Albert Mohler, Catholicism, and Hell

(HT: Joe Carter at First Things)

On his blog, Albert Mohler, Jr., President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, addresses the issue of Hell in Christian theology. He writes:

Liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have modified their theological systems to remove this offense. No one is in danger of hearing a threatening “fire and brimstone” sermon in those churches. The burden of defending and debating hell now falls to the evangelicals–the last people who think it matters.

I can’t speak for Liberal Protestantism, but I do know something of Catholicism, and on its theology and practice Dr. Mohler is completely mistaken. In fact, in January my pastor, Fr. Timothy Vaverek, delivered three weeks of Sunday homilies on “last things,” including quite a strong message on the existence and nature of Hell. And I know for a fact—knowing many priests and Catholic lay leaders around the U.S.—that the fate of one’s soul is a topic about which they do not shy away.  And as we began to enter the Lenten Season, I noticed the increasing number of my fellow parishioners, and those at other parishes that I have visited, standing in line for Confession, a sacrament that presupposes the existence of Hell. For in order to avoid it one may need to go to Confession.

Finally, the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not mince words about Hell (1033-1037; notes omitted):

We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”

Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,” and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”

The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where “men will weep and gnash their teeth.”

God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance”:

Father, accept this offering
from your whole family.
Grant us your peace in this life,
save us from final damnation,
and count us among those you have chosen.

  • charlie

    One of my proferssors years ago was outlining his lectures for the week: “Today were talking about escatology, Wednesday we’ll discuss Heaven, and Friday I’ll give you Hell.”

    Give ‘em Hell, Beckwith!

  • gatogordo

    I don’t understand why Dr. Mohler didn’t flip through the Catechism and see for himself what the Church teaches.

  • tmcothran

    If Mohler is well-read enough, he may be referring to the Renaissance of Patristic theology in Catholic theology. There was always a very strong flavor of universalism in the Church Fathers. Even those who didn’t positively assert universal salvation (e.g., St. Basil) often remarked that it seemed to be the predominant view by most Christians.

    As Catholic theology (particularly among the theologians associated with Communio) has attempted a sort of retrieval of the Patristic Spirit, something like universalism has become more mainstream. This is certainly true in the case of Hans urs von Balthasar.

    But then again, their vision of Hell is much more terrifying than any “fire and brimstone” idea of hell is, so they can hardly be accused of taking it seriously.

  • neilparille


    I think the situation is a little more complex than you make it out.

    In the 80s Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said that we can hope that everyone is going to heaven. His views were well-known and JP2 made him Cardinal. In fact, during an adress at Rome JP2 once said that we don’t know if anyone is in hell. (Actually, there is some dispute about what he said.) And if you read JP2 in such places as Redemptor Hominis he sounds almost like a universalist.

    Avery Dulles said we might be witnessing a change in theology about hell.

    The emphasis about hell being “separation from God” is certainly a change in emphasis from the older theologies such as Ott’s.

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