Guest blogger Deacon Richard Ballard is the Pastoral Associate at Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. He is co-author (with Ronda Chervin and his wife Ruth Ballard) of the best-selling What the Saints Said About Heaven.
Without a doubt, it is a terrible exercise to contemplate the fate of the damned. To even try to imagine the unending wretchedness in hell of those who die in a state of mortal sin, who willingly and freely reject everlasting life with God in heaven and forever separate themselves from communion with him, fills the human imagination with a sense of unspeakable dread, horror, and sorrow. Eternal damnation is not a subject that should be taken lightly.Perhaps that is one reason why many people reject the traditional understanding that the damned will suffer eternal punishment in hell in favor of the belief that all people (some say even Satan and the demons) eventually will be redeemed and admitted to heaven. This belief in the ultimate universal salvation of all humankind through Jesus Christ (known variably as the doctrine of universalism, apocatastasis, or universal reconciliation) has its origins among several theologians and schools of thought in the early centuries of Christianity. Although condemned by St. Augustine, the Fifth ecumenical Council, Pope Vigilius, Pope St. Gregory the Great and others, the notion survived over the centuries in various forms in certain pockets of Christianity while usually being considered a heresy by the orthodox majority. It is apparent that over the centuries many Christians have accepted one form of this belief or another and not in insignificant numbers, even within some contemporary Catholic circles. However, is this belief compatible with the teachings of the Church.
The Church infallibly teaches as a matter of revealed dogma that hell exists, that it is an eternal state, and that it is possible for humans to go there. All Catholics are required to give the assent of divine Faith to this teaching: “to die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. this state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God . . . is called ‘hell.’” In addition, “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.” Any person who dies in this final condition of freely chosen impenitence experiences a fixation of the will in opposition to God, as well as an immutably fixed state of being—the state of eternal damnation. But would any soul actually make such a choice, knowing the consequences
As difficult as it may be to comprehend, it is possible. An individual who has spent his life in rebellion against God in the pursuit of sinful self-interest, and who reaches the end of his life in the condition of mortal sin, may find that he has been so formed in disobedience that his will is hardened against God even at this crucial moment, so much so that he obstinately and tragically continues to refuse to repent to the very end. Nevertheless, some would ask, would a loving God condemn even such a person as this to an eternity in hell? Universalists, and those who sympathize with them, would say that the answer is no, that God who is perfect love and mercy would never condemn any soul to eternal damnation. To do so, they argue, would be contrary to his very nature and would undermine the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice for the redemption of the entire world. However, while it is true that perfect love and mercy are attributes of God, one must not forget that perfect justice also is an attribute of God. They do not cancel each other out or contradict each other, but they are each seamlessly united and fulfilled in the divine Will.God has endowed every person with freedom of will that enables him, with the help of his grace, to choose that which is good and holy, and leads to eternal life with him. By the same token, each person, in his freedom, is able to misuse that freedom by rejecting that which is good and holy, and consequently follow a path that leads to eternal death and separation from God. There are, of course, conditions and circumstances that can possibly lessen the culpability of such an abuse of freedom (e.g., certain psychological disorders or mental disabilities), but generally speaking, people are free to make moral choices that have particular consequences. This means that they are free to turn from God, his love, and his mercy and go their own way. God’s perfect justice demands that human moral choices freely made be honored, even if that choice entails the embrace of mortal sin and an eternal rejection of God. Christ’s Passion is certainly sufficient to redeem everyone from the consequences ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼of sin, but the mercy of God thus offered is not forced. No one is compelled to friendship with God. The human will must assent to the reception of his love and mercy. It is possible then that there are those who willfully choose to exclude themselves from God’s friendship and condemn themselves to eternal separation from him in hell. To those who may make that terrible choice, God will finally say, “thy will be done.” For God to do otherwise would be to strip the person of his freedom of will, an essential aspect of what it means to be human.Having said this, however, we must be careful to point out that the Church has never made a pronouncement that any particular human being is in hell. Only God is privy to such knowledge. Rather, the Church admonishes all the faithful to hope for, pray for, and work for the salvation of all people. As the Catechism states, “the Church prays that no one should be lost: ‘Lord, let me never be parted from you.’ if it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God ‘desires all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:4), and that for him ‘all things are possible’ (Matt. 19:26).”
And further, “We can therefore hope in the glory of heaven promised by God to those who love him and do his will. in every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere ‘to the end’ and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God’s eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ. In hope, the Church prays for “all men to be saved.”Some theologians, and even canonized Saints, have augmented this hope with the belief that prior to the moment of death, God comes to even the most consistently impenitent and hardened of sinners to offer them a final opportunity to repent and receive his forgiveness. A well-known example of this final act of divine grace is recounted by St. Faustina, the apostle of divine Mercy, in Diary:”then the mercy of God begins to exert itself, and, without any cooperation from the soul, God grants it final grace. If this too is spurned, God will leave the soul in this self- chosen disposition for eternity. This grace emerges from the merciful heart of Jesus and gives the soul a special light by means of which the soul begins to understand God’s effort; but conversion depends on its own will. The soul knows that this, for her, is final grace and, should it show even a flicker of good will, the mercy of God will accomplish the rest.” Even as we hold this hope in our hearts for ourselves and for others, one should be careful not to take the grace of God for granted. We must be cautious never to rely on a presumed opportunity for a last minute conversion in order to be reconciled with God. Even though the disclosure of final divine Mercy to St. Faustina, as detailed in Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, is a beautiful and hope-filled vision of God’s benevolence, it is nevertheless based on a private revelation and does not have the status of dogma in the Church. None of the faithful are required to give to it the assent of divine Faith, as they must do for doctrines that have been publicly defined by the infallible teaching authority of the Church. Instead, they are only encouraged to respect it using the virtue of prudence and may give to it the assent of human faith. Consequently, we would do well always to live a circumspect life and habitually pray and labor not only for the salvation of others, but for our own determined perseverance in grace so that we may depart this life in the sure friendship and love of God and at the end be counted among those who will behold his face in glory everlasting.