Hell is clearly the biggest loser in the Four Last Things Popularity Poll. If there were anything in the Tradition we could get rid of, it would obviously be the thought of everlasting damnation.
The ancient Catholic truth about hell should terrify us. But it should terrify us into our wits, not out of them. It should prompt us to ask, “How do I avoid such a thing?” — just as a grisly photograph of a car crash in driver’s ed should prompt us to pay attention. And that, in turn, should prompt us to ask, “What exactly am I avoiding? What is hell?”
The Church tells us that hell is not something that simply happens to you by accident, like a car crash. People in hell will not be there because they were minding their own business, being decent folk, when suddenly an arbitrary God just stuck them there upon their deaths. Rather, the Catechism tells us that hell is the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed” (No. 1033).
We don’t live in a universe where we are all trying to do our best but God inexplicably yearns to send some people to everlasting damnation if he can only find a way to make the charges stick.
Rather, we are a race trapped in a complex rebellion against a God who has done and is continuing to do everything possible to save us. The truth is, God is eternally exerting his divine power to the utmost, up to and including enduring the horrors of crucifixion, to rescue us from the horrors of hell. Even now, he is endlessly pouring his love and grace out on us to enable us to say Yes to his offer of salvation in Christ. But he will not make us automatons, because the whole point of salvation is to have creatures who retain their freedom and remain themselves, even as they drink fully of the ecstatic life of the blessed Trinity.
That means there must always remain the real possibility that a creature can say No to him — a real ability for that creature to perform a sort of anti-miracle of free will and turn himself into a thing, a sort of ex-human, who will not have God, who bars the doors of his soul from the inside, and renders himself forever incapable of receiving God’s life and love in any way.
That is what hell is: our rejection of the life of God, our choice to exile ourselves to eternal loneliness and unending pain rather than abandon our pride. It is our decision to experience the fire of God’s love as the flames of endless punishment, to sever ourselves forever from all love, goodness, joy and beauty.
It is appalling. It is terrifying. But to anybody with even a passing familiarity of human history, it certainly is not impossible.
The story of our race is studded with examples of men and women whose pride warped them into living nightmares by the exercise of their own free will. Ultimately, Hitler, Stalin, Charles Manson, Mao Zedong, Ilse Koch, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and other monsters made real choices that left them as near to being ex-humans as is possible in this life.
Such choices cannot simply be explained away purely as the result of heredity and environment. More to the point, our choices to love (or not), which are known only to us and God, will ultimately spell the difference between heaven and hell.
This not to say that we can or should suppose we know who is in hell. Hell is murky, says Lady Macbeth. It is dark there, and it is not for us to claim knowledge of God’s mind. Even with somebody as evil as Hitler, we are to hope and pray for the dead and leave them to God.
Jesus addresses his warnings of hell to you, not to that guy who cut you off on the freeway. If you take away the lesson “I thank you, O Lord, that I am not bound for hell like that jerk,” you may, like the Pharisee in the parable, be in for an ugly surprise when you get to the Pearly Gates and your deepest self is at long last revealed.
The central thing to remember: When asked “Will many be saved or few?” Jesus answered, not the question but the questioner, with eminently practical advice: “Strive to enter by the narrow way.”
Don’t waste time trying to peer into your neighbor’s destiny. Focus on the only soul you have the power to damn — your own — and hand it over to Jesus daily for the help you need to avoid hell and gain eternal happiness in heaven.
For though you can damn your soul, he is mighty to save it.
Mark Shea is senior content editor