Only Bad Catholics Go to Hell?

Only Bad Catholics Go to Hell? April 21, 2011

That’s one possible consequence of the doctrine of invincible ignorance we were discussing yesterday.  If I can’t blaspheme or reject God’s perfect love without knowing it (in the connaitre, not savoir sense — thanks KL), presumably the only people who can actually damn themselves are properly-catechized Christians, who know God and still turn away.  Except that leads us back into contradiction, since to know God is to love God is to obey God.

I can think of three ways to resolve this paradox.

Atheism has an easy answer: No God = no paradox.  No one is saved, no one is damned and the inconsistencies and contradictions that have built up in soteriology are proof it’s not divine writ.  And isn’t it awfully convenient that our understanding of who may be saved has expanded at roughly the same rate (plus a lag term) as our understanding of other people as fully human has changed?

But if your basis for believing in God is stronger than this objection, there still must be some coherent synthesis.  The simplest possibility is universalism.  Everyone does the best they can and whether they get the chance to seek and know God after death a la The Great Divorce or what have you, somehow everyone gets saved.  Despite the fairly persuasive writing of Richard Beck, this hypothesis still seems badly out of sync with the teachings of most Christian sects for most of history.  Isn’t that a little suspicious?

If some people are going to end up damned, maybe it’s because they failed to follow the moral law written on the hearts of men.  Since I’m an atheist who believes in absolute morality that is at least semi-accessible, this seems plausible, but there are difficulties.  Whether you’re Phineas Gage or a good person making an impossible choice, or someone who couldn’t transcend the morality of the age, you can end up doing bad things without culpability or at least the kind of culpability that would be needed to damn you justly.  And don’t Christians expect that, because of original sin, no one is whole enough to follow the law on their own?

I’m obviously in camp one: atheism, but it I were a Christian I’m pretty sure I would have to go with Universalism.  Which do you believe and why?  Have I left an answer out?

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  • Anonymous

    Q. for Christians:Would a mass murderer go to hell if he didn't "know and reject God"?

  • I believe the Catholic (and in my opinion, orthodox Christian) answer is one of traditional inclusivism. It preserves the centrality of Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice, but this model allows for differences in knowledge. The key verse may be John 1:1 — "In the beginning was the Word." Jesus Christ is the Word incarnate, but for those who are ignorant of him (in the connaitre sense, again), they will only be judged according to their fidelity to the Word simpliciter. This is what C.S. Lewis called the "Tao" or the "Moral Law," or what Romans 2 indicates by "the law written on their hearts."As near I can tell, this is the basis for the Catholic teachings about 'invincible ignorance.' For those who never encounter Christ personally (not only those who are never reached by missionaries, but perhaps including some who are reached), they are judged accordingly (Romans 2:14). For those who know of "the oracles of God" (Romans 3:1) and still more for those who "become teachers" (James 3:1), we are held to a much more strict standard of judgment.It's interesting to note that, according to this doctrine, Christians are the single most likely group of individual to be damned, all else being equal (ceteris paribus). I'm not sure all else is equal, but it's a humbling thought.

  • I don't think Christians are any more likely to be damned. I think anyone can be damned if they turn their back on God to the extent that they know him. And similarly, anyone can be redeemed if they repent and turn back on God to pretty much the same extent. An atheist who chooses to ignore the dictates of their conscience about something that they believe to be very serious would fall into what Catholics call mortal sin. The atheist could redeem themselves by repenting – in other words, returning to obedience to their conscience. Catholicism formalizes things and eliminates a great deal of the ambiguity. The following deliberate acts constitute a rejection of God. If you do them, seek reconciliation immediately by means of confession. But despite the formalization, I think we're all faced with the same challenge. As Paul said, "The good that I would, I do not. But the evil that I would not – that, I do." And Catholics have an advantage in grace – assuming we're properly disposed, we've got more potential avenues of grace than the typical atheist.

  • @Dave: I don't think Catholics preach the seriousness of sin like they could, though. Consider two cases:1) weddings, where many of the participants are Christians, just not Catholics. They make an explicit announcement about how Communion is reserved for those in full communion with the Church. This happens at almost every Catholic wedding I've ever been to.2) regular, Sunday Mass, filled with Catholics living together, on birth control, having pre-marital sex, and all kinds of stuff. Why don't they remind everyone every week how serious it is to need to repent to be in full communion?This seems slightly off topic, but I do think it's relevant. We're talking about who gets saved and who doesn't — Catholics would say that mortal sin has a big effect on that. Even more so as a Catholic who receives unworthily.It strikes me as odd to heavily emphasize not being in the right religion (despite how rare such occasions are — like weddings), while not saying anything regularly about those in the pews completely ignoring Catholic teaching.

  • I agree completely.

  • @Dave:Oh, and is there any way you think we could quantify the effects of grace? As in what tangible differences could we point out between Catholics who have many opportunities to receive grace and non-believers, who do not.As a former Catholic who believed in grace, I know wonder if such an "effect" is bound to be perceived — calling to mind failings, trying to do something about it, talking about how to be better, avoiding occasions that lead to failing, and being motivated to be better out of love for another (in this case, god) may unsurprisingly lead to increased energy to "fight the good fight" and improve one's life.

  • As for grace – I don't think that many of the concepts we're talking about here are quantifiable per se. When we're discussing things like consience and temptation and so forth, we're solidly in the realm of the subjective. As such, I don't think there's any way for an outside observer to empirically distinguish between the action of grace and the psychological effects that come from the stuff you list. I also don't want to say that atheists have no opportunities to receive grace; God sends grace wherever it pleases him. But my point was not to say that Catholics sin less or anything like that. I was more trying to respond to the idea that becoming a Christian puts you in higher jeopardy. God's grace is one reason that isn't so.I think. 🙂

  • Aw heck, I might as well de-lurk to chip in on this one. Catholic ethics doc student dude here, lurker for a few weeks. To answer whether I think people do go to hell, the answer is most likely yes, since some people would find heaven to be worse than hell, so hell is just a better place for them. Secondly, while talking invincible ignorance, mortal sin might be the good frame for thinking about this. For a sin to be mortal it must be 1) a grave matter, 2) fully known to be a grave matter, and 3) fully willed despite the first two. If one is from another worldview, one will not have the same knowledge of good and evil, thus reducing their culpability. That said there is a fairly universal moral framework accessible to most humans (generally concerning life, sex, property and truth). Murder is bad, etc., and most people can figure it out, unless one's culture complicates things excessively, like qualifying who counts as a person (and every culture does do that). So perhaps Christians are in bad luck! Unless of course they are poorly catechized in which case they are in good luck. Obviously we should just call the whole religion thing off then. Ignorance is bliss. Beyond that I'll let God sort us out.Well, except for one thing… there is such a thing a willful, culpable ignorance, intentionally avoiding learning right and wrong. And that is very bad. And I suppose one of the things I like about this blog that there is no intentional ignorance allowed here! This seems like a good place to sort this stuff out.

  • Michael Haycock

    There is the LDS option, which I think I explained earlier 🙂

  • There's a whole host of soteriologies with complicated names: ecclesiocentric, normative Christocentric, some other kind of Christocentric I can't remember, theocentric. Each of these has a different "package" of salvific options, as it were. (I've said in comments here before that I was primed for universalism. It was awareness of these different soteriologies that did it, and a conversation with the professor who taught me them.) If you're interested, there's a book called /By No Other Name?/ by Paul F Knitter that deals with this to a greater extent.But you know I'm universalist now.

  • I just wanted to point out that I agree with Dave, Brian, et al. who have pointed out that Christians aren't necessarily damned at a higher rate. My original post merely stated that all else being equal Christians were more likely to be damned, because they know the incarnate Christ and therefore are held to account for their faithfulness to that full relationship. I agree that Christians aren't disproportionately damned, because (as Dave points out, among other things) Christianity opens up many avenues for receiving cleansing grace. My point was merely that we need it more. To the degree we dive deeper into our faith, we run both a greater risk of judgment and a greater promise of reward.

  • Blamer ..

    @Hendy3) Funerals.Thankfully. (oh except those Westboro Baptists)

  • @Publinus: having been part of an evangelistic outreach, I'd actually wonder what you thought of how many Christians actually do "know Christ" in the way we're referencing. As far as I can tell, most I ran into went to Mass (or didn't), didn't pray daily, didn't know what it was like to be in relationship with god, etc. Do you think it's only those who do, or all Christians simply by virtue of calling themselves so and attending the services/Masses?

  • As a Swedenborgian, I don't have to worry about these things, having been assured that all who live from the good they know can reach Heaven, and if they need more instruction following bodily death it will be provided. Neither am I faced with anyone being "dragged to Heaven by a hook", as "the Lord casts no one into Hell, the man casts himself" because they find Heavenly existence simply unbearable! (Another line from Lewis is that Hell is God's last service to those who will let Him do nothing better for them.) But you are missing Lewis' point. THE GREAT DIVORCE, unlike Swedenborg's accounts of the mundus spiritorum, is ALLEGORY. Even within the terms of the allegory, the argument seems to be that those who reject the "offer" were really damned already. Perhaps "in the end, the damned will say 'we were always in Hell', and the saved will say 'we were always here'." Thus, the Grey City can be looked on as Hell or Purgatory, depending on your condition. Elsewhere, Lewis compares our eternal state with the three-dimensional projection of a two-dimensional life… if we draw the "baseline" crookedly in this life, it affects the whole structure.

  • Hendy, I'm really not in a position to comment on the health of others' spiritual lives or relationships with God. But I would say that the sort of intimate personal knowledge of God is best defined by those who aren't just cultural Christians in the sense of attending services or growing up in Sunday school. It's precisely for this reason that the Catholic Church (and many Protestants as well) distinguish between the visible and the invisible Church.

  • "for those who are ignorant of him (in the connaitre sense, again), they will only be judged according to their fidelity to the Word simpliciter. This is what C.S. Lewis called the "Tao" or the "Moral Law," or what Romans 2 indicates by "the law written on their hearts.""Sorry, but this simply generates more problems than it solves. We have psychopaths, sociopaths etc. whose moral "laws written on their hearts" tell them that the pain and suffering they cause is not wrong. We have suicide bombers who truly believe that what they are doing is not only "good" but God's will and will get them and their loved ones into paradise.And, perhaps most troubling, we have psychological experiments where what we think is the morally correct choice changes depending on any number of variables including phrasing, colour/nationality of the people involved, whether a loved one is involved, timing, presence of magnetic fields near the head, current mood, colour of the room you are in etc. etc. (Which I would like to see Leah explain in terms of her belief in absolute morality.)Of course, Christians always have the get out clause of saying "we can't know, only God knows," but that flies in the face of all the things they do claim to know about what God wants whether it be diet, sexuality, clothing, whether to avoid contact with a menstruating woman for 7 days, contraception etc.

  • Invincible ignorance is also the name of a fallacy whereby one refuses to change their mind despite conclusive proof or evidence to the contrary. Perhaps invincible ignorance is the solution to the paradox of invincible ignorance in that believers ignore the paradox.

  • Trevor

    Romans 8