Is Osama bin Laden in Hell?
Sixty-one percent of the American people say a resounding “Yes” — according to a recent poll by CNN.
There was very little variation among different groups: men, women, Republicans, Democrats, independents, Northerners, Southerners, Midwesterners, urbanites, suburbanites, others. All were within a few percentage points of each other.
The largest difference was between those who profess themselves to be “liberal” (47% say he’s in hell) and those who profess themselves “conservative” (69% say he’s damned).
Of those who didn’t say he was in hell, 10% said he’s not in hell, 5% said they didn’t believe in hell, and 24% said they weren’t sure.
A poll like this is easy to skew — by the wording, the order of the questions, and the time since the news of his killing. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see the state of public opinion. Certainly, many contemplated the fate of his soul as soon as the news of his killing was released.
But public opinion does not determine these matters.
According to the Catechism, “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.’ 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” (1035).
The Catechism notes: “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end” (1037).
So did Osama bin Laden die in mortal sin?
Some might say that we shouldn’t judge the hearts of others, so we shouldn’t arrive at any conclusions here.
We can’t arrive at any final conclusions, and we don’t have certain knowledge of others’ hearts, but we can make tentative assessments about someone’s spiritual state based on the facts we know.
There are times we must do so. If a loved one is leading a life of sin, we have a responsibility to assess that, pray, and do what we can to wake them up to repentance.
The Church has penalties like excommunication (which dates back to the New Testament: 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11) to wake people up and encourage them to repent when they appear to be in spiritual danger due to their known sins.
What may we — tentatively — assess concerning bin Laden?
It doesn’t look good. Unless reported accounts are wildly wrong, he was a master terrorist complicit in the death of numerous civilians — and not just on Sept. 11, 2001, but for years before and after that.
The killing of innocents is gravely sinful (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 57). Terrorism is also gravely sinful (Catechism, 2297). So the first condition for mortal sin — grave matter — seems fulfilled.
But to commit mortal sin one must also have adequate knowledge of one’s sins and commit them with deliberate consent (Catechism, 1857).
Did bin Laden? Presumably. The Catechism notes: “Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense.” But it states: “No one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man” (1860).
It is possible bin Laden was unintentionally ignorant of the grave sinfulness of terrorism and the killing of innocents, but we cannot presume this. The presumption is that he was aware, for God writes such moral principles on the hearts of all.
What about his deliberate consent? This is also presumed. It’s possible that “the promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders” (ibid). But these are the exception.
It’s possible that this didn’t happen. Bin Laden may have been so blinded by hatred or a warped upbringing or whatever that he didn’t fully consent to his actions. Thus he might not have committed mortal sin through his acts of terrorism.
They would still be grave sins, crimes against God and man, but they would not meet the requirements necessary to damn his soul.
Supposing that to be the case, would he have been damned on other grounds? For example, he was Muslim rather than Christian.
Becoming a Christian is the normative way to achieve salvation (Catechism, 846), but one can otherwise cooperate with God’s grace to achieve it (847-848, 2569). The fact he was Muslim rather than Christian thus might not prevent his salvation.
There is also another possibility. He may well have committed mortal sin in his life, either through terrorism, failure to embrace the Gospel or another sin. Yet he may have repented in his last moments, even if it was in a way that nobody could perceive.
God is omnipotent. He can reach the hearts of even the most hardened sinner. It’s possible that God reached bin Laden’s heart in the last seconds — or fraction of a second — of life.
We cannot offer a final assessment of the state of this man’s soul, and the objective facts do not look good, but it is possible that God’s grace reached him just before the end.
We may legitimately rejoice that justice has been served and that he can no longer carry out plots against the innocent. But we may also hope — and must pray — that his soul avoided final damnation.
In keeping with Jesus’ command, “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Jimmy Akin blogs at NCRegister.com and is senior apologist at Catholic Answers.
- May 22-June 4, 2011