Theologian: Avoid Extremes When Considering Hell

AVVENIRE, Aug. 1-Based on Pope John Paul II's recent catechesis on the last things, the Italian newspaper offered additional insights on hell from Father Severino Dianich, a professor of fundamental theology in Florence.

When considering hell, he cautioned, two extremes — “terror and silence” — are to be avoided.

“There was a time, when there was a veritable pedagogy of terror. Suffice it to think of part of the liturgy for the dead, the Dies Irae, a splendid, but terrifying, hymn,” said Father Dianich.

He continued: “Later there was a move to virtual silence on the matter of responsibility. Nonetheless, from a pastoral point of view, it is important to form the conscience to understand that we risk our life once and for all.”

The theologian recalled the Holy Father's insistence that punishment does not come from outside or from God, but rather from the sinner himself, a teaching that is founded on the thinking of two great Christian saints, Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas.

“The former gave us that famous phrase: 'Although God created you without you, He cannot save you without you” said Father Dianich. “Salvation, therefore, is an interpersonal relation between man and God. It cannot but be conditioned by my liberty, decision and intention,” noted the theologian.

“St. Thomas interprets the category of the eternal — of reward and punishment — in the sense that a time arrives when what I am, I shall continue to be forever. Whereas in life I can change for better or worse, be converted or perverted, at a certain point this way of living stops. I go where I will to go. It is a mysterious leap and, in certain aspects, terrifying.”

As for the notion of a vengeful God, a description used by some to criticize the Church's doctrine, Father Dianich said, “I do not see how, given contemporary sensitivity and language, one can speak of God as rewarding and punishing. It is true that the Bible speaks this way, but only as a way of comparison with human justice. It tells us that, in the end, we are truly responsible before God.”

Regarding the question of who might be in hell, Father Dianich said that “what happens in the secrecy of conscience between men and God, no one can know from outside. No one can say what might have happened in the final meeting of the man Stalin, the man Hitler, or the man Judas with God. It all comes down,” he concluded, to “the relation of the human conscience with God.”