Hell, Hope, and The Walking Dead

You wanna talk about hell, this guy rode a horse into Zombie City. A friggin’ horse.

A few years ago, about two years after my conversion to Catholicism, a chance conversation with friends led me face-to-face with the realization that I could actually go to hell.

You’ll appreciate the novelty of this idea more if you understand that being raised Evangelical, I had understood from an early age that I was saved. Hell as a reality for me was something that I had literally never considered before. The fear of it took my breath away.

And for the next year or so, it nearly took my faith as well. I refused to go to Mass for a solid month because I was just so angry that God might send me…ME!…to hell. How could he? I grumbled to myself, disenchanted and, if truth be told, a little brokenhearted. How could he, after everything? How could he, just because I didn’t go to Mass last week? What about everything that came before? How could he just ignore all that? How could his love for me be so conditional, and so easily forgotten?

After that first month I returned to Mass out of fear. I returned to confession because I was afraid of hell. Well, not hell, not really…I was afraid of God, the way a child is terrified of an abusive father. I did everything right, but there was no love in my soul. That year was marked by a spiritual aridity that left me brittle, fractured, and furious that God Is and that I had to obey him.

Ironically enough, that fear of hell started to fade when I started watching The Walking Dead. The fear of zombies overcame the fear of hell, and I clung to my prayers at night for comfort instead of obligation. The first season of The Walking Dead really did scare the hell right out of me. I stopped sleeping well, or at all, and became fragile and agitated. I began to long, viscerally, for some kind of rhythm to my days that I could relax into. So I started saying the Daily Office, and with time I began to realize how much I love God.

At first, I was still so afraid that I would beg for the grace to love God without fear. Then I just had to beg for the grace to love God at all, instead of feeling apathetic. Now, I beg for the grace to love God the right way, and unceasingly.

Now, when I consider heaven and hell, they aren’t so much a “where” as they are a “who”. I want to be with God, not be in some abstract sky meadow that sounds mind-numbingly boring. I don’t think of a life of virtue in terms of rewards and punishments, because that’s a pretty thin motivation. I think of a life of virtue in terms of moving closer to Christ.

I’m not fond of scaring people into virtue by beating them with the hell stick. I stopped spanking my kids a while ago for similar reasons; I want them to do good because they want to be good, not because they’re afraid of being punished. I want to help them cultivate interior virtue instead of focusing on an external system of punishments and rewards. God is our Father, and I can’t imagine he really wants us to follow him because we’re scared shitless of hellfire and damnation. I’m pretty sure he wants us to seek him because we love him, or because we want to love him, or even because we think there might be something to this God thing after all.

But this battle that’s raging over whether or not it’s wrong to hope hell will be empty is just…baffling. How could it possibly be wrong to hope that all people seek and return to God? That seems pretty much like following those two commandments Jesus said were the most important…loving God with everything we’ve got, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Me, I really doubt hell is empty, because Irma Grese, Hitler, Pol Pot, and the existence of terms like “serial killer”, “serial rapist”, etc. I also find it really, really, really hard to to hope that those people are in heaven. But hoping they’re in hell, or worse, being certain of it, is more than just hoping they get what’s coming to them. It’s saying that they don’t deserve God.

None of us deserve God. That’s the whole point of the thing, isn’t it? Divine, unimaginable love that loved the unworthy enough to become one us and to let us kill him. All because he wanted so badly to find a way for us to reach him. I know how unworthy I am of that kind of love. I keep my hope focused on my own salvation, and I pray to God I never become so comfortably self-righteous that I hope there won’t be many people in heaven. Because I’m 100% sure that if I cherished that hope and it was realized, I’d find myself among the many and not the few.


  • Jen

    No one’s saying that it’s wrong to hope that people seek and return to God. That’s actually a straw man I keep seeing, and it’s completely different than what people ARE saying – which is that we shouldn’t hope for the unrepentant sinner to be saved, or hope that Jesus was lying when he spoke of hell. To hope that all people are saved is to hope there is no ultimate justice, or to hope that God’s ultimate idea of justice is putting unrepentant lovers of evil into heaven with those who actually choose to love and obey him. If reconciling those who love evil and reject God into heaven is part of the plan, then don’t you see that negates the concept of free will entirely? That means that we are all just puppets in a pretty sadistic game; some play nice people, some play victims, some play evil people who torture, murder, and rape. But none of it matters, because in the end God will just make everything even?

    You know, there was a man in the news recently who raped a baby girl to death. Yes, he raped her till her internal organs hemorrhaged and she died. If that man goes to his grave completely unrepentant for that, should he ultimately end up in heaven? If you’re going to say that God’s mercy is such that he should, then I submit there is no such thing as mercy, nor its flip side justice.

    • Theresa

      The point is lot that we hope unrepentant so need make it to heaven, the point is that we hope, fervently and out of love, that even the foulest of the foul can have a moment of true sorrow for what they have done. If Hitler spends two thousand years in purgatory working out his salvation, it is better that a final moment of repentance eventually leads to salvation than that there be no repentance at all. What we hope for is that tiny opening of sorrow and repentance which us the entire difference between the work of purgatory and the complete damnation if hell. One is a journey to love. The other is hopeless. Both or equally just.

      • Anon

        Amen, Theresa. Seriously, WTF is wrong with people. I’ve no problem with wishing people–tyrants and their ilk, mainly–dead… but I can only do that if I am secure in the knowledge that God might use that moment of death to save not only those who might otherwise be harmed by said tyrant/ilk but also and in some respects more importantly those very tyrants/ilk that I wish dead.

    • WesleyD

      Jen, your point about the straw man is a good one.

      However, you then seem to be creating a straw man on the other side, when you write, “To hope that all people are saved is to hope there is no ultimate
      justice, or to hope that God’s ultimate idea of justice is putting
      unrepentant lovers of evil into heaven with those who actually choose to
      love and obey him.”

      I am not aware of anyone who hopes that an unrepentant lover of evil can go to heaven. Suppose that there is a person (let’s call him or her “X”) who is full of hate and devoid of love — someone who knows that God exists and hates God with all his heart — someone who tries his best to make others miserable — and who never repents from this attitude. Everyone that I know of, on both “sides” of this debate, agrees that such a person could not be saved. Indeed, if they were to end up in heaven, they would simply spend eternity trying to make their fellow denizens of heaven as miserable as possible.

      The question for debate is not whether Person X can go to heaven. We all agree that if a person of this description exists, they cannot be saved.

      What is being debated is whether such a person actually exists. Let me ask you this: Suppose, purely hypothetically, that every single human being, at the end of his earthly life, loves Jesus and feels perfect contrition for all of his sins. Would you agree that in such a hypothetical scenario, every person would be saved?

      I believe you would answer “yes” to this. So what is being debated is not a question of theology, but a question of whether we can know what is in the mind of each human being when he dies.

      • Jen

        Yes to your hypothetical. But unfortunately, many in this debate simply are espousing actual Universalism. I am aware that the Church makes no pronouncements on WHO is damned (as it shouldn’t), but that fact is unrelated to whether or not there WILL be people who are damned. As I commented to Melanie B, Jesus said that many would not enter salvation. This shouldn’t be viewed as a scare tactic, but rather as the prophesy that it is. That’s why this is not an issue of knowing what is in the mind of each human being when he dies; I don’t need to know in order to pray for them and their salvation, and I agree that is something we should all do for our fellow human beings.

    • http://www.thewinedarksea.com/ Melanie B

      “To hope that all people are saved is to hope there is no ultimate
      justice, or to hope that God’s ultimate idea of justice is putting
      unrepentant lovers of evil into heaven with those who actually choose to
      love and obey him.”

      Now where’s the straw man? Don’t most people who say they hope all are saved really mean that they hope all are repentant and reconciled to God? It is never wrong to hope that the most horrible sinner has a moment of grace before death.

      I think mostly what is happening in the hell debates is people aren’t giving each other the benefit of the doubt. They read what others write in the most prejudicial sense instead of trying to see where the other guy is coming from.

      • Jen

        Right, I’m referring to after death. If it’s the case that literally every evil person to ever exist has a deathbed, “come to Jesus” moment…well then great. But the problem is that in the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us to use the narrow door, because MANY will try to enter salvation and not be able to.

    • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

      Jen, you’re not taking in the possiblity that after justice reconciliation can still occur. Look up “Universal Reconciliation.” It’s entirely possible that hell is not eternal and in the course of eternity God’s infinite love and mercy will embrace the most hardened and evil sinner.

      • Jen

        Manny, Universalism was condemned by the Church and declared heresy by the Council of Constantinople in 543. And Jesus spoke of the fires of hell being eternal and unquenchable, not temperary.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    This was wonderful Calah. You expressed so much of what I feel. It’s not the fear of hell that makes me good, but because I love God. And our hope for all humanity is a reflection of our love for our neighbor. I really hope that even the worse mass killer somehow becomes reconciled. I’ll leave the justice part to God.

  • Jeff

    Seems like you don’t quite have it clear.

    Hoping that everyone repents and goes to heaven would only be wrong in the same way that hoping that Satan repented and went to heaven: because it is not true.

    Universalism is a heresy.

    Universalism is the teaching that everyone goes to heaven.

    Now doctrine develops over time as the result of new questions asked, doctrines develop.

    Von Balthasar in the last century came up with what seemed to him a new way of looking at the issue. We had been assuming that the error of Universalism was about hell. Some go to hell, therefore all cannot go to heaven.

    Von Balthasar theorized that perhaps that’s not quite right. Perhaps what’s wrong with Universalism is the teaching that all WILL go to heaven. We cannot know that but we can HOPE it.

    This is an interesting idea. The problem with Von Balthasar and his followers is that instead of having a two-sided discussion about what is really wrong about Universalism, they insisted and continue to insist that they win and no discussion is allowed.

    The book von Balthasar wrote in which he develops his theory is called, “Dare We Hope That all Men May Be Saved?”

    Von Balthasar’s answer is: Yes! But others are allowed to answer in all honesty: No.

    No because, in part, the teaching of the Church about universalism and hell MEANS that men will be and some are now damned.

    This question has not been settled definitively by Church authority.

    But before any heresy is defined by the Church, there are plenty of Catholics who take sides. Before Arius was condemned, many Catholics went around saying, Arianism is a heresy! Jesus is God!

    And the Church said they were right.

    But they were RIGHT that Arianism was a heresy BEFORE it was defined as such. And they were right to combat it and point out its dangers before it was defined.

    I don’t know the answer. I will of course abide by any decision of the Church on the matter.

    But the way I put it is this: I think–I THINK–that von Balthasar’s idea is heresy. And if it is heresy, then it is a bad and damaging thing to believe. It was bad to be an Arian even before the Council of Nicaea because Arianism is a deformation of our vision of Christ and vitiates in a very clever way the whole idea of salvation by atonement.

    If von Balthasar is right, it is a GOOD thing to hope that all may be saved. But if he is wrong, then it is a bad thing to hope that…because it damages our ideas about hell and heaven and salvation.

    Every Catholic has the right and perhaps the responsibility to think about this issue deeply and pray about it. But they deserve to hear BOTH sides of the issue and have the issue presented honestly, rather than have von Balthasar’s ideas forced down their throats.

    If it is true that Catholics may believe that it is POSSIBLE that all men may be saved, it is ALSO true that they may believe the opposite: that it is NOT POSSIBLE that all men may be saved and therefore we may NOT hope for it.

  • Jordan

    “But hoping they’re in hell, or worse, being certain of it, is more than just hoping they get what’s coming to them.”

    I think that one’s the kicker for me. It just seems sick and stupid to sit around talking about the people who MUST be in Hell, as if you personally need them to be there. It takes a lifetime to figure out all the details of what you’re meant to do with your life, how exactly you’re meant to serve God, but I’m pretty sure mine isn’t to tell people exactly the ways in which they’re wrong about who/how many are in Hell. I know this because, well, I don’t have inside knowledge, so it’s an easy thing to rule out in terms of what I should spend my time/energy on. I think we’re all a little less likely to end up there if we stop thinking about how likely or not humans in small or large numbers will end up there and get back to praying and working with God’s grace for ours and everyone else’s benefit. I don’t really want to be standing before God trying to answer his questions of how have I loved Him with “Well I tried to tell as many people as possible about how many were probably going to Hell! But…I sort of forgot to do much else.”. Just don’t think that’s going to get me anywhere.

  • http://www.geeklady.wordpress.com/ GeekLady

    Once upon a time, fifteen years ago now (!!!), in what passed for the Catholic internet, an internet friend therein randomly sent me a book. And by sending me a book, he knew where I went to university, so he looked up the address of the university parish and sent it me care of St. Mary’s. (St. Mary’s was rather collectively confused by this, but I was all “Free Books!”.)

    The book was That Strange Divine Sea by Christopher Derrick, and in it was a section, not about whether Hell was empty, but on how the fact of the suffering of Hell impacted those in Heaven. I’m at work, and so can’t quote from it (I’ll pull it out when I get home) but it can be summed up as “Schadenfreude has no place in Christian Hope.”

    And, based on my observations, I think the “we can’t hope Hell is empty of human souls” crowd is walking a perilous line here.

    • http://www.thewinedarksea.com/ Melanie B

      GeekLady, I hope you do look up the quote. I’m interested.

    • nannon31

      To see Aquinas’ position on this issue of how those in Heaven will feel about the damned, go to the below link and start at the last article which is the best on it:

  • nannon31

    That someone is in hell makes hell real rather than hypothetical…that’s why Christ gave you two passages in particular. Christ told you “many will seek to enter and will not be able” in Luke 13:24 which is not the broad road/ narrow way passage….but many is also not a majority. Two thousand is too many for a God who wants all men Home.
    No.2…Christ predicted Judas as “perished”…past tense…Jn.17:12…prior to Judas sinning…prior. Justin Martyr said past tense prophecies are certain not revocable like Jonah predicting Nineveh’s destruction in the future tense…never happened because Nineveh repented. Isaiah in 53:5 predicts Christ’s suffering in the past tense because it will surély happen: ” But he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins: the chastisement of our peace was upon him”. Likewise in the past tense, Christ said to His Father ” not one of them perished but the son of perdition” and said that before Judas sinned through despair….therefore it surely happened as predicted. Two recent Popes missed the nuance of Christ’s past tense prophecy on Judas. The Church will never declare on such a small detail as Judas because She declares on major themes or good incidents like the Ressurection. Christ already declared on Judas because each of us can sin through not trusting God’s mercy which was the final sin of Judas. Judas is not the alien other. Judas is a warning to Trust God after we sin…not just before we sin. We can each be Judas not in the particular of handing over Christ but in the universal of not trusting Gid after sin.

    • Anne

      WOW! that was breathtaking! Thank you

      • nannon31

        You’re welcome. Judas as a Jew knew Micah 7:18 about God or other versions of it in the psalms….” he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy”. Despair ignores those last four words….he delighteth in mercy.

  • Jonenred

    Thank God for Michael Voris

  • axelbeingcivil

    You might want to look into arguments that Hell is a later addition to Christian theology, much as the notion of Satan as a rebel against God instead of the Almighty’s prosecuting attorney; these have some pretty solid grounding. Plenty of people argue that, after death, there is nothing but emptiness – the void of non-existence – and that Resurrection is the point after which people are returned to existence once more. The addition of people being thrown into a lake of fire is just that; an addition.

    You might also wish to consider things like the Problem of Evil and the incompatibility of omniscience and free will, as well; they make the notion of there being anything remotely resembling a Hell all the more morally questionable.