Why I Believe in Hell (and Purgatory too!)

Why I Believe in Hell (and Purgatory too!) May 11, 2011

There has been a lot of noise made about the doctrine of hell lately.  And, of course, the standard arguments are made:  a loving God wouldn’t damn anyone vs. a loving God gives us freedom (through which we may damn ourselves) so that we may genuinely love in return.  For the record, I’m with Father Barron and his articulation of hell, which puts me squarely in the second camp.  I am also quite sympathetic to the articulations of Kyle Cupp and R.C..  But I want to add a couple things to the mix.

First of all, I want to note that heaven, hell and purgatory are not simply what happen when we die.  They are things we experience right now.  When the Gospel of John talks about having life and having it to the full, we often assume this means “go to heaven,” but the fact is that the Fourth Gospel makes no claims about the afterlife.  It talks about this life.

Heaven and hell, then, are not primarily our just desserts when we die, but a reflection of the person we choose to be.  In Kyle’s thread, Thales notes that much popular confusion over heaven and hell stems from overly mythological versions of them featuring clouds and harps, or fire and demons.  As true as this certainly is at a popular level, even at a more sophisticated level (like the one we Vox Novans like to think exists here) I suspect that a misunderstanding of eternity underlies confusion about hell.  All the talk about eternal, everlasting punishment seems to presume eternity is an endless duration of time.  But eternity is beyond time.  It is the fruit of time.  It is where you will be what you have made yourself to be.  It is not a question of the duration of punishment, but of the permanence of disposition.

When we meet our maker, we will see who we really are.  At that point most of us (I’m guessing) will want to say sorry for a few things.  We shall even, I suspect, want to say thank you for being shown the truth.  (Note the parallel with Reconciliation and Eucharist, which means thanksgiving.)  Those who have conditioned themselves to prefer their own judgment to God’s judgment can choose their own justification to God’s justification.  That is hell.

The thing is, we already know this.  There are millions of people living in hell right now because they prefer to justify themselves rather than apologize and say thank you.  Most of us, if we are honest, will recognize that we have been in this hell at some point or other.

Nevertheless, at this point things get a little complicated. The issue is, as many point out, whether or not those of us living in hell right now do so in true freedom.  All of the people we know are damaged goods.  We know that abusers were usually abused, usurers were taught a lie about what makes people happy, thieves were driven to desperation by an unjust system, etc. etc.  And if we are not genuinely free, then God cannot justly let anyone choose hell.

This is surely true, but perhaps only because it is a tautology.  If we are not genuinely free we cannot choose anything, let alone hell.  The question before us, then, is whether or not we believe we can finally determine anything in our lives.  There are certainly forces out there that control us to far greater degrees than we are generally aware.  Anyone who suffers from a mental illness (a huge proportion of us, by the way) or has gone through couples counseling or even reflected carefully on their own behavior knows this.  But is the power of these forces absolute?  Is there really nothing for which I am responsible?  Is the psychological experience of choice a mere epiphenomenon?

I’m with Karl Rahner, S.J., who writes:

Even if I could assume that the most abandoned criminals in world history, capable indeed of anything, are really miserable creatures made so by heredity and environment, even if I were to defend the whole world, I must be prepared to admit that there is one person who cannot be defended and that he knew, although he did not want to know, although he repressed it, although he had a thousand good excusing causes: and I must have the courage to be this one.

Here’s the thing:  the case can be made that human choices are dramatically shaped by outside forces that compromise our freedom, but we cannot prove that there was never any freedom there to compromise.  We cannot explain away the core of the person we call the conscience where people genuinely believe they can choose between good and evil.  From where we stand it is impossible to know the whole truth about human freedom.  Anyone who pronounces that there is no such thing or that it cannot be used in certain ways (including damning ways) has overstepped the bounds of what she or he can know.

Because I refuse to pronounce judgment upon the inner sanctum of the human person, because I will not and cannot say what each human person is capable and not capable of in the depths of her or his soul, I affirm hell as a possibility.  It seems to me that this is, in fact, the other side of the coin of the Church’s refusal to declare anyone has been damned.

Now, were I a betting man, I would take long odds that hell is a pretty sparse place, perhaps an empty one.  It strikes me as distinctly possible that, when the ambiguity of human history – of sin and victimization – is stripped away before the throne and we see exactly who we are and why we are who we are, every one of us will apologize and say thank you.  One reason for this inclination in me is my careful study of the doctrine of purgatory and the last judgment, on which I wrote my M.A. thesis.  Indeed, it seems strange to me that in debates about hell and its potential population, purgatory is so infrequently mentioned.  (This strangeness first occurred to me when watching this Robert Barron video.)

But, to my mind, purgatory is a beautiful way to affirm that evil can be rooted out of creation without the damnation of sinners.  It acknowledges that the line between good and evil is not drawn between me and my enemy, or even between the rhetorical just and unjust, but instead is drawn through the heart of every human person.  In each of us there is good to be redeemed and evil to be cast out.  In this way, the doctrine of purgatory is also important in the Catholic response to the problem of evil.  Evil must and will be destroyed, though the perpetrators of evil may well be saved, even if it is ‘only as through fire’ (1 Cor. 3).

And though it is impossible in this life for us to judge exactly what each of us is responsible for, what each of us did with our freedom, that will not be the case before the just judge.  When pondering the possibility of hell, we needn’t concern ourselves too much with the degree to which each person was able to actualize their freedom because in purgatory our freedom will be healed so that we can own what really was, as the liturgy puts it, our most grievous fault and forgive those who impaired our freedom in such a way that we did evil that was only partially our fault or perhaps not our fault at all.  In purgatory we can both accept forgiveness and grant it.  In fact, as both the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant and the Lord’s Prayer show, giving and receiving forgiveness imply one another.

Hell is more likely to be empty than full, in my mind, because no one will be condemned without finally seeing the whole truth, and the truth sets free.  Purgatory will be the display of truth so that freedom can be fully realized.  Only if one has made up one’s mind to deny God’s version of the events will that display of truth be experienced as damnation.  But I affirm that it is possible to immunize oneself to the truth by the practice of evil.  I affirm it because I believe that, when I am honest with myself, I can see that possibility coming over the horizon.  I see the possibility of hell in me, even while I hope (and I mean this in the densest ‘theological virtue’ kind of way) to be saved.

But, beyond my belief in hell as a possibility because of my refusal to pronounce definitively upon the enigma that is human freedom, there is one other reason I believe in it.  While it is certainly and commendably the case that the Church does not maintain that any human being is in hell, the Church professes every day in the Creed that one of us did go there:  “He descended into hell.”  I believe in hell because I believe Jesus descended to it.

I noted above that many of us live in hell here on earth.  I also said that eternity is the fruit of time.  Eternal hell is nothing more than the crystallization of the hell that we experience in this life and it is into that reality, first and foremost, that Jesus descended upon his death.  Consider this from Pope Benedict:

“If there were such a thing as a loneliness that could no longer be penetrated and transformed by the word of another; if a state of abandonment were to arise that was so deep that no “You” could reach into it any more, then we should have real, total loneliness and dreadfulness, what theology calls “hell”.” (Introduction to Christianity, p. 300)

Already in his undertaking of the human condition Jesus consents to this loneliness.  The Incarnation, also called a descent, means that Christ will experience the hell that we undergo in this earthly life. Jesus’ personal hell of being misunderstood and rejected is clearly related in the Gospels. But in his death the final fruit of both the decision to become human and of his rejection at the hands of humans is met.

“In truth – one thing is certain: there exists a night into whose solitude no voice reaches; there is a door through which we can only walk alone – the door of death.  In the last analysis all the fear in the world is fear of this loneliness.  From this point of view, it is possible to understand why the Old Testament has only one word for hell and death, the word sheol; it regards them as ultimately identical.  Death is absolute loneliness.  But the loneliness into which love can no longer advance is – hell.

This brings us back to our starting point, the article of the Creed that speaks of the descent into hell.  This article thus asserts that Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness, that in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment.  Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he.  Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer.  Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it.  Now only deliberate self-enclosure is hell or, as the Bible calls it, the second death (Rev 20:14, for example).  But death is no longer the path into icy solitude; the gates of sheol have been opened.”  (Introduction to Christianity, p. 301)

I think it is futile to tell people there is no hell.  Humanity, by and large, will always believe in hell because we spend a lot of our time there.  In today’s megacities there are, perhaps, the loneliest groups of people in human history.  The suicide rates in the most prosperous countries in the world should make it clear enough that human progress will not disabuse us of our misery.  And it is as clear today as ever before that every person dies alone.  Hell is all around.

It is not really part of the message of Christianity that hell exists.  The world knows it does, even when it rejects the term.  The real message of Christianity is that hell has been overcome:  “Death, where is thy sting?”


Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.  He is the author of Can Catholics and Evangelicals Agree about Purgatory and the Last Judgment?

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