Eternal damnation has never been a wildly popular doctrine, but it seems to be coming under particular pressure at the moment. Public intellectuals like Stephen Greenblatt shake their heads at the teaching; eccentric theologians think up arguments against it; when Church leaders are asked about it, they often respond with ambiguity and embarrassment. No wonder the New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham was recently moved to ask Catholics: “What modern believer wouldn’t want to cast off this old, sadistic barrier to faith in a loving God? What kind of deity draws such a hard line between his friends and his enemies, and holds an eternal grudge? Surely the loss of hell—even the idea of such a loss—should come as a bit of a relief.”
My gut reaction is sympathetic to Cunningham’s point, and such reactions shouldn’t be simply dismissed. But they should be tested. When an emotional response can’t be given a logical foundation; when it relates to something about which we are, necessarily, very ignorant; and when its implications are untenable—then it’s safe to conclude that the emotion is misleading.
Start with the logical foundation. Sin deserves punishment; in life we can always turn back toward God’s mercy, but the philosophers tell us that at death, the soul can no longer change its ways. Before death we can be swayed this way and that by our feelings and habits. But when the soul is separated from the body, this changeability ends and we are left with a single orientation. If we have turned toward God before death, we will find happiness; if we have chosen something else instead, we are in mortal sin, and our just punishment will continue for as long as we reject God—that is, forever. The inhabitants of hell go on choosing their fate: “The damned are so obstinate in their sins,” writes St. Alphonsus Liguori, “that even if God offered pardon, their hatred for him would make them refuse it.”
The attempts to pick holes in this argument are not, as far as I can see, successful: Interested readers can find a useful series of refutations here. The real objection, I think, is less logical than intuitive: Even if some punishment is necessary, isn’t hell excessive?
But here we are reduced to saying, “Surely…” about things we have not begun to grasp: the hideousness of sin, for example. Most of us, if asked to estimate how bad our sins are without the benefit of revelation, would say that although we hadn’t always conducted ourselves very honorably, we didn’t hurt anyone that much, and after all we’ve had a tough life and we’re pretty decent people overall. We would not guess, if we did not already know, that God came to earth and was humiliated and tortured to death for our sins. Do we really have a clue about the gravity of our offenses? Similarly, none of us have seen what a soul in mortal sin looks like after death, when its good impulses have fallen away and nothing remains but the desire for evil. I could opine on what strikes me as a fair punishment for unrepented mortal sin, just as I could opine, without googling, on the Olympic hopes of Azerbaijan’s national basketball team. But as it happens I know nothing about basketball, and I suspect most of our intuitions about the gravity of sin are worth even less.
Fortunately, we are not totally ignorant, because we have the guidance of the Church. Not just the authoritative teaching statements, though that is enough, but all the expressions of the Church’s wisdom through 2000 years: the standard interpretation of many, many verses in the Old and New Testaments; the sermons of the saints, with their terrible warnings about the next life; the ancient prayer of the Mass that we be “delivered from eternal damnation”; the mystics, including those of the last century, who saw things that nearly made them die of fright; Dante’s Inferno and Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.
And then there is St. Thomas More at his trial, saying that if he was not telling the truth “then pray I that I may never see God in the face”; the little children of Fatima doing their penances to help imperiled sinners, and in the process launching one of the great devotions of the twentieth century; the testimony of exorcists who, in the course of their liberating work, have spoken with demons about the next life; the countless holy men and women who have gone out to preach and care for the sick and spend themselves in love—not mostly, but partly, because they feared what they might hear on Judgment Day; the countless ordinary men and women who have forced themselves into the confessional—not wholly, but perhaps, on that day, mostly, because they believed they needed urgent rescuing. If Catholicism is the work of the Holy Spirit, then it looks like this is one of the truths He wants to lead us to.
Even non-Catholics will have to contend with Jesus’s words on this subject, which seem designed to make impossible the sort of creative rereading of which modern scholars are fond. He speaks, repeatedly, of the unquenchable fire. It is hard to downplay this and call it the fire of God’s love, because he also promises to tell the damned: “I never knew you.” He employs vivid images, like the narrow gate, but you cannot say his teaching is all metaphorical, because he describes literally the desperation of hell: “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Our Lord does not sound like he is referring to some process of difficult but healthy purification. He sounds like he is warning of a fate worse than death. Get rid of the doctrine of hell, and you will ultimately have to treat Jesus as though he does not know what he is talking about. For any Christian, that is an untenable conclusion.
Is belief in hell a barrier to faith in a loving God? Apparently not, because the saints, whose lives were filled with the love of God and neighbor, saw the reality of hell more clearly than anyone. Perhaps this is not so surprising: It makes sense that those who truly understand the mercy of God also understand the consequences of rejecting it.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.