting the cosmic whole, allowing for the equal display of God’s justice as much as God’s mercy. To ask the question somewhat rudely: Why should we pray against such a fate? If eternal torment is something useful, reflective of God’s goodness and freely chosen by the sinner, what motivation do we have to pray for the salvation of those who so freely choose? The answer cannot be “pity” or “sympathy” because, according to Aquinas at least, these are precisely the kind of emotions we will not feel. Aquinas argues that we will rejoice in the justice of God displayed in the cries of the damned. And in the end, any description of a perfected cosmos including the damned as “harmonious” implies that we have no need to pray for the salvation of all men out of concern for a final cosmic scenario in which “every tear will be wiped away.” By this view, cosmic perfection is just as attainable with or without souls in hell. Where, then, does the urgency of the prayer of the Church for the salvation of all mankind come from?
It is in the interest of those beings co-responsible with Christ for the salvation of all mankind not to solve the problem of hell on the level of speculation, precisely because they are called to solve the problem of hell on the level of action—namely, to act in such a way that no soul suffers its eternal fires. We are made most responsible for others through our participation in the cross of Christ when hell remains problematic, when we cannot conceptualize a God-perfected universe that includes the screams of torment.
Surely it is in the very tension between our inability to become intellectually satisfied with the presence of eternal suffering and the simultaneous affirmation that hell must be a possibility of human freedom that we are given to ourselves as actors, co-creators, workers in the vineyard, missionaries—beings with something to do. Cosmic harmonies might work well for the Buddhists, but they send Christians to sleep. If God wills humanity to participate in his act of salvation, what better way to encourage its participation than by making hell unthinkable, intolerable, and yet possible? The kingdom rallies against the anti-kingdom precisely when the latter takes on the quality of the unthinkable-possible-evil. But this is too poetic: The kingdom rallies when you and I go about the world doing the work of God that saves men from everlasting death. And isn’t this what the Church has always said?
Marc Barnes is a graduate student in philosophy at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.