Fasting Friday: Thinking about Hell

Fasting Friday: Thinking about Hell April 3, 2020

Lent is a good time for facing hard things and Fasting Fridays seem to me to be especially good days for that. When Jesus went into the desert to fast and pray, he spent his time there facing the realities of sin, hell, and death, not twirling buttercups. He did so for the same reason a doctor spends years watching people die from cancer, suffering anguish, and grapple with despair: because that’s what he is there to cure and you don’t do that by denying the hardness of reality but by facing it head on.

I believe all discussions of Hell should be prefaced with the words, “What do I know anyway?” These words should be repeated at 30 minute intervals by all parties. At the end of all such discussions, the concluding remarks should be, “But what do I know anyway?” Only the Pope in union with an ecumenical council is exempted from this rule. And only when it comes to the concluding statement. The sole reason for this is that Holy Spirit–who is God and who does, in fact, know about this and everything else, protects the Church should she infallibly declare that thus and so or the other thing is true or false. Of course, she almost never does this, in part because the Church is particularly cautious about making hard and fast statements about things and tends to salt her dogmas with a fair amount of nuance. That’s why, for instance, she says Mary was assumed into heaven “at the end of her earthly existence” and never answers the question of whether she died or not (leaving the East free to hold that she did and the West to hold that she didn’t).

The Church’s actual teaching on Hell is pretty minimalistic, as is that of Jesus:


1033 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.”612 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.613 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.”

1034 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.614 Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,”615 and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”616

1035 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.”617 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.

1036 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.”618

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.”619

1037 God predestines no one to go to hell;620 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”:621

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.622

There are lots of ways to respond to this, of course.  Some people accept it and deeply grieve that there are certain people who (it seems to them) are forever lost in the torments of Hell.  Some people (like me) dislike Hell, but accept it as a real possibility for each person, with the caveat that we do not know if anyone has ever made that final choice to reject grace.  Others hate it and call it immoral and think people like me immoral for accepting the possibility of Hell.  Others accept it with relish, having quite a list of people they can do without who never will be missed.  Still others accept it with caveats, the principle caveat that they can accept the idea of a sort of temporary hell, but not an eternal one.

This last view, if I understand him correctly, is the view of Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart (for whom I have a warm respect) and is enjoying a resurgence of popularity in certain circles. (There are various permutations of the view, sometimes suggesting that all will be saved, sometimes suggesting that those who refuse eternal life cease to exist entirely, etc.)  Bentley’s view is not without foundation in the Tradition.  He can point to such figures as Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Didymus the Blind, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Diodore of Tarsus and others.

When I consider the question, I come at it from pretty much the perspective of C.S. Lewis: only a monster would want somebody to go to hell.  But then only a monster would want somebody to die of lung cancer.  Still and all, lung cancer happens anyway.  Our business is not to wish it on anybody, but to try to prevent it and to try to cure it.  It’s up to God to permit it or not and sometimes he does so.  Why he does so is beyond my pay grade.  But given what I know about him, I do not believe for a second that he is a monster, so I assume something else is going on, both with the permission of cancer and the permission of the possibility of Hell.

The first thing I note is that Hell is, in Catholic understanding, not something God does to us.  To the question, “Why would God send people to an eternal Hell?” the answer of the Tradition is “He doesn’t.  Hell is the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed” according to the Church.  It is not a punishment stuck on us like a postage stamp: something extrinsic to us.  It is simply sin in fruition.  It is the ultimate state of being punished by, not for, our sins.  Those in Hell (assuming there are any) are there because they insist on being there and will not have it any other way.  Their torments are self-inflicted and clung to despite every effort of Jesus to peel their fingers from them.

That, again, is assuming anybody has really made such an eternal choice. Hart’s insistence (again, if I understand him correctly) is that nobody could ever really do that, that the loving grace of God, like the eternal bird who rubs his beak on the granite mountain until the mountain is eventually worn away, must ultimately prevail.

I hope he’s right.  I would love for him to be right. Maybe he is right.  What do I know?

But (you knew there was a ‘but’)…

I tend to strongly resist both the confident declaration that there is no such thing as an eternal Hell and the confident declaration that we know for certain that there are people in Hell.

The more confident the proclamation, the more I resist it. I tend to hold to the warning that Hell is real, eternal, and that anybody–especially me–can go there depending on our choices. I also hold to the hope, permissible for Catholics, that nobody has made that choice in the end. There is theological reason for this position. For in the end, all we have is hope, not certainty.

The enemies of Hope are presumption and despair. Both are forms of pride. We are, as von Balthasar says, under, not over, Judgment. God is God and we are not and we do not, in fact, know how the story ends. The New Testament contains two strains of revelation it assert with equal vigor. One strain insists that God will be all in all and will draw all men to himself and will have mercy on all. The other strain warns darkly of the terrifying possibility of being told, “‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels… And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Mt 25:41–46).

There are a couple of things to note here. First, the New Testament makes not the slightest effort to reconcile these two strains. You may call it a contradiction if you like. I call it typical Catholic (and in a certain sense, Jewish) pedagogy. Not that Jews believe in Hell (maybe some do, I don’t know). But typical in the sense that one of things Jewish pedagogy does is assert opposite truths in order to force us to think more deeply. Like this:

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes. (Pr 26:4–5).

Flat-footed Christian Fundamentalism foolishly spends its time laboring to explain away such “contradictions” while flat-footed secular Fundamentalism spends its time foolishly laboring to highlight such “contradictions”. Sensible people understand that the point of the “contradiction” like the point of a Buddhist koan is to force you to a paradigm shift, not so much to make you see a new thing as to make you see in a new way.

I suspect (but then what do I know?) that the Christian teaching on Hell (which contrary to popular belief comes 100% percent from the mouth of Jesus himself and is not due to some mythical “corruption” of his pristine teaching by “the later Church” is of this nature. We dismiss the terrifying element of Jesus’ teaching at our peril. He came to save us from something terrible and his death gives us a hint of just how terrible it the danger we face is. But at the same time, he has saved us and the magnitude of the Resurrection he wrought does suggest that his power to redeem and bring light out of darkness is something we still only barely grasp.

So we live in hope, not knowing how it all ends. Presumption and despair both oppose hope. The claim to know for certain that all will be saved and the claim to know for certain that I (or that jerk over there) will be damned are both dangerous.

Or so it seems to me.

But what do I know?

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